By Alan Kilpatrick, Reference Librarian
This talk was recently presented at the 2020 Canadian Association of Law Libraries Virtual Conference. You can watch the recording here:
Legal information professionals can play a crucial role in helping the public locate, access, and connect with reliable sources of legal information. Our competitive set of skills, our intimate knowledge of the creation, curation, and use of legal information, and our relationships and networks place us in a great position to facilitate public access to legal information.
Since January 2019, Ken Fox and I, Reference Librarians with the Law Society of Saskatchewan, have attended the main branches of the Saskatoon Public Library (SPL) and the Regina Public Library (RPL), respectively, as embedded Law Librarians, one afternoon and evening a month. We provide on-site legal information assistance: guiding patrons towards online and print sources, highlighting resources for further learning, teaching basic research skills, and, when necessary, suggesting referrals to organizations that provide legal advice. I am here to talk about our experiences and to update you on what we have learned.
Over the past five years, the Law Society of Saskatchewan has explored the role libraries and information professionals can play in improving legal information access through a variety of initiatives, such as Saskatchewan’s Access to Legal Information project. Like many courthouse libraries, we are open to the public, encourage the public to visit or contact us, and provide public visitors with information assistance. However, we have long strived to establish a more direct connection with members of the public searching for legal information. While brainstorming among our team, we realized that the public library could be an ideal place to better connect with the public. The public library, after all, is a place those with information needs visit seeking information and resources.
We already had robust relationships with RPL and SPL through Saskatchewan’s Access to Legal Information project. We approached the heads of programming at both library systems to pitch our On-site Law Librarian idea. We found them eagerly receptive, open to the suggestion, and actively searching for new program ideas. The Law Librarian On-site initiative was born!
Arriving for a session, a member of the front desk staff assists us in setting up a table and signage near the library entrance, visible to patrons entering and exiting. We bring a laptop as well as public legal information pamphlets along with us. We work with marketing staff at each library system to advertise upcoming sessions in the library program guide, social media, and website.
While facilitating public access to legal information, I see myself as a guide who can help provide those seeking information about the law with a good starting point that supports their burgeoning legal journey. Legal information access is a building block of access to justice. It enables people to learn about the law, identify legal options, and may prompt them to seek further legal assistance.
Many do ask us for legal advice, if we are lawyers, and for lawyer referrals. Here are the guidelines we have developed for our public legal information services. We are careful to indicate we are not lawyers and cannot provide legal advice. This does not diminish the value of what we do. Non-lawyers and legal librarians alike have a powerful role to play in the legal ecosystem.
Each session is four hours. On average, we assist six people per session. Some members of the public visit the library specifically to speak to us. Most seem to stumble upon us, then sit down to ask a question. Scheduling one session in the afternoon and another in the evening every month allows us to connect with different segments of public library patrons. Our evening sessions commonly coincide with a legal advice clinic held by Pro Bono Law Saskatchewan at the public library, leading to a higher number of Law Librarian on Site enquiries.
A typical interaction can take any where from five minutes to two hours. It is not uncommon to spend an hour or two demonstrating legislative and case law searching. For longer enquiries, we encourage the public to follow up with us and to come and visit us in the courthouse.
The most common areas of law asked about are criminal, family, residential/tenancy, small claims, and wills/estates law. Frequently, we are approached by those curious about what we offer, patrons who mistake us for public library staff, and by those who just want someone to chat with. Most often, we refer the public to Saskatchewan’s public legal information site, the Saskatchewan Court’s site, the Law Society’s site, and CanLII.
How successful is the program? We are still evaluating its success, though the service appears reasonably popular with a good stream of enquiries. Since mid-March, the initiative has been on hold due to Covid-19. We are currently working with RPL and SPL to resume the program virtually. We are looking forward to eventually resuming Law Librarian On-site as an in-person program in the future.
I encourage you to explore the potential of offering a similar service in your own communities’ public library. Please reach out to me if you have any questions. I am happy to help you set up your own Law Librarian On-site initiative. Let us be bold and actively reimagine what legal information professionals can do. We have the skills and knowledge to make a difference.