Bibb County’s law library is so underutiilized that the county’s top judge had to ask for directions to find it last week.
Reaching the library requires visitors to ride two elevators and walk through two other connected buildings after they enter the courthouse. Inside are wonderful views of the city, an extensive collection of law books, computer research stations and ample solitude. The library occupies about 1,800 square feet on the sixth floor of the Grand Opera House building.
Chief Superior Court Judge S. Phillip Brown is pushing a proposal to put the law library into smaller digs with a smaller but more appropriate selection. As attorneys do more research on their computers, visitors to the library have become more scarce.
“The last record we had is about 20 people per year,” said Brown, who possesses the library’s only known key.
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But people aren’t using the law library’s computers much either, said Probate Judge William Self. The Westlaw computer system was used for just 23 hours in a recent 12-month period.
County commissioners heard Brown’s proposal to change the law library earlier this month, but they wanted to get more information before making any changes.
The county’s budget shows that in recent years the library has cost about $88,000 annually, with court fines covering some $32,000 in costs. The library is slated for a $55,000 subsidy from the county’s general fund this year. The costs were split between a law librarian position -- vacated by a retirement in December -- and the costs of maintaining law book subscriptions and computer access.
Brown said he wants to change the emphasis of that position, moving to more of a court administrator who also can oversee the law library. The previous law librarian handled some administrative work, but Brown wants to de-emphasize the librarian portion of the position in favor of administrative duties such as preparing the complex court calendars, scheduling mediation sessions and working with the county’s truancy committee.
“A company this large would have somebody doing this,” he said.
Brown told commissioners his alternative plan probably would save the county about $20,000 a year. No commissioners spoke in opposition of it, but some of them wanted to make sure that court fees for a law librarian can be paid to someone with a title of court administrator.
Under Brown’s plan, computer access terminals would be established in two glass-walled conference rooms in the courthouse’s third floor, rooms that used to be smoking lounges. The law library’s physical collection would be a wall of books in a back room on the third floor. The back room is near Mercer University interns who could help law library users, and the room would also have a third computer terminal, Brown said.
Self said in an e-mail that the county has been ending subscriptions to law books that have seen little use in the past decade. But what little use the library does get has been largely focused in a few areas.
“The librarian reported that just a very few lawyers use the library and that use by the public is both sporadic and few,” Self wrote in an e-mail to The Telegraph. “She reported that the public use was primarily for Georgia laws on limited subjects (landlord & tenant, divorce, etc.) and for self-help forms.”
Brown said a court administrator could further pare down the law book subscriptions while creating information packets for the most common questions, such as filing for a name change or going through a simple divorce. Westlaw and other computer services will provide the same information as some of the book subscriptions.
“We’ll have a basic library, and that’s not expensive to keep up,” Brown said. “And most of what they have, we’ll have access to most of that on the computers.”
Brown said the public could get other resources through Mercer University’s law library.
The man who may have used the county law library the most, Macon attorney John D. Comer, is now retired. Jeff Hanson, managing partner of Sell & Melton, said when he started working as an attorney in 1991 he got used to finding Comer in the county law library.
“It was a great place to go, because you were by yourself. Nobody was over there,” Hanson said. “The phone wouldn’t ring, of course. Nobody had cell phones.”
Hanson said that when he talks to attorneys about the law library, they assume he’s talking about Mercer’s law library.
Most newer law firms don’t even have their own law libraries because all the research is done on computers, he said.
Hanson said he likes the county law library.
“It’s a great resource,” he said, “and it was wonderful.”
To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.