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After nearly 40 years, Law Library leaves the Roanoke courthouse

After nearly 40 years, Law Library leaves the Roanoke courthouse

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Even in the 19th century, people drew doodles.

Evidence of this can be found locally, in an 1819 copy of “The Laws of Virginia” which, for decades, has been on display in the library at Roanoke’s courthouse.

Just inside that thick, brown tome — published in Richmond, 202 years ago — a former owner wrote his name large: “David Robertson.”

Although he ran out of space before he reached the final “n,” Robertson compensated with ornate frills drawn around the other letters. Elsewhere, he used a pencil to long-divide 100 by 6. And pressed between pages 442 and 443 is a large and desert-dry leaf, a makeshift bookmark that, at least a century later, is still saving its place.

That antique edition is just one of many thousands of law books that, as part of an ongoing reorganization, will soon be transferred out of the courthouse.

It’s doubtful many of those volumes are as personalized or evocative as Robertson’s, but together the collection chronicles broad phases of legal history and legislation in Virginia and the United States.

Over the next month, it will be pared down by three-quarters, then moved so the space can be repurposed into new offices for Roanoke prosecutors, the city announced in April.

The plan is to relocate about 5,000 of the library’s roughly 20,000 books by June 15.

The Law Library will take up residence about five blocks away and resume operations in the Virginia Room of the city’s main library branch on South Jefferson Street.

‘A different container’

If you were unaware there was a public library in the courthouse, you might be in the majority.

But it’s been there since 1983 — modest, low-key and tucked away behind a recessed door in a far corner of the first-floor lobby. Inside, a wall of tinted windows looks east across Third Street Southwest toward the municipal building.

The library’s budget comes from filing fees for civil cases in Roanoke Circuit Court, support that will continue even after the facility leaves the courthouse, officials said.

For the moment, the Law Library remains the smallest branch of the Roanoke Valley Libraries system; once it’s absorbed, that distinction will pass on to the Belmont Library, on Morningside Street Southeast.

Despite its courthouse location, the Law Library offered lots of standard features — a fiction section, a large collection of movies on disc, newspapers — but true to its name, its central focus is legal research material. It houses a dozen long, dual-sided shelves and two full walls, all lined with bound volumes and series: U.S. Supreme Court Reports, opinions by the Virginia Court of Appeals, West’s Federal Practice Digests and American Jurisprudence, among many others.

The Law Library also offers free access to Lexis Advance and Westlaw, online legal databases with searchable statutes and case law, but that digital component was a key factor behind the upcoming move. Much of the research material lawyers might need on a daily basis is already available on the internet, through their phones or other devices. A law library in Roanoke County closed for similar reasons in 2018.

“Most of these books don’t get used anymore, because it’s so much easier to do this online ... but I love these old books,” said librarian Joey Klein, who has supervised the room since 2004. “We’re not going to have as much space when we move. That’s probably a good thing, but it makes me sad.”

Some items in the library’s core collection, however, are not replaceable, including decades of bound Virginia statutes.

“Those are not available online, so we’re going to keep those” and others, Klein said. “That’s a really powerful tool. Some of the bigger law schools would have that also, but in this area, we’re the only ones that would have that information.”

The other remaining holdings, about 15,000 books, will go into storage, get recycled, shift to other branches or be donated to the Roanoke Library Foundation, which will sell them to raise funds for new materials, according to Sheila Umberger, the city’s director of libraries.

“At the end of the day, it’s the same information,” Umberger said of the new arrangement. “It’s just a different container.”

The move will also expand the material’s hours of availability, she said. Before the pandemic limited public access to city branches, the Law Library was typically open 8:30 a.m. to noon, weekdays only, but once in the main branch it will be accessible into the evenings and, when COVID-19 restrictions lift, even on weekends.

Spontaneous events

Torrents of online information were one catalyst for moving the Law Library and its books, but a downpour of a different sort also played a role.

Since late 1999, the Roanoke Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office has rented additional space in a three-level building across Campbell Avenue, down the block from the courthouse. Until last month, about a third of its 23-member staff had offices there.

Sometime on Friday, April 9, a toilet on the third floor overflowed. It ran all weekend, showering water into the two levels below, and eventually spilling from the basement out into an alley facing Salem Avenue.

“We didn’t catch it until Monday,” the building’s owner, attorney David Damico, said last week. “It was an incredible amount of water flowing.”

Damico’s own office was among the spaces hit hardest. Drywall panels were soaked, ceiling tiles collapsed, and a few of his diplomas were damaged: “Some of them are sitting in the freezer at my house,” he said.

While replacing water-soaked flooring to prevent mold, workers also found asbestos that had to be removed.

In short, the landlord and his tenants needed new headquarters, fast.

Damico and two other lawyers have rented temporary offices on Luck Avenue, at Ferris & Eakin, but he believes his repairs could be complete within about three months. He is not yet sure how much the work will cost, but said his insurance should cover it.

“I haven’t gotten the water bill yet,” Damico lamented.

Meanwhile, the staffers from the prosecutors’ office took something of a “Breakfast Club” option — five attorneys and two victim witness coordinators have now moved into the Law Library, setting up desks at tables and carrels around the large room.

“It doesn’t makes sense to rent space when you’ve got space that’s available, rent free,” Roanoke Commonwealth’s Attorney Donald Caldwell said recently, but pointed to the positive: “The space we were renting is not handicapped accessible. There was also no security. Also, not being in the courthouse, it made it hard for them to respond to spontaneous events.”

He said they had already planned to not renew the Campbell Avenue lease when it expired in November, and the recent incident simply accelerated their schedule. In fact, a move to the library was being pondered as far back as 2008.

“Even then, we knew that nobody was using hard books anymore. ... It was a recognition that times were changing, and that was 12, 13 years ago,” he said, but a move into the library would have to wait. “The economic downturn sort of nixed that.”

Caldwell isn’t sure how long it will take to get the capital improvement funds to renovate the space into actual offices, a limbo he described as “less than ideal circumstances,” but said, “I don’t need a Mercedes situation to start with. I can work with a used car.”

And while it may be cold comfort for the attorneys who now share the space, for the next month or so they have absolutely no shortage of legal reference materials.

Contact Neil Harvey at neil.harvey@roanoke.com or 981-3376. On Twitter @newsharvey.

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