While the landscape of court libraries has changed as new information technologies have reduced the need for books, court librarians still play a critical role in providing judges, law clerks and other Judiciary staff with legal resources used to support decision-making.
“Changing technology hasn’t changed what librarians do, but it has changed how we do it,” said Sue Creech, the circuit librarian for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
This month, courts are marking the 75th anniversary of the creation of the circuit librarian position, a role that today makes possible a wide variety of services in the digital age. Librarians train court professionals to make effective use of databases and presentation tools, negotiate contracts for legal research services, plan and staff court civics and community outreach events, archive court historical data, produce news summaries, and monitor social media.
“We may not have the same foot traffic we once did in our physical locations, but library services are being used more than ever,” said Patricia Michalowskij, circuit librarian for U.S. courts for the District of Columbia Circuit.
During her 39-year career with the Judiciary, Creech said, she used to race to local law libraries to fax photocopied pages of rare law books to chambers staff. She recalls training law clerks on the court’s first legal research terminal, which she said resembled a red microwave oven.
“The speed at which we can complete requests has grown exponentially,” she said. “Research that once took days now takes hours. Adopting new and emerging technologies has been key to being able to better answer judges’ questions.”
Today, Creech and her colleagues spend most of their time using large online research databases for materials to help judges prepare to render decisions. Creech is one of 13 circuit librarians who have staff throughout the circuit at various court locations. This model ensures judges and court staff receive timely support, while also assisting in reducing building space and personnel costs.
The U.S. Courts Library Program, which brings together all 13 circuit librarians and other federal court librarians, is working to ensure that the libraries maintain essential services, while reducing their space footprint to accommodate changing technology.
“New technologies have allowed librarians to prune back duplicative law book collections and economize their overall physical footprint, while still maintaining essential services,” Michalowskij said.
Creech said, “Information overload is a real issue. We’re here as research specialists to help find the needle in the haystack so judges can render timely and informed decisions.”