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The Evolution of the State Law Library, 1828-2003

The State Law Library's collection dates from 1828, when the Territorial Council Library began purchasing legal materials for the use of the territorial governor and legislators. Located in Detroit, the library owned 131 titles covering state session laws, state reports and other legal documents.

When the capital of Michigan was relocated to Lansing in 1847, the State Library secured space in the first Capitol Building. An interim relocation to a new state office building in 1871 preceded the law library's move to the new Capitol Building in 1879. At the center of state government, the law library served the Legislature, the judiciary, the governor and state agencies. It began acquiring a legal collection designed to meet the research needs of the judges, attorneys and state employees who sought its services.

During the 1890s and into the early 20th Century, the law library increased its collection by adding state and federal reporters and volumes of the National Reporter System, case digests, encyclopedias, textbooks, periodicals and foreign law materials. Some of the titles were purchased, but many were acquired through exchange agreements established with other states' and foreign countries' governments. By 1896 a complete catalog of the law collection had been compiled by Mr. S. A. Tomlinson, clerk of the "Law Department." The catalog is a 685-page work listing every volume of every title owned by the law library.

In 1922, when the State Library moved from the Capitol to the new Lewis Cass Building, the law library did not. As reported in The Ann Arbor Times for March 24, 1922:

"The only remnant of the old state library, that is left in the old state house, is the law library, remained there for the convenience of the Supreme Court. The state's law library by the way, is according to state Librarian Mary E. Spencer, about the best in the country."

Though organizationally linked to the State Library and sharing in many of its programs and services, the law library would remain in its own facility into the 21st Century.

From its location on the second floor of the Capitol, the law library flourished in the 1920s. While special emphasis was placed on adding volumes to keep the collection of reporters, session laws and codes up-to-date and authoritative, efforts also were made to purchase periodicals and textbooks and other practice books. Mention is made of "notable additions" such as state session laws from 1747 to 1798 for Rhode Island.

Even in 1926 these volumes were recognized for their market value. Purchased for 25 to 50 dollars, the session laws would be valued at several hundred dollars within a few years. In 2003, those same volumes are part of the Library of Michigan's rare book collection and have an estimated market value of 200 to 500 dollars each.

During the 1920s, services continued to expand. The law library's primary patrons were the Supreme Court, the attorney general and the Legislature. Services extended to the bench and bar included lending books by mail and providing a "well furnished consultation and study room for attorneys." (Report of the State Librarian, 1924)

The 1930s ushered in a more austere era, and the state librarian's reports show how the law library struggled to maintain its legal collection. The law library kept essential titles up to date but could not add new titles. Nevertheless, the size of the collection had increased and as the 1936 Report states: "The physical side of the Law Library presents a picture of inadequate housing, crowded conditions and a lack of proper accommodations for readers."

On a more positive note, the report pays tribute to the efforts of WPA workers, who repaired some 6,000 volumes and treated another 15,000 volumes with a special preservative to check or prevent decay. Plans were underway to re-catalog the law collection.

After 1936 there is little published information about the State Law Library. Yet articles in the State Bar Journal plus a few newspaper articles do give a glimpse of the library's history in subsequent years.

In 1939 the Michigan State Bar Journal published an article about the services of the law library. Its author is Carroll C. Moreland, chief of the Law Division, Michigan State Library. Moreland describes a legal collection that continues to grow to include "the new forums which are constantly being added to the legal system of the country." (p.443) He emphasizes that the collection is a "working library for the legal profession" and, while it maintains close contact with the Supreme Court, "it is in the broadest sense a state law library, its facilities open to every one." (p.443)

In 1943 Charlotte C. Dunnebacke became director of the State Law Library. She held that position for 35 years, retiring in 1978. During her lengthy tenure, Miss Dunnebacke became well known for her excellent research skills and for her willingness to share the law library's resources with attorneys and judges around the state. One of her biggest challenges came in 1969, when the law library moved from the Capitol Building to the first floor of the seven-story office building just west of the Capitol.

In 1972, House Concurrent Resolution 475 formally designated the building as the Law Building. In 1996, Public Act 592 renamed the building the G. Mennen Williams State Office Building. This location is the current home of the State Law Library.

Charles C. Wolfe led the law library through the decade of the 1980s. This was a period of transition that saw the library move away from a traditional book-based research facility to one that incorporated micro formats, and computer-assisted legal research. Mr. Wolfe was instrumental in launching the Michigan Legal Information Network Telefacsimile Project in 1984. Funded in part by the Michigan State Bar Foundation, the project was designed to make the resources of the State Law Library available to attorneys and judges who did not have ready access to a comprehensive law library. In the mid 1980s the library began subscribing to the commercial legal databases, Lexis/Nexis and Westlaw.

During the 1990s the law staff remained committed to making the resources of the library available to everyone. It created a new brochure describing the collection and services and distributed copies to state agencies, libraries and professional associations throughout the state. Staff participated in the Library of Michigan's preservation efforts, and many of the older law books were transferred to the protective environment of the rare book room.

A need for more space was addressed by purchasing more microfiche, by subscribing to online services and by reorganizing the shelving of major collections. A professional library designer prepared a space study to estimate needs for the next 10 years.

Perhaps the most significant change has been in the way staff provides reference assistance. Tapping into the vast resources of the Internet, the staff assists patrons by locating legal information published on state and federal government Web sites. Patrons may access this service by phone or e-mail. In particular the staff helps dozens of people every day to use the Michigan Legislature Web site (, a valuable service that provides the full text of the Michigan Compiled Laws and information on pending legislation.

As the law library participates in the Library of Michigan's 175th anniversary celebration, it reflects on a rich tradition of service. Although the passing years have been marked by changes in leadership, staff, governmental affiliations and physical location, the library's successful combination of a service-oriented staff, comprehensive resources and innovative ideas has remained unchanged.

The Reports of the State Librarian, published from 1859-1860 through 1934-1936, provided most of the information contained in this brief historical overview.

by Susan Adamczak, Administrator of the State Law Library

Updated 07/01/2003