Editors’ note: What follows is a mock interview with Jean M. Wenger regarding the current and prospective role of Illinois’ county law libraries with a special focus on Cook County. I hope the article will be of interest to members especially newer members not familiar with county law libraries.
1) What is the landscape for public county law libraries in Illinois?
County law libraries in Illinois are created by state statute, 55 ILCS 5/5-39001. Illinois has 102 counties but not all counties have a law library. However, CALL members benefit from having access to several law libraries in northeastern Illinois staffed by professional law librarians, notably, Cook, DuPage, Lake, Kane, and Will.
The Cook County Law Library opened on September 6, 1966 and is the first free, public law library for the legal profession and citizens of Cook County. In 1961, the Illinois General Assembly enacted legislation enabling counties to establish a public law library at the county seat of government. The initial legislation excluded Cook County. The Board of Commissioners wanted a county law library open to the legal community and the public. The legislature amended the county law library legislation to include Cook County and in September 1963, the Board of Commissioners passed a resolution establishing the Cook County Law Library.
Prior to the establishment of the Cook County Law Library, practitioners had access to the Chicago Law Institute, a shareholder law library, housing one of the most extensive legal collections in the country. Unable to sustain its membership with the opening of the Cook County Law Library, on December 6, 1965, the Institute agreed to transfer its unique collection to the County for the sum of ten dollars. The Cook County Law Library continues to maintain, preserve, and expand upon these unique collections.
Additionally, the Illinois statute permits the establishment of branch libraries. Cook County Law Library has seven branches located in outlying and suburban courthouses. The branch libraries have smaller, locally-focused collections and access to our public access electronic subscriptions, such as Westlaw, LoisLaw, and HeinOnline.
2) How are county law libraries in Illinois like Cook County Law Library funded?
The same legislation providing for the establishment of county law libraries also provides a means of funding. The cost of establishing and maintaining a law library is the responsibility of the county and is offset by the collection of a law library fee as part of the civil filing fee. The statute provides for a base law library fee of $2.00 per filing with the authorization for a county to increase the fee up to a statutory maximum.
Pursuant to Public Act 96‑227 (eff. August 11, 2009), the statutory maximum was increased from $13 to an amount not to exceed $18 in 2009, $19 in 2010, and $21 in 2011. In Illinois, implementing an increase in the law library filing fee is a two-step process. The state enacts legislation increasing the maximum fee and individual counties must pass an ordinance increasing the local fee up to the statutory maximum. The Cook County Board increased the law library filing fee in the county to $18 effective May 2010. (See 10-O-19.)
3) I know the library provides a full range of services from hosting historical documents to providing coverage of other states and free patron-access Westlaw, but what are your most popular/most utilized resources among practicing attorneys?
The most utilized resources are those that directly support the practitioner. Practice and procedure materials are hot items including the IICLE handbooks, specialized Illinois litigation materials and formbooks, both transactional and procedural. Other heavily-used resources are court rules, jury verdict reports, and topical services in such areas as bankruptcy, real estate, procedure (state and federal), and workers’ compensation.
One heavily used resource is the Chicago Municipal Code, which I annotate with the latest amendments as printed in the Proceedings of the City Council. Our local documents collections for Illinois, Cook County, and Chicago are also frequently consulted.
Practitioners rely heavily on our extensive collection of superseded state and federal statutes. In addition to Westlaw our other electronic subscription services, HeinOnline and LoisLaw, are also popular with attorneys and the public. Practitioners in Cook County have an increasing need for foreign legal materials (primary and secondary) especially in the area of commercial/business law, litigation, and family law. We have recognized this need and have actively expanded these collections. Patrons also have access to the subscription service Foreign Law Guide for sources of codes and legislation.
4) Have you seen changes in patron traffic patterns in the last couple of years?
Several trends have emerged in the last few years. Attorneys are accepting a greater range of cases, many outside their comfort zone. The law library provides a wide variety of legal subjects enabling these practitioners to expand their services. An increasing number of attorneys are using the law library because they have canceled their in-house subscriptions due to the economic downturn. This trend is particularly prevalent for solo and small firm practitioners. Larger firms continue to rely on Cook County for our historical statutory materials, secondary resources, and foreign law titles. We have also seen an increase in newer attorneys being directed to begin their research at Cook County as a cost saving measure. Before conducting electronic research, they utilize our specialized treatises from multiple publishers to gain an understanding of the legal issues involved in their case.
Cook County Law Library has always been a resource for self-represented litigants. Given the challenging economic times and with cuts in legal aid, the number of selfrepresented litigants using the law library has grown in recent years as many try to tackle their cases pro se. Law librarians provide access to the collection by providing referrals to important resources and information on using the publications. Reference librarians do not provide legal advice.
5) What do you see as the role of public law libraries, like Cook County Law Library, in the future?
Public county law libraries will continue to be a major gateway to legal information and ultimately access to justice for many in Illinois and across the country. They are integral to the foundation of a democratic society. At Cook County, we are finalizing steps to bring in the Innovative Interfaces Millennium integrated library system. Staff is excited about the expanded functionality and the ability to provide a web-based library catalog for our users. We are also exploring greater accessibility to our special collections with technological improvements. Public law libraries are also looking to provide additional services to enhance the research experience for our users. The main library at the Daley Center has free wireless and is developing a document processing center for users to draft and develop forms and pleadings.
As we review and evaluate our collections, we continue to integrate print and electronic resources in an environment of rising prices. We consider ourselves a print repository but seek to expand our electronic subscriptions to provide greater access in all locations and to balance and complement our collection.
I believe county law libraries have a role in preservation and digitization projects for fragile print and born digital documents. Many county law libraries hold unique items focusing on the practitioner and the practice of law. With our knowledge, experience, and collections, county law librarians need to focus on government resources especially at the state, county, and local level. Regulations, reports, studies, and other resources necessary to the practice of law are items of particular interest. Partnering with other libraries, government agencies, and academia for digitization and preservation projects will be crucial to the future availability of these resources.