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|The examples and perspective in this article may not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (January 2011)|
Every accredited American law school is required by the American Bar Association to have a law library meeting certain minimum specifications with respect to quantity and quality of materials available. Some law school libraries are kept in the same building as the general library, but many are either in the law school's building, or in a separate facility altogether. Most courthouses also have a law library; the United States Supreme Court building houses one of the most extensive in the world, rivaled by the Law Library of Congress. Some larger law firms maintain a private library for their own attorneys, but many firms in college towns and larger cities with universities simply dispatch their attorneys to local law schools to do legal research. In some U.S. states, like California, all counties are required by state law to maintain a public law library for the benefit of the general public.
A typical law library will include in its collection a large number of works not seen in other libraries, including a full set of United States Reports, one or both of the unofficial U.S. Supreme Court reporters, the West National Reporter System, the West American Digest System, official reporters from various states, the Federal Register, volumes of American Jurisprudence, bound volumes containing issues of prominent law reviews from around the country, federal and state statutes and regulations (such as the United States Code and Code of Federal Regulations), and a variety of treatises, encyclopedias, looseleaf services, and practice guides.
Further roles for law librarians are those that have to deal with problem patrons. As law libraries have their doors opened to the public, very often difficult and complicated cases arise. Legal law librarians require exceptional customer service and should display receptiveness when patrons approach them with their need. The problems arise mainly when lay patrons and pro se patrons approach legal librarians for assistance. These types of patrons usually want a significant amount of research done for them and the issues occur when they want law librarians to explain to them what the law is and what their rights are. Not to mention that these requests and questions are time consuming, they are also putting librarians in a delicate situation.When helping a Pro Se patron, librarians will need to be aware of ethical limitations, such as legal and ethical restrictions and responsibilities. There needs to be a search of a delicate balance between legal and ethical questions when assisting the Pro Se Patrons. Healey affirms that any discussion of professional issues will eventually turn into an issue of laypersons using the law library. This is definitely a very fragile situation because while trying to search information for Pro Se patrons, there is a risk of offering them instead advice or directing this patron with legal recommendations or suggestions which is totally unethical. Law librarians will then need to be able to identify the problem that Pro Se patrons can bring with them and through an interview the librarians can help them decide what methods they could apply in order to help these types of patrons. Many times the Pro Se patrons do not know that they might be able to obtain free legal advice. This is the librarian’s opportunity to help Pro Se patrons and to guide them by pointing out to them how they can get special assistance. In fact, this is also their responsibility as law librarians. This will help the Pro Se patrons to know what they are really getting into, and what approaches they will need to take.
Large libraries may contain many additional materials covering topics like legal education, research, and writing; the history of the American legal system and profession; the history behind certain high-profile cases; techniques of oral argument; and the legislative history of important federal and state statutes. In contrast, a small law library, at a minimum, may contain only one unofficial Supreme Court reporter, selected West national reporters and digests specific to the state in which the library is located, the United States Code, a few state-specific reporters and statutory compilations (if they exist for a particular state), and several state-specific treatises and practice guides. Most academic law library websites also contain legal research guidelines on numerous legal topics that are available to the public.
In recent years, the advent of online legal research outlets such as FindLaw, Westlaw, LexisNexis, and HeinOnline (or in Canada, CanLII) has reduced the need for some types of printed volumes like reporters and statutory compilations. A number of law libraries have therefore reduced the availability of printed works that can easily be found on the Internet, and have increased their own Internet availability. On the other hand, some university law libraries retain extensive historical collections going back to the earliest English reports.
The American Association of Law Libraries is a good source of information on law librarians and law librarianship. As of 2010, it has over 5,000 member libraries. The Special Libraries Association is also a useful source of information on law libraries and careers in law librarianship.
As of 2010, the American Bar Association has propounded rules requiring each law school's law library to include among its holdings the following "core collection":
The ABA further sets forth additional requirements, including the requirement that the law library have a full-time director, and sufficient staff to attend to the needs of the institution.
The largest and most extensive law libraries are those found in countries that follow the English Common Law which evolved over several centuries in the Kingdom of England and spread throughout the world as the British Empire expanded. These countries include but are not limited to Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, the United States and numerous other nations - most still members of the British Commonwealth. The earliest law libraries were founded in the late 15th century in London and include Grays Inn and Lincoln's Inn.
Law libraries in these Common Law countries can be found in generally the same form as in the United States including court/government libraries, private firm libraries, as well as academic law libraries although in somewhat different form in that the study of law in these countries differs in some respects from American legal education.