Tuesday, March 25, 2008

flushing $10k/year down the tubes, pt. 1

this was an adventure, the first precise big-scope multi-parter I've done. parts 2, 3, and 4 to follow.
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Law library shell game, no books, little access
First of a series
By Sam Bhagwat
of The Valley Mirror

When retiring judge Angus Saint-Evens was the law librarian, he recalls, the shelves were overflowing so much that then-Judge Roy MacFarland canceled the county’s subscriptions to law journals.

That’s a problem Glenn County has no part of today.

Instead, the books have all disappeared from the shelves, replaced by a subscription to a legal resource site patrons and librarians find frustrating.

Neighboring Butte County has some advantages over Glenn County: seven times the population and almost twice the per-person funding.

Yet almost 100 times as many people use Butte’s system – far more than is proportional.

The typical crowd there is diverse.

In addition to attorneys and those representing themselves, said Butte County librarian John Zorbis, the Oroville institution will attract people who have a lawyer, "to do their homework, see what their attorney is doing."

Law libraries are mandated by California statute, and funded by a portion of the fees paid to file a civil case. In Glenn County, that fee is $20 per case, totaling around $10,000 per year.

For the last four years, the money has been used almost entirely to fund three little-used public-access computers equipped with LexisNexis, a legal research software: one in county offices, one in Willows' library and one in Orland’s. And though Orland librarians want to use funds on much cheaper books, there isn't any money left.

In Lewis v. Casey, a case governing prison law libraries, the Supreme Court wrote that law libraries were meant to ensure "meaningful access to the courts."

Though this standard doesn’t apply to law libraries outside prison, it's hard to argue that frustrated users are, in fact, enjoying "meaningful access."

Patrons’ primary problem seems to be that the system isn’t very user-friendly. LexisNexis is intended for legal professionals; the legal software seems about as easy for the average person to navigate as the legal system.

Some local librarians say they can’t figure out how to use the service, making it impossible for them to help patrons.

“If you have questions about the law library, ask LexisNexis,” said Willows library aide Lisa Hill sarcastically. “It never works. No one can use it.”

“I tried it three or four years ago,” said fellow library worker Lesli Nelson. “I couldn’t figure it out.”

It took this reporter, a Stanford student, some 90 minutes on the system to find three pages of basic state laws governing child custody.

Meanwhile, the law library board – meeting with a quorum twice this year after a four-year hiatus – is thinking of spending the money on upgrading the computer system, consisting of some five-year-old Pentiums on dial-up modems, accepting bids of up to $500 to analyze the system.

While librarians note that the computers are old, they say the LexisNexis system is more of a problem.

“If you get a site that’s user-friendly, the connection doesn’t matter that much,” said Orland head librarian Marilyn Cochran. “I would say the content is much more important than the means of delivery.”

Ms. Cochran wants to buy the Matthew Bender series on federal codes, which would run about $300-400 to update every year, but, because of LexisNexis expenditures — about $7,500 per year — simply doesn’t have the budget. As a result, all she has is a “Do It Yourself” series on law.

Ms. Cochran says that while she’s mostly speculating, she thinks most irregular customers don’t have the means to pay for an attorney, and are coming in for help with child support and divorce cases.

"We've had a couple patrons who tried to follow up on their cases," said Willows librarian Nicole Whitaker. 'They couldn't."

“It’s a nice try,” Ms. Cochran says of the system, “but it hasn’t quite worked out.”

Sidebar: Here’s the math.

Butte County law librarian John Zorbis says that he gets 18 to 20 visitors a day, which is about 100 visits per business week, or 450 per month.

Glenn County has computers in three locations: Willows library, Orland library and the assessor’s office in Willows.

Three Willows library workers gave various estimates of usage; the average was about one visit a month.

At Orland Free Library, head librarian Marilyn Cochran reported two or three visitors per month. Excluding regular users like law library gadfly and Mirror ad salesman Dan Bailey, Ms. Cochran said that would drop to less than one a month. But we’ll work with the two to three number.

And Debbie Lagrande of the recorder’s office, where the computer now in the assessor’s office was for several years, reported less than one visitor a month.

Less than one visit per month, plus two to three, plus one, is generously, 4.5 visits.

So that’s 450 visits per month for Butte County, 4.5 per month for Glenn.

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