The Prison Law Library: From Print to CD-ROM

Article excerpt

Editor's note: The following is the third in a series of articles dealing with libraries, information technology and corrections.

Every few months a lawyer in private practice calls the Maryland Correctional Education Libraries offering a collection of used law books. This, in itself, is not unusual. For years, prison libraries have been dumping grounds for old, out-of-date law books weeded from retired or deceased attorneys' offices. What is unusual is that the books now being received are the Annotated Code of Maryland and the Maryland Reporter with the latest revisions (pocket parts). These books are current and relevant for a prison law library collection.

This generosity is not due to the merging of small law firms or a mass exodus from the legal profession. It is because computers now have an edge over books as tools used in legal research. Very small law firms cannot afford to spend the amount of time it takes to do research using books versus a computerized search.

Attorneys today cannot justify the cost of maintaining the space needed to house books that are essential to their practice. At least 45 feet of shelf space is required just for Maryland state statutes and court reporters - and Maryland is a small state. California needs about five times that amount for state materials. Adding federal materials (court reporters, statutes, encyclopedias and digests) doubles the needed space.

Users also need space in the library - for searching through all the different titles and volumes that relate to each other. The nub of legal research is that it requires looking through many volumes to associate current legal issues with precedent.

Managing a library collection of law books is labor intensive. It requires organizational procedures for information retrieval and extensive hands-on work in processing, filing, lending, photocopying and shelving. Legal books constantly must be updated (inserting revision pages in existing volumes) and occasionally replaced.

Electronic database technology, both on-line and in compact disc read-only memory (CD-ROM) format, eliminates much of the labor involved in operating law libraries and in doing basic legal research. The allocation of space required for users to handle the multivolumed titles and to contain the collection diminishes considerably with the introduction of technology. It is the computer that organizes and retrieves the information. The computer delivers the information to the screen or printer.

This technology is portable. A stand-alone computer with an internal or external CD drive, a printer and the CD-ROM discs can be placed on a media cart and wheeled to an electrical outlet anywhere in the facility. An entire law library or any segment of one can be in use, anywhere, at any time.

In contrast, with books come higher costs, continuous purchases, control and circulation difficulties, storage and maintenance problems, and the need to identify, allocate and secure suitable and accessible storage space.

Despite these disadvantages, converting from print to CD-ROM seems problematic for corrections, perhaps because of security concerns about hacking or other criminal activities associated with computers or because of the perception of computers as rewards for inmates.

However, by converting their law books to CD-ROM databases, correctional agencies can save money and provide court access to inmates cost-effectively. Other advantages include:

* The library is brought to the user (e.g., inmates in lock-down units).

* One resource can be used by more than one person at a time.

* There is no need to purchase duplicate copies of in-demand titles.

* Less research time is needed.

* Less space is needed - one disc may contain 200,000 pages of typed text or 100 volumes.

* Easy-to-use, menu-driven software allows users to search by word, subject area, court jurisdiction, historical sequence, and current and previous rulings. …