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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > February 2003
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Vol. 23 No. 2 — February 2003
Feature
Funding a New Training Center
by Jean M. Holcomb

The residents of King County, Washington, who turn to the justice system for help face many challenges. They must overcome barriers linked to information and legal literacy, economic limits, and access to computers and the Internet. There's been an explosion of available resources on the Web, but many come to the King County Law Library for help because they do not have Internet access at home. So we wanted to provide community access to legal databases online in a setting that included specialized legal resources and trained law library staff. We wanted to build a new training center in the Seattle Courthouse branch of our library. 

The story I'd like to share tells how we realized our dream of opening a Legal Research and Training Center (LRTC) and mirrors the storyline set out in one of the classics of children's literature, The Little Engine That Could, written by Watty Piper more than 70 years ago (New York: Platt & Munk, 1930). Boiled down to its elements, Piper's tale chronicled the adventures of a cast of characters who overcame a series of obstacles to deliver the goods with help from an outsider who believed in their mission and thought it could be done. As the director of the King County Law Library, I'll be narrating our story on behalf of the entire library staff and drawing parallels with Piper's tale to explain how we turned our dream into reality through grant funding, gifts in kind, and the support of a network of nine community partners.

How We Are Funded

In Washington, county law libraries derive their authority from the state Legislature and operate as special districts. As a public law library, we provide access to legal information to judges, government officials, attorneys, and members of the general public. In Piper's story, the train, its crew, and its passengers moved across the landscape without visible support from a larger corporate presence. We, too, do not fall under the wing of a larger parent organization such as county government or the county library system. A five-member board of trustees governs the library. With a staff of 11 full- and part-time employees, we maintain two branches.

We receive our primary funding from a share of the civil filing fees collected in the county's District and Superior Courts. The Legislature determines the amount of the fee. Unfortunately, the filing fee remains at the level set back in 1992. Because our statutory revenue stream has failed to grow at a pace to support our operating demands, we have worked to increase the percentage of our revenue that we generate ourselves from 12 percent in 1992 to 30 percent today by creating and marketing new fee-based services and by expanding our efforts to secure grant funding.

Our Day-to-Day Challenge

On average, over 2,500 people use the Seattle branch of our library each week. Fifty-four percent of reference service interactions involve members of the general public. The number of low- and moderate-income residents who represent themselves before the courts in our county continues to grow. People come to find answers for everyday situations ranging from disputes with their landlords to problems with traffic tickets. In areas such as family law, more than 60 percent of the court filings have at least one of the parties appearing without legal representation.

To support this demand for legal information, our Seattle branch hosts a collection of 90,000 volumes covering state, local, and federal legal information. We also offer CD-ROM- and Web-based legal research services. While we had been providing access to online databases from five terminals for several years, we had not provided public access to the Internet primarily because of cost issues. We had watched novice researchers find success using computer-based resources that eliminated many of the barriers of legal bibliographic resources in book format. We had first-hand experience with one-on-one training, but no space to conduct group training.

In Washington a wide range of entities now provides legal information geared toward the needs of the general public on their Web sites. Branches of the state and local courts, government agencies at all levels, state and county bar associations, and nonprofit legal service organizations publish court decisions, agency rulings, model forms, and instructions on the Web. Yet, many who search for legal information lack training and access to Internet technology to benefit from these resources.

In The Little Engine That Could, the crew members of Piper's train wanted to deliver presents to the children on the other side of the mountain, but faced a challenge when their engine broke down. In our case, the challenge was that we wanted to add a training center—a high-ticket way to deliver Web-based information—at a time when we had limited financial resources.

The Dream: Better Service

We believed that opening a training center would accomplish the following goals and objectives:

• Expand the options for meaningful access to computer- and Internet-based justice system information for county residents of low and moderate means, enabling them to better understand their legal rights and obligations.

• Create an opportunity for a more seamless continuity of process for citizens who come to the courthouse to use court services by providing a center where documents may be prepared using forms and instructions from computer and Internet sources.

• Broaden the range of library resources by integrating Web resources for non-English-speaking patrons into the collection to ensure that diverse learning styles may be accommodated.

• Fulfill goals in the library's strategic and technological plans to enhance the role of the library's staff as teachers and trainers, to provide a setting for formal and informal learning opportunities geared to the needs of self-represented litigants, and to make the resources of the library's Web site available for patrons to use in-house as well as from remote locations.

