The Cook County Law Library: 50 Years of Service

I had the pleasure of attending the Cook County Law Library’s re-dedication event on September 26, and I am writing to you about this great public library in the hope that all of us can support it and perhaps help ensure its services for at least another fifty years.

The Cook County Law Library is our region’s greatest public collection of historical and current legal resources. Although the Law Library was dedicated in 1963, its collection really began when the Chicago Law Institute was incorporated in 1857. The population of Cook County was less than 50,000 at that time, but the community was growing rapidly and so was the need for legal services.

Each member of the Institute paid $100 per year (nearly $3,000 per year in today’s dollars) toward the purchase of law books. Membership fees were waived for those who were unable to pay, and judges had access to the collection at no charge.

The city’s law students were also allowed to use the books for free, which helped enable the establishment of so many law schools in the county. The legal community understood that to ensure an informed, well-educated citizenry, then citizens would need access to the law.

Times have changed, but the need for access to the law has not changed. With the near-collapse of our financial system five years ago, many academic law libraries that formerly were open to the public were forced to cancel their print collections and instead use subscription databases to serve faculty and students. As a result, these libraries do not have the space, time, or resources to serve their alumni and the general public as well as they once had

Estimates vary, but some say that 55-60 percent of the people who need help with a legal problem cannot afford to pay for it and do not find the help they need, even though we have so many attorneys in our society. Instead, indigent citizens are served by small law school clinics with heavy case loads and legal aid societies with few attorneys. With a current population of over five million, it will take more than a county law library to serve everyone who needs legal assistance in our area.

Cook County Law Library hopes to re-imagine itself for the next fifty years, and has lofty goals that we should support. They hope to have an Education Center to provide more training for pro se clients and local attorneys. They want to collaborate with other organizations (read “all of us, including you and me”) to enhance their services. They want to improve their collections by removing unnecessary duplicates and checking to be sure that materials are up to date. And those goals are only the beginning of the next fifty years … let’s help them get started!