LOC’s Law Library Wants Line Item Entry of Its Own

Posted May 23, 2008 at 5:17pm

The Library of Congress is frustrating efforts to give its own Law Library more fiscal independence, putting Congress in the middle of the dispute.

The Law Library has the largest collection of legal documents in the nation, but law professionals say it is chronically underfunded. They argue that private donations may be the only way to fix out-of-date services and poor accessibility.

But the Law Library can’t do much to help its situation — at least on its own, as it is a subset of the Library of Congress, it shares donation pools, and it has a minimal say in its own budget requests.

Now the American Bar Association and other law organizations want Members to pass legislation that would give the Law Library a separate budget line. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a member of the House Administration Committee and a lawyer, is working on a bill.

ABA officials said the line item would ensure the transparency of the Law Library’s budget — much like the separate line items of the LOC’s Congressional Research Service and Copyright Office. They also hope it would show potential donors that their money isn’t replacing Congressional funding.

But Librarian of Congress James Billington opposes the plan.

Spokeswoman Jennifer Gavin wrote in an e-mail that Library officials are concerned that the line item would “complicate the Law Library’s ability to receive transferred funds or otherwise receive services it now gets from other service units within the Library.”

It’s unclear how critical the LOC’s support for a line item would be in garnering Congressional support.

And the Law Library is effectively gagged on the issue, prevented from putting forth an opinion because of its subordinate role in the Library hierarchy.

Law Library officials are — quite obviously — in favor of the plan, according to several sources. But the ABA and the American Association of Law Libraries, both private organizations, are pushing the issue. They see the Law Library as the country’s de facto national law library, an indispensable resource not only for government but for the private sector as well.

Without a line item, the Law Library will have trouble getting private donors, said Tedson Meyers, a Washington, D.C., communications attorney and chairman of the ABA’s committee on the Library of Congress. Many potential donors are lawyers and former government officials, he said, and all fear that their donations would simply replace Congressional funding.

Potential donors, Meyers said, “are a pretty canny bunch. It’s a well-known occasion that when money starts to come from the private sector, the Congress starts to pull back.”

In her e-mail, Gavin said Library officials have been talking with Lofgren’s staff about the potential bill, which might do more than just provide a line-item requirement.

At a hearing earlier this month, former Rep. William Orton (D-Utah) — now an ABA official — told Members that the ABA was also hoping for a one-time $3.5 million appropriation to help update the collection of periodicals, some of which are out of date.

Lofgren’s bill may also lay out provisions for a foundation specifically for donations to the Law Library. That issue is a little less contentious.

Gavin said the Library supports a fundraising effort and has been working with the ABA to come up with a plan.

Meyers said, however, that establishing a foundation won’t be entirely successful without the line item.

“If someone can show us another form of transparency that is equally reliable and will serve the same purpose,” then the ABA may change its mind, he said. But so far, he added, no one has suggested a viable substitution.

Some law professionals said the Library may be worried that the line item is the first step in efforts to make the Law Library a separate entity.

Officials have reason for concern: In 2001, both the ABA and the AALL passed resolutions expressing their desire for a separate National Law Library.

But ABA and AALL officials said that was no longer their goal. Now, they said, they want to get more funding for a library that has a wealth of information but desperately needs to rise above its third-rate services.

One-third of its collection remains uncatalogued, meaning it’s almost impossible for visitors and most staff to access those items or even know that they exist.

The items themselves, however, are impressive.

In 2002, for example, the Law Library held the only known copy of some Afghanistan laws. All others had been destroyed during Taliban rule. Using its collection, the Law Library was able to help the State Department re-create the country’s laws.

Without adequate funding, however, such collections can become locked in a “treasure trove” hidden from public view, said Mary Alice Baish, the acting Washington affairs representative for AALL.

For fiscal 2008, the Law Library received about $15 million in Congressional appropriations — about 2.5 percent of the LOC’s total budget.

“We want to see the Law Library become a first-class law library,” Baish said, “and because of budget constraints over the past 10 to 15 years, in particular, they’ve not been able to keep up with the collection they need.”