January 1st is always a time for reflecting on years past and planning for the years to come. And as the twenty-teens draw to a close, we are reflecting on the role of the public law library in our community. In decades past, the law library was the repository of legal knowledge, and librarians were the gatekeepers of this knowledge. But for our collection, only a few law firms and academic institutions had amassed the collection of legal materials that we possessed. But, with the rise of the internet and online legal databases, more and more legal professionals were skipping the law library and using online legal databases, instead.

Thus, our primary patrons became the self-represented litigants, also commonly referred to as “pro pers.”  The term “pro per” often conjures the image of an indigent person, unable to afford not just legal representation but also the filing fees needed to file their case. But, the truth is, even middle and upper middle class people are often unable to afford legal representation. For example, the average cost of a divorce in California is $17,500, with the cost of an attorney averaging $330 per hour. This leaves many people in California unable to afford legal representation, and relying on their public law libraries for assistance.

Over the past decade we have be retooling our library so it is welcoming to both legal professionals and members of the public.  We went through extensive renovations in 2011 and reopened in 2012 with more public computers ready for legal research. We created new training rooms and set out to provide legal education experiences for pro per patrons and legal professionals, alike. And, we partnered with many community legal service provides to inform and promote the free legal representation available in our county.

Unfortunately, the last decade has also brought us setbacks. We suffered a tremendous decrease in our budget due to a sharp decline in civil filings. This led to cuts in hours, staffing, and our print collection. And, sadly, this year we were forced to permanently close our locations in East County and South Bay.

But, still, we persist to make the law available to all!  These losses led us to think outside the box to continue providing access to justice for the residents of San Diego County. So, in 2020 we are debuting some exciting new programs. First, we are expanding our collaborations with the public library systems in San Diego County. Originally, we partnered with public libraries in Chula Vista and El Cajon to make up for the closures in those areas. These programs were so successful and well received that we have identified more areas in need of legal reference services, and have hired a reference librarian who will be dedicated to public library outreach. We are also in the process of starting an in-house civil assistance clinic that will provide educational programs and one-on-one legal assistance. We are happy to be working with the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program on this project that will help our self-represented patrons better understand issues of civil procedure. And, our final goal for 2020 is to start a “Lawyers in the Library” clinic that will provide free legal consultations with volunteer attorneys for members of our community.

We are so grateful for your support for these programs, and hopefully, more wonderful things to come. As you (hopefully) know, we do not have a set income, as our budget is determined by civil filing fees. So, we rely on the San Diego Law Library Foundation and our wonderful donors to support our innovative programming.

If you have more questions, or would like more information, please keep reading our newsletter, or feel free to stop by our locations, or contact us by telephone or email. And, from all of us here at SDLL, have a safe and happy new year!