Tackling Patrons' Legal Questions
When someone comes to you with a legal question what is your first reaction? You are not alone if legal questions make you feel nervous or unsure of how to respond. Legal librarianship is a highly developed specialty and many public library staff do not have the opportunity to develop the law librarian's specialized skills, or have access to the most sophisticated (and expensive) legal research tools and databases.
And while we want to do everything we can to help our patrons, we have to draw the line at giving legal advice.
But don't give up hope! There is still a lot that library staff can do to help patrons with legal questions.
Law Librarians to the Rescue
The American Association of Law Libraries Public Library Tookit covers:
Another great resource is The Southern California Association of Law Libraries' publication, Locating the Law: A Handbook for Non-Law Librarians.
Learn and Share
Examples of offerings from regional library networks and library service cooperatives include "Legal Information on the Internet", a live online course from Amigos Library Services.
The Washington State Library and WebJunction Washington recently offered an online class on Legal Resources taught by Rita Kaiser, legal reference librarian from the King County Law Library. (Although the class is over Washington State library staff should investigate other online training opportunities made available through WebJunction and others.)
These are just examples, check out what your own state library is offering. Keep an eye on programs offered by library systems in your area as well as workshops at state library association conferences. These often change from year to year so check back from time to time to see what is available. Some local chapters of the American Association of Law Libraries offer workshops for public library staff from time to time as well.
Find and Refer, Don't Advise or Interpret
What we cannot do is tell a patron what law applies to their situation or interpret or explain the law.
Chapter 6: Legal Reference vs. Legal Advice of Locating the Law: A Handbook for Non-Law Librarians provides a more detailed guide with examples and a sample written policy on legal assistance.
The AALL Public Library Toolkit has suggested links, including state links for states with state-specific toolkits.
For a great example of a set of carefully chosen and helpfully annotated legal resources check out the Morton Grove (IL) Public Library's Legal Resources on the Internet.
Skokie (IL) Public Library also has both a superb set of annotated online Law & Legal Resources.
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