Why is the Social Law Library not Open to the Public Generally?

The State Library is the "Free Law Library for Suffolk County," where the public has access to an extensive collection of local, state and federal law--including WESTLAW.
Click here for the State Library: http://www.mass.gov/anf/research-and-tech/oversight-agencies/lib/


The question is often asked why the Social Law Library is not a free public Library. The answer is found in legislative history traced to 1814, when the General Court created a unique public-private partnership between Social Law and the Commonwealth to secure access to the Library’s collection and services for the three branches of Massachusetts government, and to 1842, when  the statewide county law library system was formalized, providing free use to any inhabitant of the several counties. St. 1842, c. 95. That enactment expressly exempted Suffolk County. The Legislature’s intent was that the public library at the State House be the “free law library for [Suffolk] county.” See The County Law Library System in Massachusetts (1921). As a private institution, access to Social Law and its collection and services is restricted to its Subscriber-members and Governmental members and generally is not available to members of the public.

Social Law’s 1814 incorporation was the product of the Legislature’s fiscal policies in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Because of the Legislature’s aversion to overtaxing the citizens, when the Commonwealth was in need of public services and improvements such as water supplies, bridges and toll roads, the Legislature incorporated private groups to perform public services and empowered those quasi-private corporations to charge users fees to minimize expenses to taxpayers.  See Osgood, Russell K.,
The History of the Law in Massachusetts 130 & n.15 (1992).

The General Court similarly chartered Social Law because, as its name implies, it could provide a maximum of “social” good at minimum taxpayer expense.

Towards that end, the Legislature incorporated the nominally private Social Law Library as a special governmental law library and mandated that it serve public officials in the Judicial, Legislative and Executive branches of state government. (St. 1814, c. 79, §§ 1, 5).  To pay for the costs of operating the Library, that Act both empowered the Library to assess membership fees upon its private users and directed that public funding be “appropriated” to pay for the library services provided to the three branches of state government. (c. 79, §§ 2, 6). In exchange for providing quarters in the courthouse with the Supreme Judicial Court, public officials from all three branches of Massachusetts government gained access to a comprehensive law library at a fraction of the cost of creating one from scratch.

As noted in The County Law Library System in Massachusetts (1921), while maintaining the quasi-private nature of the Social Law Library, the Legislature designated the State Library as the “free law library for [Suffolk] county,” thereby providing members of the public in Suffolk County a law library comparable to those public law libraries it established in the other counties.  Located in the State House, Suffolk County’s free law library is located only several blocks from the state courts.  As noted on its web site, members of the public have free access to an extensive collection of local, state and federal law—including WESTLAW.  http://www.mass.gov/anf/research-and-tech/oversight-agencies/lib/

Today, this arrangement saves the Commonwealth millions annually over the cost of a comparable wholly taxpayer-funded library (as in all other states) offering equivalent resources and services. Implicit in this association is that the Legislature did not intend the Library to be freely open to the general public because that would reduce the amount of private revenue received by the Library and increase the costs to the Commonwealth's taxpayers. In this regard, the Library is analogous to the MBTA or Mass. Turnpike: although funded in part by taxpayer monies, riders and drivers must still pay to utilize their services.

In authorizing free public county law libraries statewide, the 1842 Legislature wisely left undisturbed the tremendous tax-free added value that Social Law had been providing to the Commonwealth government for decades, and continues to provide today.

This 200+ year-old private-public partnership has stood the test of time for taxpayers.  Today, Social Law’s collection is largely comprised of specialized and expensive national and international legal-research materials that non-lawyers are unlikely to need and, therefore, should not be taxed to purchase and maintain. Yet, given Massachusetts’s competitive place in the global economy, state government officials need access to such costly materials.  For a fraction of the cost to taxpayers in other states, which finance their governmental law libraries entirely with public funds, the Commonwealth receives tremendous added value from the substantial operating expenses paid from the Social Law’s private dues.  Indeed, seventy percent of the Social Law’s annual operating revenue, and nearly one hundred percent of the business equipment and other capital costs to run the business, are derived from private membership revenue, thereby significantly reducing the tax burden on the general public. 

The public-at-large benefits from Social Law in other ways.  For example, Social Law indirectly supports every citizen who uses the public law library system.  As a result of the substantial private membership revenue paid to underwrite its operations, Social Law’s collection is by far the most comprehensive practice-oriented law library in the Commonwealth and perhaps the nation.  As such, it serves as the “back-up” library to fill in the collection gaps that exist among the much smaller public county law libraries. Social Law routinely provides materials and reference advice to the county-based public law libraries which rely on the size and scope of Social Law’s privately-funded collection and services to serve their public patrons. 

Moreover, the Social Law Library makes available its extensive collection of self-published searchable research databases of Massachusetts primary and administrative law for public access at the Trial Court Law Libraries throughout the state. In addition, the Library also works with the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners to make free access to these legal research databases available to all municipal public libraries in Massachusetts.  https://socialaw.com/administrative-substantive-listing/ 

The Social Law Library also provides one-day courtesy privileges to members of the public, or longer passes when research projects require resources not available at the nearby free State Library or the law libraries in other counties. Within those parameters, no one is excluded from the Social Law Library. See Courtesy Pass Policy and Where to Access Free Legal Materials.