Law on the Frontlines:
Legal Reference for Public Libraries
Law and legal reference constitute a specialized area of knowledge and resources. The best way to be comfortable with a specialized area is to deal with it often, an opportunity not always presented to the generalist in a public library system. It is possible, however, to develop ability in this area through training and practice.
Traditionally, training on legal reference has focused on the classic materials of law - cases, statutes, regulations, law textbooks, and the formal process of legal research. Some of the materials referenced herein include these classics. In addition, and possibly more importantly, the information here will help develop in reference staff the ability to:
- recognize when a question is a legal one or has a legal aspect
- conduct an appropriate legal reference interview
- respond to a legal question with confidence that the information is good and helpful, and does not constitute advice
- identify relevant and pertinent referrals from the broad spectrum available
The training materials on these pages are grouped in five main elements. Each of the main elements may have several sub-parts.
- Introduction to Legal Reference for Public Libraries (this page)
- The Legal Reference Interview
- Reference behaviors and practice tips
- Distinguishing between information and advice
- Rephrasing the question
- Questions to ask the patron
- Classify the need
- Helpful tools for identifying citations and vocabulary
- Getting Started: Descriptive Resources
- Evaluating legal information websites
- Online sources
- Sources at your library already
- Forms (see also under Element 4: About Law)
- Digging Deeper: About Law
- Location and Why It Matters
- Who Writes What
- Where to Find Law
- Court Organizational Structure
- Forms and the Role of Court Rules
- Choosing and Making Referrals
The guidance and materials on this site are structured to help the generalist at a public library to recognize and respond to questions about and for law.
For interested library systems, face-to-face training is available upon request from the Maryland State Law Library (contact the reference desk) and other members of the Conference of Maryland Circuit Court Law Library Directors. Training is also being coordinated and scheduled through the Maryland Access to Justice Commission. Check this flyer for upcoming dates near you.
Access to Justice and the Public Library
Access to Justice is, generally speaking, the ability of people to seek and obtain fair, accessible, and equitable assistance in reaching an outcome under the law. Legal needs fall in a broad spectrum, from a need for basic legal information, to problems that can be dealt with using self-help resources and limited legal representation, to complicated issues requiring full legal representation.
Many people who need assistance do not receive it, because:
- They do not know they have a legal problem
- They do not know how to access affordable legal help
These problems can be solved through:
- Raising public awareness of where to find quality legal information
- Bringing the law to the people, instead of having them come to it
The best way to do this is through strategic partnerships between service providers (courts, legal service agencies, bar associations) and information providers (libraries, both law-specific and general).
Public libraries are on the frontline for access to information, about the law itself and helpful services. Public library staff are trained to locate accurate, trustworthy, reliable information. Public libraries are already recognized as information locations, and are already embedded in communities. In fact, people are already coming to public libraries with legal questions. But public library staff may not feel fully equipped to handle the rising tide of questions about law and legal situations. The information contained on these pages is intended to help equip the generalists on public library staff with the basic skills to address legal information questions.
Read more about Access to Justice and the Role of LibrariesPartnering with Libraries from the National Center for State Courts
Maryland Access to Justice Department
Maryland Access to Justice Commission
U.S. Department of Justice, Office for Access to Justice