For most academic law libraries, our patron base includes a mixture of students, faculty, staff, attorneys, and public patrons. And if your library is anything like mine, we spend a majority of our time and resources on students, faculty, and staff. After all, we are a law school library that supports the research and instruction of our own. With many of us working under greater time and budgetary constraints, we need to find more efficient ways to help some of our other patrons.
Additionally, the public has increasingly relied on public libraries for support because of the ongoing economic downturn, with many patrons trying to work through tough legal issues on their own. In 2011, I had the chance to shadow the reference librarians at an urban public library. At the time, the public librarians noted an uptick in the number of legal research questions being asked. The librarians admitted that they were often unable to satisfactorily answer the legal research questions because of a lack of resources. This particular public library has a print collection consisting mainly of the state statutes and a few NOLO Press titles on popular legal issues. The public librarians would usually send these patrons across the street to our academic law library. But if the patrons made their way into our library, most of the material would be too daunting to be very helpful.
Something tells me this situation is not unique. I suspect many of us face the same issues when it comes to public patrons. They may not get the help that they need at the public library, and in most cases, our academic law library collections are focused on those familiar with the law. This means that public patrons are falling through the crack somewhere in between.
So what can we do to help ensure that the public has access to helpful legal information? We can join our LISP SIS and offer greater services to public patrons through public library/law library partnerships.
Academic law libraries can partner with surrounding public libraries to offer practical legal research instruction to the public librarians using the various resources at their disposal. During this instruction, the academic law librarians should focus on the resources that the public has ready access to, such as online databases or other Access to Justice resources. The law librarians could also create research guides with public patrons in mind. This practical instruction would give the public librarians the tools to effectively assist public patrons perform their own legal research.
Another outreach service academic law librarians can participate in is a program equivalent to the People’s Law School in Michigan. Each fall, nearly 350 Michigan community members participate in a seven week course designed to teach them about the foundations of the law. This program has spread to at least fifteen other states. This would be a great opportunity for a law librarian to teach the public the basics of legal research.
This post offers just a few ideas for public patron outreach and instruction. What successful programs has your law library implemented to help this patron base?