by Jennifer Gollan, The Bay Citizen

Robert L. Ferris, an estate-planning attorney, says the documents he has accessed through the San Francisco Law Library have helped him handle cases for nearly two decades.

But he might be on his own next year when the War Memorial Veterans Building, which houses the historic library, closes for renovation in May.

“The law library is a resource that I’ve relied on for years,” Ferris said. “The reason my office is located where it is is because the courts are close and the library is close.”

City and county officials are required to provide space for the library and fund its operation, but a new location has not been secured.

Former State Bar President Jon Streeter is among more than 700 lawyers, legal groups, students, judges and others who sent a letter in May urging Mayor Ed Lee and county supervisors to find a new home for the library.

“It’s a tragedy because people who come to court without a lawyer often turn to law libraries to navigate through the court system,” Streeter said. “It is not a matter of a stack of old dusty books being warehoused somewhere – it is a matter of providing basic access to the courthouse to the public.”

The law library was established more than 140 years ago as the first county law library in the state. The nonprofit is the only law library in San Francisco that provides free access to more than 90,000 volumes, as well as online legal references, such as Westlaw, LexisNexis and other legal databases.

For the past 18 years, the library has been housed on the fourth floor of the grand 80-year-old Veterans Building, across Van Ness Avenue from City Hall. The Beaux Arts-style building is also home to the Herbst Theatre, exhibit spaces and meeting rooms.

The library serves everyone from solo-practice attorneys chasing down arcane legal materials to citizens representing themselves. Reference librarians also help residents research divorce law, city permits, building codes, traffic and parking tickets, and other legal matters. The library receives about $1.4 million a year from fees paid by those filing civil cases in court.

John Updike, the city’s acting real estate director, said the competitive real estate market has made it challenging to find a suitable site in the same area.

“It has been difficult to find a property to accommodate the weight of the books and a site that is close to the courthouses in the Civic Center area,” Updike said. “It is always a challenge for the government to secure property in a fast-moving market.”

Updike said the city has given library officials four new sites near the Civic Center to consider. He declined to provide details on the properties, citing the ongoing negotiations.

“We are working with the city to work out a solution for suitable quarters for the law library,” said Marcia R. Bell, director of the law library, which has eight full-time staff members.

Planning and moving a library the size of the law library could take months, librarians say. For example, earlier this year, it took three months for the library to move out of its downtown branch on Market Street, which had roughly 30,000 volumes in its collection.

Another complication: Two-thirds of the library’s collection is in storage in the basement of Brooks Hall under the Civic Center Plaza. That’s because the Veterans Building originally was designed as a temporary space that turned into a long-term arrangement. Library officials have tried to work out a solution with the city for a new space for the last 15 years, but nothing has materialized.

Updike said city officials believe the current space was adequate for the last 15 years. But when the city secured funding in 2010 to renovate the Veterans Building, it started looking in earnest for a new site for the library.

“It would be nice if we had direction on this by the end of the year,” Updike said. “It takes a while to move a library.”

This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.

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