Future of Evansville law library in doubt with passing of beloved librarian

The fate of the Vanderburgh County law library, one of the few public law libraries in Indiana, is uncertain following the sudden death of its longtime librarian Helen Skuggedal Reed.

Reed, who served as librarian since 1985, passed away March 19 in Evansville. She was 68. A accomplished keyboardist, Reed developed a deep knowledge of legal resources and patiently helped lawyers and nonlawyers alike ferret through reporter books, law journals and treatises to find the information they needed.

“She was faithful and loyal and efficient,” said Vanderburgh Circuit Senior Judge Carl Heldt. “She took care of people that used the law library.”

Reed was the only librarian at the William H. Miller Law Library and now, even though the library is open each weekday, no one is available to help the patrons. The Vanderburgh Law Library Foundation board is beginning to consider what to do next but board president, Yvette LaPlante, said closure is an option.

Founded in the early 1900s, the law library is located across the hall from circuit court in the Civic Center Complex. It has about 22,000 volumes and 6,000 volumes on microfiche, including an extensive collection of Indiana resources. It receives financial support from circuit court, the library foundation, and the Evansville Bar Association as well as private donors.

Statistics keep by Reed indicated use by lawyers had dropped and that 50 percent of the people coming to do legal research did not have any legal training. Consequently, the library provided a point of access for nonlawyers to the courts. Individuals could visit to make a photocopy or find the answer to their questions.

LaPlante recounted the story of a man who came in wanting to research the constitutionality of Indiana’s seat belt law. Most attorneys probably would have told him to just pay the ticket but Reed took the time to search through the materials with him.

“I absolutely see a need for it,” LaPlante said of the library. “I think it’s useful to both attorneys and the public.”

When he was starting as an attorney in Evansville, Robert Carithers saw the library as leveling the playing field against banks and insurance companies. The corporations had access to large firms which, at that time, all had well-stocked law libraries. As a small practitioner and, for a while, deputy prosecutor, Carithers was able to go down the street to the local law library and find information he needed to win the case.

The migration of resource materials from paper to the internet cut down on the need for attorneys to use the library for research. Still older books and some specialized publications are not always online, plus, as LaPlante found, the statute citations in Westlaw and Lexis Nexis can sometimes disagree, which necessitated turning to the original source.

Reed and the county law library still had value in the digital age. Attorneys could call Reed on the phone, tell her what they were looking for and she would locate it, copy it then fax it to them. In addition, she developed a special fondness for the writings of 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner, often reading his opinions and discussing them with attorneys.

“She was a librarian,” Heldt said. “Very bright, very meticulous, she carefully chose her words. She was quite but no shrinking violet.”

The foundation board had been anticipating it would soon have to decide the future of the library since Reed was past retirement age. But, Heldt noted, board members were counting on Reed being around to help them determine what should happen.

He anticipates the board will have a decision by mid-summer.   

Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, Reed was the organist at the Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Evansville and served as principal organist and harpsichordist with the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra. She also taught music at the University of Evansville.

She arrived in Evansville in 1975, after earning master of music degree at the University of Michigan.

“She was just a very caring individual,” Carithers said. “Helen helped a lot of people. Everybody is just brokenhearted at losing her.”

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