Centennial Digital Exhibit > Law Library Technology

Law Library Technology

Over the last century, the Harris County Law Library has continually offered new technologies to assist with legal research. Explore the page below to see how technology has changed between 1915 and today.

1915 - The Light Bulb

Photo of one of Thomas Edison's first light bulbs - click to enlarge.

When the Harris County Law Library opened in 1915, one of the latest technologies was the light bulb. The technologies that made electric light possible were just over 30-years old when the Law Library opened - Thomas Edison patented his incandescent bulb in 1880 and the Houston Electric Light Co. was chartered in 1882. Additionally, the 5-year-old courthouse that originally housed the Law Library - today, known as the 1910 Courthouse - had no air conditioning and was flanked by water troughs donated by the Humane Society out of concern for the horses left outside while their riders appeared in court. Attorneys who spent long hours reading cases and writing briefs in the Law Library were likely impressed with the relatively advanced technology and happy to not burn actual oil while burning the midnight oil. As a result, lighting was a popular topic among the Lawyers Library Association board members and was discussed at several meetings prior to the formal opening on October 1, 1915.

1940s - Soundscriber

Soundscriber dictation machine used in the Harris County Law Library in the 1940s - click to enlarge.

Sound recording has been possible since 1877, when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, but early recording equipment required the speaker to shout and recordings were made on foil or wax cylinders that did not last long. In 1945, the Soundscriber, which featured an amplified microphone and soft-vinyl recording discs, was introduced. The Harris County Law Library purchased a Soundscriber in the late 1940s, which allowed attorneys to dictate notes, letters, and other documents while conducting research. They could then remove the disc and play it back at the office. Although not recorded, typists throughout Houston were likely thrilled they no longer had to decipher handwritten notes.

1980s - Online Legal Research

WALT Terminal from early 1980s (photo used with permission of Thomson Reuters) - click to enlarge.

The law went online in the early 1970s with Mead Data Corporation's Lexis database. In 1975, West Publishing, the most prominent publisher of legal materials throughout the early 20th century, followed with the launch of Westlaw. A common feature of both Lexis and Westlaw in the 1970s and 1980s was the requirement of a proprietary terminal to access database information over the Internet. In 1986, the Harris County Law Library began offering Westlaw as part of its collection through a terminal named WALT - a.k.a. West Automated Legal Terminal - similar to the one pictured here. Despite this "high tech" offering, print materials remained popular due to the limited content available through WALT and the high price of electronic searching, which could cost the patron up to $150 per hour.

For more on WALT and Westlaw, see Deborah E. Shrager's article Saying Farewell to a Classic in the December 2014 issue of AALL Spectrum.

2015 - Free Digital Content for All

Today, technology plays a key role in legal research. With 25 public legal research computers in the Law Library, everyone has a wide variety of digital content at their fingertips. Each computer is Internet-connected and allows access to several databases, including HeinOnline, Intelliconnect, and State Bar of Texas Practice Manuals. Additionally, patrons can access WestlawNext, Lexis.com, and CheckPoint on five designated computers for free. Visit the Law Library's Services page for more on available digital content.

Click to visit the Law Library Services page.

Click to visit the Law Library Services page.