In a remote corner of the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse, Kai-Yun Chiu pulls an ancient book off a dusty shelf, turns to the title page and checks the publication date: 1823.
The book looks its age, fraying and tattered. Yet it isn't the oldest in the unique collection of the Library of the Baltimore Bar. Not even close, said Ms. Chiu, its head librarian.
"There are lots of hidden treasures here," she said, turning to rows of faded books, some with publishing dates in the 1700s.
In its 156 years, the Bar Library's future never has been as uncertain.
Money to pay for library staff and resources slowly has been drying up. Unless the General Assembly approves bills this session that would add about $400,000 to the library budget annually, services will be slashed.
"It won't be a functioning library, even if it has books in it. It really won't be of any use to anyone. It will limp along, with the collection slowly deteriorating," said H. Mark Stichel, president of the bar library board and a lawyer at Piper & Marbury.
That would be a blow, say many in the law community.
"The Bar Library is the only one our lawyers have access to," said Patricia C. Jessamy, Baltimore state's attorney. "It would be a shame if government attorneys and solo practitioners did not have the same resources comparable to the larger, more prestigious firms."
Another advocate of the Bar Library is Judge Lawrence F. Rodowsky.
He requested his prime office location in the Mitchell Courthouse, a few steps from the library door, he said, "so I could check a book without having to walk across the street .
"I'm one who uses old books more than anybody, taking a legal point back to English history," said Judge Rodowsky, a regular customer long before he was appointed to the state's highest appellate court, the Court of Appeals.
Among Baltimore libraries, the Bar Library is one of the most obscure, tucked away on the fifth and sixth floors of the courthouse. Few outside the legal community know about it and fewer have visited.
A 27-year-old lawyer, George Brown, started the library in 1840. It flourished for many years as an economical resource for lawyers in government and at law firms.
Hard times have come recently. Computer technology has put complete libraries within reach of increasing numbers of law firms. Fewer are relying on the Bar Library.
Increased competition for legal business also has been a blow. Membership in the Bar Library is $140 a year for city lawyers. As firms have become cost conscious, fewer have been willing to foot the bills for all their lawyers.
"The legal profession has been hard hit by economic times," Mr. Stichel said. "There might be less legal work out there. Clients generally aren't willing to pay for grand research projects they once did."
Those pressures have combined to whittle away at membership rolls. The library has 2,244 members, down 800 from the late 1980s.
Money from the library's other funding source, a fee for cases filed in the city, also has dwindled. Fewer cases are being filed in the city, and some involve indigent plaintiffs who can have the fees waived, Mr. Stichel said.
The library is still grand, with its vault-barrel ceilings and oak-paneled walls covered with portraits of some of the state's leading legal scholars. But the lack of funds shows in shorter hours, peeling paint and poor lighting.
"Unfortunately, old books are just sitting in piles on the floor," said Judge Rodowsky, a member of the Bar Library board.
The library is inching into the computer age, but, Mr. Stichel said, "We're light-years behind even the neighborhood public library. We've not spent anything on top-notch equipment, something a library in the modern age has to do."
The most promising source of help may be the General Assembly. Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr. and Sen. John A. Pica Jr., both Baltimore Democrats, have filed bills that would boost the library's operating budget from less than $700,000 a year to more than $1 million. The money would come from increased fees on suits filed in Baltimore Circuit Court.
Many say their affection for the library goes beyond books.
"I always take visitors up there to have a look. The architecture is so beautiful," Ms. Jessamy said.
" If it is allowed to continue to deteriorate, we're going to lose something very special."