by David Furlow
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“This library, for 100 years, has been a bastion of legal knowledge for Houston, and enriching the community,” Chief Justice Nathan Hecht observed during the Harris Count Law Library’s Centennial Celebration on October 1, 2015. “That’s good reason to celebrate, to be grateful for the vision and service that have made the library all it is, and to wish it continued success.” Chief Justice Hecht’s speech reflected his deep appreciation of the value and power of a law library:
Libraries are quiet places. It’s the thing I like best about them. They are little worlds you can go off to, not just to find answers, but to reflect on outside turmoils. In the quiet, surrounded by knowledge, there is power.
This is the story of how a stronghold of progressive government came into existence.
The Harris County Law Library started more than a century ago with the scratch of a pencil across a scrap of paper. It was a glorious time to be a lawyer in Harris County. The census recorded that Progressive Era Texas had 3,896,542 Texans in 1910, a number that was rapidly growing; by 1920, Texas’s population had swollen to 4,663,228. Sam Rayburn, later a long-time and powerful speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who had already served four years in the Texas Legislature, was enmeshed in the reform agenda of the Thirty-First Regular Session. Houston voters were seeking the right to petition the City to place charter-amendments on the ballot. Houston attorney Hortense Sparks Ward was beginning a movement to give Texas women a married woman’s property act and, eventually, the right to vote in elections.
In the Progressive Era Houston of 1910, Houston Bar Association President John Charles Harris looked down past his spectacles, pin-striped bowtie, and broad mustache to add the figures going through his mind. Eventually he wrote down $5,000 on the paper before him. That was the sum it would cost to fund construction of a good law library. Soon he began making rounds to raise the funds required. Only to see the down side of the legal profession’s thriftiness. “I regret to say that we were not successful in establishing the foundation for an Association Library, as out of a total membership of one hundred and one, but nineteen members returned their subscriptions to me.”
Yet just as mighty oaks grow from tiny acorns, the seed of HBA President John Harris’s idea grew rapidly in the fertile ground of Progressive Era Houston. Three years later, after being recast as the “Lawyers Library Association,” the idea bore fruit as planning began for the Harris County Law Library.
The Lawyers Library Association President, Judge Charles E. Ashe, was soon working with Vice President Lewis R. Bryan, Association treasurer Captain James A. Baker (of Baker & Botts fame) and Association secretary R. W. Franklin to organize Harris County’s Law Library. In his Centennial Celebration speech, Chief Justice Hecht referred to those four men and their colleagues James A. Breeding, Thomas H. Ball, and Lewis R. Bryan as “towers of the bench and bar.” So they were, each a community-minded man whose efforts made the dream of a Houston law library a reality. To create a law library, the Association’s leadership had to resolve questions important and mundane, such as whether to use electric lamps or gas lighting to provide illumination. The choices those men made in 1913 and 1914 echo to this day.
The Harris County Law Library opened on October 1, 1915 in the Civil Courts Building where the county’s attorneys and judges could consult the myriad volumes assembled. When the County Law Library opened in 1915,” Harris County Attorney Vincent R. Ryan, Jr. observed during its October 1, 2015 centennial celebration, “Judge James L. Autry, requested that the library ‘always be open to the free use of struggling young lawyers.’” Judge Autry received his wish; the law library is a fountain that has flowed for the benefit of all of the County’s lawyers, judges, justices, and citizens for over a century.
On October 1, 2015, Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court Nathan Hecht joined Harris County Law Librarian Mariann Sears, Harris County Deputy Librarian Joseph Lawson, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, Fourteenth Court of Appeals Justice the Honorable Brett Busby, and more than one hundred and fifty judges, justices, lawyers, and members of the public to celebrate the Harris Count Law Library’s hundred-year anniversary. An historic event inspired several great speeches.
County Attorney Vince Ryan, whose office administers the Law Library, spoke first at the Library’s October 1, 2015 centennial celebration. In contrast to the library’s humble origin, it now serves as a temple of the law, where, as County Attorney Ryan observed,
More than 5,000 students, attorneys, and self-represented litigants access the law library’s resources each month. The library has more than 30,000 volumes of printed materials and provides access to major research databases like Westlaw, LexisNexis, and HeinOnline.
Thanks to the support of Harris County’s Commissioners’ Court, the Library has recently moved from a seventeenth floor venue to the spacious site of the former Harris County Jury Assembly Room. County Attorney Ryan concluded his October 1, 2015 presentation by thanking Law Library Director Mariann Sears and her staff as they “find new ways for the library to be of service to all.”
Harris County Law Librarian Mariann Sears then ticked off some of the modern resources now available through the Law Library:
Very quickly then, what’s new and cool about the Harris County Law Library today? Well, for starters, we’ve got 25 public access computers available with access to all the latest and greatest legal research databases. We’ve got robust content contracts with WestlawNext and Lexis Advance. We’ve got access to RIA’s CheckPoint, a tax research database. We’ve got O’Connor’s Online, HeinOnline, and State Bar Practice Manuals online. We’ve got Internet access and MSWord and Excel, too. And all of it’s FREE to our patrons.
Not to mention ServiceDocs, a full service copy and reprographics center located right here within the law library. Mariann then described the library’s “greatest partnership… the one we’re continuing to develop with the Houston Volunteer Lawyers.”
“Scientia potentia est,” Chief Justice Hecht stated in speech, “Knowledge is power.” For over a century, lawyers, judges, justices, and ordinary citizens have harnessed its power to make the Rule of Law a reality in this part of Texas.
To learn more about the Harris County Law Library, visit its website at http://www.harriscountylawlibrary.org/. An excellent online exhibition about the Centennial Celebration is available at http://www.harriscountylawlibrary.org/100.