Minnesota State Law Library Partners with Saint Paul Public Library to Promote Access to Justice

Erica Melko, OCLC Communications Coordinator/Editor, Membership and Research /

This article is part of a series that features library strategies for supporting access to civil legal justice. OCLC’s WebJunction program and the nonprofit organization Legal Services Corporation (LSC) are partnering to deliver the national training initiative Improving Access to Civil Legal Justice through Public Libraries to library staff. View recording from the February webinar, Civil Legal Justice: The Crucial Role of Libraries, to learn more.

Law libraries can provide people with information, forms, and legal aid references to help them with their legal questions. Too often, however, people either don’t know that law libraries exist or may be intimidated to visit them, as law libraries are usually housed in government buildings behind security. By contrast, public libraries are central institutions frequented by community members, but public library staff may not have the specialized knowledge to confidently answer patrons’ pressing legal questions.

Librarian sitting at a table with resources
MSLL Reference Librarian

The Minnesota State Law Library (MSLL) has partnered with Saint Paul Public Library (SPPL) to create the Legal Reference at the Public Library program. This initiative combines the strengths of each—the specialized expertise of the law library with the accessibility of the public library—to connect more people facing legal issues with the help and support they need at their local public library.

Twice monthly, a law librarian visits an SPPL branch for a three-hour session to meet with patrons, answer questions, and conduct reference interviews. “We didn’t want to wait around for people to find us in the law library,” explained Sarah Larsen, MSLL Outreach Librarian. “The goal of this program is to meet patrons where they are and where they are comfortable: their local public library.”

Impact

The Impact for the Community

Since public library visits began in 2017, MSLL librarians have answered over 1,700 questions, with nearly 700 questions answered in 2019 alone. “We are reaching people that otherwise would not receive help,” says Larsen. “We’ve given them helpful information to take meaningful next steps about the frustrating situation that they are in, and that’s an important impact of this program.”

János McGhie, Assistant Manager at the Sun Ray SPPL branch, adds that this program connects people to a resource already available to them in a way that makes things easier, while reinforcing “the image of the library as a place to turn for help with any kind of dilemma.”

The Impact for Public Library Staff

For public library staff, this partnership empowers them to have a resource at the ready for patrons in need of legal information. János McGhie (SPPL) says:

“We feel very strongly as public library staff that we want to help our community, and when we get questions that are in an arena that we just don’t have a lot of knowledge in, we feel bad that we can’t take them as far as we know they need to go. Just knowing that public library staff have this very easy referral for law library visits is a real relief. It is a relief in the sense that you know and take so seriously how important this issue is to the person asking, and it’s great to have a reliable, knowledgeable resource at the ready to help.”

The Impact for Law Library Staff

For law library staff, this partnership has allowed them to reach more people with their services in a location that is comfortable for patrons. Sarah Larsen (MSLL) says:

“Access to justice is important for what we’re doing. We’re getting people access to the proper forms and rules, which ensures people are better prepared when they’re in front of a judge. We want to be helpful to people and especially for those who otherwise are not going to get assistance. This partnership allows us to reach out to people and inform them of our services, what we can do, and how they can get help. In recent years we have been looking for ways to serve more people and the public library has been an excellent partner for accomplishing this shared goal.”

Ways to get started: Just say hello

MSLL-LL

An easy way to start a partnership that works for your library is to simply introduce yourself to another library and learn more about the services they offer (law library) or needs their patrons may have (public library).

For Public Libraries

McGhie suggests that a practical first step is to visit the law library in person so that if you refer a patron, you can demystify the location to make the trip seem less daunting. He also suggests that while there, “just get to know the law library staff librarian-to-librarian. That’s going to make it easier to remember them in a pinch and recommend them to folks in need.”

Most states have a state law library, and some even have county or city law libraries. If your county or state does not have a designated law library, however, Larsen recommends that you also look to university law programs, your local Bar Association, or legal aid organizations that may offer additional resources, training, and support. See this resource for law libraries in your region.

For Law Libraries

For law library staff, building a relationship and becoming more visible to public library staff as a reliable resource can open pathways to serving more of the community.

Larsen suggests:
“Reach out to a public library in your area and say, ‘We realize that there are a lot of people out there who may have legal issues or are trying to represent themselves and need information but can’t get an attorney for one reason or another. Let’s talk about ways that we could help them.’”