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Sonoma County Law Library to open on Saturdays as use rises

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Being a self-described old-schooler, Santa Rosa attorney Desiree Cox still prefers to crack an actual book to hopping on the Internet to do legal research.

Searching through books is a subtle luxury Cox can’t always afford because she’s busy trying cases all week and her favorite law library is closed on weekends.

Or was, until now.

In a partnership with Empire College School of Law, the Sonoma County Law Library will open Saturdays, allowing working people including non-lawyers a chance to peruse the stacks and even use the free computers on their days off.

Cox, a civil litigator for 30 years, said having the ability to relax and focus on her work will be invaluable.

“It will be great for me,” Cox said during a rare weekday visit to the Ventura Avenue library to prepare for a bar association presentation. “You work really hard all week, and it will be nice to have this time on the weekend.”

Officials said they are happy to offer increased hours at a time of shrinking revenue for county law libraries statewide.

The libraries are supported in part by fees charged to anyone filing a case in court, said Kim Tucker, Sonoma County Law Library director. But revenue from those fees is dropping across California as more people apply for and receive waivers. That means facilities like hers that operate without county general fund money must tighten their belts, she said.

Last year, she said, revenue dropped 36 percent, to about $387,000. That amount must be stretched to support new book purchases and three full- and part-time employees.

“Our funding mechanism is broken,” she said.

Many libraries are turning to public-private partnerships to get by, like the one with Empire College, Tucker said.

“It’s happening all over the place,” she said.

Under the arrangement, a law student will oversee the library on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The school also will give the library about $22,000 a year to buy legal publications, Tucker said.

In exchange, the college will save money on certain materials it purchases for its own library and its students will be allowed to use the Sonoma County Law Library after-hours on weekdays.

“It’s going to be beneficial for both parties,” said Mike Mullins, law school dean and former Sonoma County District Attorney.

The main goal is to provide access to the library for those who are busy during the day. Some patrons might be lawyers, but an estimated 75 percent are not.

Mullins said self-help is on the rise as people try to avoid the expense of legal fees. He pointed to a recent study showing 70 percent of people who appear in family law court do not have a lawyer. And with emerging laws such as California’s new end-of-life law, which takes effect in June, lay people may wish to do their own research, he said.

Overall, use of the facility has doubled since it moved from inside the Hall of Justice in 2010, Tucker said.

“They need self-help so they need access to the law library,” Mullins said. “We can, through this partnership, open up the library a little more.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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