Evansville’s public law library writing next chapter

By Marilyn Odendahl • modendahl@ibj.com

At any time during the week, members of the public, pro se litigants and attorneys find their way into the Evansville public law library and quickly turn a quiet day into a busy one.

Some people come in needing to use the copy machine or wanting a private place to talk. Others are searching for a statute, the original wording of a longstanding law, or a form so they can file their own case.

Amid the action, assisting patrons to find the resources they need and shelving the books after they have left, is librarian Kathleen Weston. She will interrupt her phone conversations and put down her sandwich at lunchtime to gladly ask how she can help whenever she sees someone looking lost among the rows of legal tomes.

The law library, Weston said, can at least offer a starting point for people who are trying to make a change in their lives. “I think it can be a way to access justice,” she said. “It’s a small way to provide it.”

Established in the early 1900s, the William H. Miller Law Library is nestled in a 1,700-square-foot space down the hall from the Vanderburgh Circuit Court on the second floor of the Civic Center Complex in downtown Evansville. It is a well-used facility with 3,473 individuals — lawyers and nonlawyers alike — accessing the library from November 2017 through July 2018, according to use statistics Weston tabulates daily.

That contrasts with the heartbreak that came in the spring of 2017, which almost caused the law library to close for good. Helen Skuggedal Reed, who had served as sole librarian since 1985, died suddenly, leaving no immediate successor or plan for the future.

However, at a time when clients can find attorneys and answers to legal questions through Google searches and mouse clicks, Evansville lawyers and judges said the Miller Library, with its work tables, study carrels, shelves of books and two computers, was too valuable to lose.

So recently, while Weston was on a long-distance call explaining all that the library is now doing, she had to keep putting the phone down to tend to patrons and eventually chose to reschedule the chat to take place after the workday had ended. Still, she took the time to interject her excitement at being the law librarian.

“I love my job,” Weston said. “I never know what’s going to happen one day to the next.”

‘Much more purposeful’

The Miller Library, like many other law libraries in courthouses and firms, saw the number of attorney patrons drop as legal materials migrated from print to the internet. Lawyers can log on to their computers to access special databases to find court opinions and law review articles, eliminating the need to trek to the library.

Yet as usage among lawyers decreased, it increased among nonlawyers. Reed adapted and readily helped the people who had no legal training find the materials in the library and pointed them to outside resources where they could talk to a lawyer when they needed legal advice.

Since she passed away, all that Reed was doing has been formalized. The Miller Library is “much more purposeful” in making sure the resources are available for unrepresented litigants trying to navigate the court system, said Scott Wylie, director of the Volunteer Lawyer Program of Southwestern Indiana.

The focus, Wylie continued, is on making sure the library is as useful as possible and litigants are getting as much guidance as they can. Moreover, the law library is a natural place to provide legal help because, he said, it is nonthreatening and not likely to incite the nervousness that some experience walking into the clerk’s office.

Weston, who holds a master’s in library science and served about seven years as the office administrator for the law clinics at what is now Mitchell Hamline School of Law in Minnesota, has been designated as a pro se coordinator. Also, the law clinics, usually conducted by Wylie and offered to anyone wanting a one-on-one consultation, are expanding to once every week from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

“Helen would be so pleased to see the library she cared about so much being so used in a way that helps people,” Wylie said.

Pro se litigants most commonly ask Weston how they go about getting fees waived so they can have their driver’s licenses reinstated. She will walk them through the court form, being careful not to give legal advice. When their question requires research, she will pull the appropriate books or help them access the online material through Westlaw.

“It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but to someone who is struggling to find a solution, even if it’s just getting a driver’s license back, it can mean a great deal to start with someone helpful and kind,” Weston said. “It can make a difference. I think it does provide access to justice.”

Staying open

Attorneys remain part of the Miller Library’s mix. Some lawyers still begin their legal research with books, while others come in wanting to search through historical volumes, which date to the 1800s, to find the original language of a state law. The 1,798 nonlawyers who used the law library from November 2017 through July 2018 was nearly matched by the 1,675 attorneys who accessed the facility during the same period.

For 2019, Weston has plans to make the library more inviting. Some of the furniture will be rearranged to open the space, and books now available online will be removed, allowing the older books – some leather bound and copyrighted as early as 1817 – to be taken from the boxes where they are currently kept and placed on the shelves.

Funding for the library comes from public and private sources. The county appropriates $49,400 for print and online materials and the circuit court covers Weston’s salary and benefits. Also, the Vanderburgh Law Library Foundation gives a contribution that supplements more than 25 percent of the cost of materials.

Despite the bright future, the library’s fate was uncertain after Reed died. Former library foundation board president Yvette LaPlante remembered “a good chunk of us were ready to shut it down,” but before moving forward, the board did some investigating.

First it surveyed the Evansville legal community, and LaPlante met with librarians from the other libraries in the city. The results of the survey highlighted the need and support for the law library not only among the attorneys and judges, but among the general public, as well. In addition, the librarians were frank about not being able to provide the level of service on legal matters that the Miller Library does.

Then, finding Weston “was clutch,” LaPlante said. Weston came with the motivation and understanding of the legal community and pro se litigants, plus she had the vision to run the law library.

“For me, this was the first time I fully understood how much the Evansville bar bonds together, how hard our members work for things that may not benefit them directly,” LaPlante, attorney at Keating & LaPlante LLP, said. “I was proud of the Evansville legal community for what they did.”•

Originally published in the Indiana Lawyer