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Law libraries around Baltimore trading in books for bytes

Will Tress, Director of the University of Baltimore Law Library on January 19.

Will Tress, Director of the University of Baltimore Law Library on January 19.

Ferguson, Schetelich & Ballew P.A.’s law library is a small, windowless room far away from the lawyers’ offices at the Baltimore firm. Network servers hum beneath the dim lights and multiple blue Ethernet cables burst through the ceiling tiles. Bookshelves dot the office floor, but the firm has maintained a virtual law library since its founding 15 years ago.

“We went into computerization in a big way,” said Robert L. Ferguson Jr., the firm’s president. “We didn’t need the traditional law library. We didn’t need to use the space.”

Lawyers and law librarians say actual books will never go extinct even as their numbers dwindle at many local law firms and the city’s two law schools. But the shift toward online resources creates an almost philosophical question: Is a law library without books still a law library?

“Does touching the paper matter?” asks Will Tress, director of the University of Baltimore School of Law’s library. “I’m not sure.”

Ferguson Schetelich has about 200 bound volumes in its office and is “constantly” buying updates, Bob Ferguson said. Among the books on the shelves are such treatises as Moore’s Federal Practice and texts for specific practice areas, such as insurance claims and disputes. Memberships to the Baltimore Bar Library and U.S. District Court library fill in any gaps.

“It’s not the burden of a full-sized law library,” he said. “We have a couple law offices where we might have had a law library.”

C. Stephen Basinger’s Parkville office, by contrast, is his law library, with book shelves taking up two walls, one directly behind his desk. The solo practitioner frequently refers to his “how-to” books, such as one on pleading causes of action.

“I’m old school,” said Basinger, who has practiced for nearly 30 years. “I’m better with my fingers than a mouse.”

Most of his collection, he admits, is merely for show, a visual message and perhaps reassurance for clients.

“If I were practicing medicine, I would wear a stethoscope and a blue smock,” he said.

The symbolism is strong, said Richard W. Scheiner, chairman of Semmes, Bowen & Semmes in Baltimore, which downsized its own library as part of a 2008 office renovation.

“Non-lawyers tend to think of law firms as having large libraries,” he said.

‘Evolving with the technology’

Law schools approved by the American Bar Association are required to “keep [their] librar[ies] abreast of contemporary technology and adopt it when appropriate.” The University of Maryland School of Law has more than 500,000 volumes, but the percentage of that in print form continues to get smaller, said Barbara Gontrum, director of the Thurgood Marshall Law Library. The library used to have eight copies of Maryland Reports but now only has one.

“We make decisions every day whether to purchase in electronic or print,” she said.

Many law libraries decide to no longer shelve reporters because of the accessibility of judicial opinions online. The Baltimore County Circuit Court’s law library has gone from more than 100,000 physical volumes to fewer than 50,000 by jettisoning most of its reporters, according to Director Stephanie Levasseur.

“We do get complaints now and then,” she said last week. “Two attorneys complained yesterday that it would be easier to use a book than go online.”

The court’s library is in a temporary location adjacent to the clerk’s office until it moves into a space twice as large as its original home next year, where it will offer more study space and more computers, Levasseur said.

“We’ll keep evolving with the technology,” she said.

Publishers must evolve, too. Five years ago, digital publications accounted for more than 50 percent of the Bureau of National Affairs Inc.’s revenue for the first time. Last year, they accounted for 75 percent, according to its president, Greg McCaffery. The company began publishing online in the mid-1990s, yet McCaffery still calls the products “digital representations of a print product.”

“If people are going to want information in a different format, it should be easy to use and have the functionality of the print product,” McCaffery recalled as the strategy when the company began publishing online.

That’s why BNA’s digital offerings contain tables of contents, indexes and lots of finding aids, which allows the mind to become the search engine as with a physical book.

“You always get a pinpoint response,” McCaffery said.

The changing learning space

Like the county court’s library, the University of Baltimore’s law library is scheduled to move into a new space late next year. The new law school building’s library will be the exact size as the current library, just spread across six floors, Tress said. But the number of study rooms will more than double, from 10 to at least 26.

“The only way to do that is to cut out shelving,” he said.

According to Tress, UB’s law library held 173,000 paper volumes, but the book collection was whittled to 52,000 based on library staffers asking themselves: Five years from now, will people be using this print resource?

“We have a few faculty members in tears we won’t have reporters in the new building,” Tress said.

Like Basinger and Scheiner, Tress sees the symbolism of the law library. It remains a learning space, but how people learn is changing.

“There’s something about this space that is conducive to study. Is it the books? I don’t know,” he said. “If we had no books and made it a study hall would the message get across? I don’t know.”

University of Maryland recently replaced its desktop computer lab with video editing space used for documentary film classes because students bring their laptops to the library, Gontrum said.

“They’re just very attuned to using electronics,” Gontrum said. “Using print is much harder.”

It concerns Tress that students might rely solely on online search results without any context. At UB, as at other law libraries, the print volumes kept are typically state and federal codes and treatises, books with a specific structure that illustrates how sections work together.

“What if we have a generation of lawyers satisfied with the first hit and don’t look for a different answer?” Tress asked.

It’s a question the librarians at one of the best-known law libraries in Baltimore have seen answered.

Preserving the past

Sara Witman, research librarian at Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander LLC, said she used to think setting up new attorneys at the firm with a Westlaw password was all they needed.

“Once they start using the law encyclopedias [in the library], they say, ‘I’m going to start with a book,’” she said.

“We don’t have to convince them” to use the physical volumes, added Andrew Zimmerman, director of library services.

Gordon Feinblatt’s ornate two-story library in the Garrett Building has reinforced floors from when it housed vaults on the Robert Garrett & Sons trading floor. It’s a library right out of central casting: floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking polished wood desks surrounded by bookshelves. There are no computers, although the library is fitted with wireless Internet, and lawyers check out books by filling out a paper card.

The law firm owns the building, so there is never any worry about the need to cut down on space. Using the library often saves clients money, said Barry F. Rosen, the firm’s chairman and chief executive officer.

“If we use [a resource] in book form we don’t have to pass on the cost of online resources,” he said.

Half the library is case reporters, Zimmerman said, although subscriptions have been canceled on a number of them. As more research is done online, the books become a secondary resource.

“Any information tool that helps, we want,” Zimmerman said.

Lawyers ultimately “will do whatever is faster and easier,” Witman added.

What the law library of the future will look like remains to be seen. Witman noted that when she started as a librarian 10 years ago, some people thought books would be gone by now. McCaffery said BNA’s research is showing that lawyers are not quite ready to do research primarily through electronic books or tablets, and both the University of Maryland and Baltimore County law libraries are preserving old books, such as records of laws from the 19th century.

“Thirty years from now, if a link to the electronic version doesn’t work, we’d be the people to have that,” said Gontrum, the law school assistant dean.

McCaffery said the “concept of print” might shift toward PDF files on a computer rather than pages bound in a book.

“Everything is a platform. What people want is information,” McCaffery said. “Some people like the textual feel.”

Like Bob Ferguson. His law firm might be paperless, and he does more and more research on his iPad. But next to his computer screens are books on judicial proceedings.

“Some things you like to hold on to, to thumb through,” he said — a statement that makes Zimmerman’s prediction prescient.

“I don’t think lawyers are ever going to give up their desk books,” Zimmerman said.