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 Legal Information Service to the Public Special Interest Section of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) has assembled a Public Library Toolkit: "This is a toolkit meant to help public librarians understand the process of legal research, effectively develop and use the information located within their libraries, utilize information located outside their libraries, with the end goal of helping the patron locate the legal information they need."
The American Association of Law Libraries Public Library Tookit covers:
Researching a legal problem.
Making sure you have the most current information.
Collection Development for federal, state, and general materials.
Knowing when to refer.
Another great resource is The Southern California Association of Law Libraries' publication, Locating the Law: A Handbook for Non-Law Librarians.
While some legal questions can be addressed with general resources, a great many legal questions require specific local resources. Fortunately the state divisions of the AALL have created state-specific toolkits for 18 states and the District of Columbia. Some of these state-specific toolkits are collections of links that could be used on your library's legal resources webpage.
Find and Refer, Don't Advise or Interpret
One concern that many of us have is just what the guidelines are for helping patrons with legal questions. In simplest terms, library staff can help patrons find laws, and help them use legal research tools and resources. We can also refer people to agencies and organizations that provide legal assistance.
What we cannot do is tell a patron what law applies to their situation or interpret or explain the law.
Chapter 4: 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.
Resources for Patrons
Because of the constraints of what librarians can do for patrons when helping them with legal questions, this is an area where it is especially important to provide people with good guides and tools that they can use independently. Having a set of carefully selected and up-to-date links to the best websites for legal research, including local and state links, is an essential tool for both library staff and patrons.
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.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
This work is licensed under a  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License