AUBURN — Row upon row of publicly owned, bound and cataloged legal books — the Androscoggin County Law Library’s decades-old collection — might soon be going to the dump.
The reason is money and changing habits.
“It’s hard for me to believe because, 20 years ago, this was a very vibrant operation,” Maine Court Administrator James Glessner said. “There were very active law libraries in each of the 16 county courthouses. The problem has been money to keep up with the books and the advent of technology.”
And they won’t be missed.
“A lot of those books are out of date and obsolete and probably haven’t been opened in 40 years,” said John Clifford, a Lisbon lawyer who serves as president of the Androscoggin County Bar Association. “They’re just taking up space.”
The county library is in a grand room on the second floor of the Androscoggin County Courthouse. The room is bright, with high ceilings and skylights.
It also has some empty space, which has been taken over by the Superior Court as a kind of overflow courtroom.
“The plan is to make it an honest-to-goodness courtroom,” Clifford said. “There’s just not a lot of space in Superior Court, given the caseload.”
And research is being done elsewhere.
“Frankly, when it comes to legal research these days, everything is done online,” he said.
Before personal computers and the Internet, the libraries were a necessary part of the legal profession. Every county had a library that maintained updated statutes and case law. Keeping everything current was done at extraordinary cost because the laws change every year, Glessner said. State law required every county to maintain a law library and make it available to the public.
Then, federal and state courts moved online.
In 2011, the Maine Legislature removed the law library mandate. Soon, the libraries started closing. Courthouses in Houlton, Ellsworth and elsewhere reduced their collections to a shelf of books and a couple of computer terminals, Glessner said.
Some will stay. The state adopted a hub system of libraries, choosing to support and maintain three libraries with a combination of state and private money. They are the Nathan & Henry B. Cleaves Law Library in Portland, the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor and the Maine State Law and Legislative Reference Library in the State House in Augusta.
The rest will likely go.
Franklin and Oxford counties both have law libraries, but they are seldom used.
Glessner said he didn’t know when Androscoggin’s library would formally close or what exactly will happen to its books.
However, he said other counties have tried selling the volumes with little luck.
“The books themselves really have no monetary value,” he said. And they really shouldn’t be trusted.
“If they are not up to date, it is actually kind of dangerous for someone to rely on them,” he said.
Clifford, who has served as a lawyer in Androscoggin County for eight years, has never looked up a case or a statute in its library.
“I’ve never seen anybody go over and use it,” he said.