The Train Leaves the Station

While the saga of The Little Engine That Could took place in a single day, the story of our LRTC began in August of 2001 and extended over a year's time. The precipitating event in Piper's tale occurred when the engine pulling the train broke down, the event that changed our dream into a real journey came in the text of an e-mail message. The fateful e-mail sent to the directors of law-related organizations in our community called our attention to a window of opportunity in mid-August of 2001. The Community Access to Technology (CAT) grant program of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was accepting letters of intent through the end of August from organizations interested in applying for funds. The CAT program focuses on helping organizations and communities in Washington state utilize digital technologies to make changes to the lives of individuals and their communities.

The day the message arrived we swung into action. In a small organization like ours where the majority of the staff works within sight of each other, we're used to huddling, talking through an issue, and delegating tasks on the spot. We put the staff member working at our Kent branch that day on the speakerphone and quickly talked through the risks and opportunities of completing the letter of intent. Together we looked at CAT program requirements listed on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Web site at http://www.gatesfoundation.org/cat. We agreed that our LRTC concept fit the parameters of the grant's profile. The first thing we had to do was write a letter of intent that was no longer than two pages. We asked ourselves, "Can we do this?" We unanimously agreed, "We think we can!"

We Started Chugging Along

In the week that followed, we swung into action. While we had clear ideas about the community's need for the LRTC, we'd never broken such a project into components. We had an understanding of what those steps might be, but we'd never thought of the steps in financial terms. About 2 years prior we had received an LSTA grant from the Washington State Library to purchase the hardware to support our first library automation software package. From that experience, we had a general understanding of the scope of work necessary to prepare our letter of intent.

The planning team divided tasks along existing areas of responsibility and set a 2-week time frame to gather information. We drafted a project budget that would reflect both what we wanted from the grantor and what we would contribute ourselves. We reached a decision about the size of the training center. The county's construction department was asked to provide an estimate about the cost of building a room to house the training center within our existing space. We knew that the county planned a major construction project to renovate our courthouse for seismic upgrades. In light of the possibility that our space would be impacted by this construction project, we considered building flexibility into our design and into our choice of technology. We polled the board of trustees. Because the CAT grant criteria encourages applicants to have community partners, we reached out to the broader legal community to recruit collaborators. At the end of our initial investigation period, we determined that this project could and should be tackled.

Once we reached this decision, much like the crew of The Little Engine That Could, we never looked back. We filed our letter of intent via e-mail and continued to flesh outthe details of how to implement the LRTC should we make it to the next step in the CAT grant process.

And we did make it! Less than a month later, we received the invitation to apply, along with guidelines and a deadline. In the month that followed, each staff member returned to his or her assignment to work out the details. Both our own board and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had to be convinced that opening the LRTC would be a sustainable endeavor on our part. The staff knew that our budget might support one-time expenditures for furnishings and construction costs, but no additional funds would be available to hire new people.

A lot hinged on our ability to secure broad-based support from our existing network of colleagues within the local legal community. In September of 2001, the local economic climate looked grim. Those we asked to become involved with our project were unlikely to be able to offer direct financial support.

For years, law library staff members had served on courthouse, local bar, and state bar committees and task forces working to provide access to justice for citizens. We created a list of groups whose missions complemented our goals. Because we knewthe people we wanted to contact on a first-name basis, we asked for support by phone and e-mail. Then we arranged follow-up visits to provide a briefing for staff and to discuss the nature of their collaboration. Ultimately, the parameters of each entity's contribution grew out of these conversations. Our partners invested time, student interns, a subscription to court filings' database, access to their broader network of supporters, Web forms and instructions, the weight and credibility of their names, and wise counsel.

After making the successful pitch, we offered to draft a letter of support for them that could be personalized and included with our grant application. By the time our recruiting effort ended, nine community partners had joined us: The Administrative Office of the Courts of the State of Washington, Columbia Legal Services, The Information School at the University of Washington, the King County Bar Association Board of Trustees, King County Superior Court Ex Parte and Probate Committee, The Northwest Justice Project, and three Washington State Bar Association Access to Justice Board committees (The Communication and Technology Committee, The Council on Public Legal Education, and The Technology Bill of Rights Project).

After reviewing our draft proposal, our own trustees authorized us to proceed knowing that we would need to make withdrawals from our small capital reserve fund for the construction of the center and for other aspects that would not be covered by the grant.

