Funding a New Training Center
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
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 centera
high-ticket way to deliver Web-based informationat 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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more about the LRTC go to http://www.kcll.org.