Sometimes our library environments create obstacles for researchers to use them comfortably. There remains a tension between quiet and the need to make noise to collaborate. A law library often has a culture that may not be obvious to the occasional user. The use of children’s books in courthouse law libraries seems a way to smooth some of the friction that self-represented litigants might experience.

When I was in law school, one of our colleagues was a parent with a young child. Unsurprisingly, this meant that the student sometimes brought the child into the law school, and into the law library. The library was built around a 3-story atrium and so tended to be a quiet space, since any sound would resonate. It was always obvious when the parent and child were up in the stacks.

It’s not just that the child created noise that could be disruptive to other researchers. The child also created a distraction for the person caring for them, who was attempting to do legal research while also child mind.

Noise happens. Especially as law libraries reimagine themselves into information commons, the ability to maintain the historical approach to silence becomes harder.

It’s why I was so struck by a recent article on the Hamilton County courthouse law library in Ohio, one of my former library homes. They have created a partnership with the public library to provide general interest books in the law library. The collection will be refreshed each month, and is starting with a range of books, including children’s, YA, and adult fiction. You can really feel the law library’s outreach librarian, Vanessa Seeger’s, enthusiasm for the potential!

Their project is based on a collaboration out of Harris County (TX), where the courthouse law library is taking on a number of branch-like roles for the public library. These partnerships allow the public library to extend its reach. But it gives the law library the ability to do a couple of things for its audience.

As Harris County’s deputy director Joe Lawson described in an email to me, the partnership means the law library can “provide services in downtown Houston, we have a small collection, issue public library cards, assist users with public library database access, and have holds delivered” to the law library.

I’ve talked before about how the merger of public libraries and courthouse libraries allows for funding and other service sharing. Even if there is no interest in merging, there are obviously good opportunities for partnerships that allow for both sides to gain.

If you can provide a public library collection from within the law library, you provide:

  • access to a physical collection that a law library wouldn’t normally maintain, broadening your potential audience, who may come back for just-in-time legal research;
  • resources for your audience that can help them do their research better. If a researcher is distracted by child minding, you can’t sit them down with Farnsworth on Contracts. A picture book or other novel can provide an opportunity for the child to be engaged rather than bored;
  • growth opportunities for your staff, who may need to interact with new materials or learn new research tools through the partnership, allowing them to grow as professionals.

Both courthouse law libraries are looking at who their audience is and how they can help them get their research done. We can sometimes focus too much on the information they need for legal research, and not enough on creating the environment where everyone can get their research done.

A group recently came into our library – 4 adults and 2 children – in order to do research. While the adults worked on the books, the 2 children slowly become more and more noisy. They were bored and not even at an age where they could do much to entertain themselves. The adults were realizing that whatever it was they needed to research, it was going to be multiple hours.

If we’d had a collection of children’s books, we might have been able to reduce the pressure on the child minders. We would have had an opportunity to show that we understand the diversity of our audience, and that balancing child care with research sometimes means doing both at the same time. We could have defused what often becomes a confrontational situation, where other researchers approach the adults or the staff to complain.

I’m excited to see how the Harris County and Hamilton County projects turn out. It’s a great example of collaboration and focus on making their service as useful for their researchers as possible.

P.S. I’m always so grateful to law library colleagues who respond when I cold email them about their law libraries. So thanks to Vanessa and Joe for helping out a fellow librarian!