In mid-October, we filed our CAT grant application. We asked for $36,893 to establish a "Training Center for Computer and Internet Legal Research" with six workstations and an instructor's terminal in our Seattle library. Grant funds would be used for operating and network software, workstations, network equipment, and an LCD projector. The library would provide the ongoing staff support, the telecommunications connections, the training tools, and the funds needed to remodel the space.

In early December, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded us a CAT grant in the full amount of our request. The check arrived in the mail the following week. We now found ourselves at the point in our story much like the spot where Piper's Little Blue Engine hooked up to the train to start the pull over the mountain.

Climbing the Mountain

So now the "we think we can" phase began in earnest. Several aspects of the project needed to be figured out almost simultaneously. We added real dates to the proposal's timeline and assigned primary areas of responsibility. The librarians' weekly management meeting became project central. After sharing the good news with our community partners, we advised them that we would soon contact them to discuss the individual ways in which they would become involved.

LRTC construction started in April of 2002. The staff designed the floor plan andworked with the county's facilities management staff to oversee construction. Because the library will be moved out of our courthouse space during the building's seismic renovation project in the spring of 2003, we designed the training center as a wireless network in consultation with the county's IT department.

In addition to physical construction and telecommunications planning, the staff developed a training center implementation plan that addressed the need for creating new library policies and procedures. We wrote a usage policy, revised our Web site disclaimer language, and created a Web privacy policy statement for the library board's approval. We developed an intranet to serve as the training center platform and created curriculum for the intranet. We designed a series of tools to evaluate and track how the center was used. We developed internal training tools so the staff could help library patrons use the resources and services that would be available in the training center. We also cross-trained staff for critical technology skills to spread the workload of installing and testing software and equipment. For each of these steps, we consulted and relied on advice gathered from other libraries already operating training centers, from local community technology centers, and from our community partners. We tried not to re-invent the wheel, so that creative energies could be focused on aspects of the project for which we could find no pre-existing models.

Twice during the build-out phase, we went back to CAT program officer Ken Thompson to ask if funds we had saved on purchases due to drops in pricing could be applied to equipment upgrades and used to purchase items that had not been identified in our proposal. For instance, because the county would provide a high-speed connection for our wireless LAN through its infrastructure, we needed a Cisco Fast Ethernet Switch rather than a router. We had been able to successfully configure Windows XP using its own Group Policies and would not need to purchase the third-party security software included in our equipment budget. Instead, we wanted to use funds remaining to make the center's resources more accessible for individuals with vision and print impairments. Adding screen reading, screen magnification, and voice recognition software would make it possible for individuals with vision, literacy, and print impairments to "listen to the law" and to complete court forms without having to type. Thompson granted both change requests immediately.

Some Bumps in the Tracks

Any new project brings the opportunity for surprises, so of course we hit a few bad patches of track ourselves. For example, to make room for the Legal Research and Training Center, we recycled 7.5 tons of books, but we'd forgotten to budget for the cost of disposal. Implementing the wireless network tried our patience. The county's IT department experimented along with us until we found satisfactory security settings. Keeping nine community partners in the loop and engaged required an investment of time and creativity. Our public library friends advised us that training center users would be unlikely to use pathfinders created by the staff. But we still created guides for common problems like bankruptcy, landlord/tenant disputes, family law issues, and traffic infractions with deep links to relevant statutes and court forms, and they haven't been used as often as we'd hoped. But all in all, we've been pleasantly surprised at the small number of "oops" moments.

Reaching the Other Side of the Mountain

The Legal Research and Training Center's doors opened in early August 2002 for a 2-month testing period. During this time, we monitored the security settings for the wireless network. We tracked equipment and software performance, and made adjustments. We created a month-by-month program schedule and polished curriculum. Staff training continued. We measured customer satisfaction and learned along with those we trained. On Oct. 8, 2002, we held an open house to celebrate with our community partners and the project's supporters.

Just like the characters in The Little Engine That Could, we learned that we could accomplish our goal by believing in ourselves, by surrounding ourselves with a community of supporters, and by being unafraid to ask for help loudly and often. In fact, we learned this lesson so thoroughly that we're now in the implementation phase of an LSTA collaborative virtual reference grant project with a new set of community partners.

 


Jean M. Holcomb is director of the King County Law Library in Seattle, and was the coordinator of this project. She holds M.L.S. and J.D. degrees from the University of Alabama. Her e-mail address is jean.holcomb@metrokc.gov. For more about the LRTC go to http://www.kcll.org.
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