What is a Law Library?
Helping to provide equal access to justice for all.
What is a Law Library? On its face, that seems like it would be a simple question to answer. It isn’t. A “law library” can be many things: a case of legal books in an attorney’s office, a collection of legal research materials that are part of a public library collection, a room with practice assistance guides in a District Attorney’s office, or even webpages with links on a County Counsel’s website. I could go on and on. When it comes to answering this question in a more traditional sense, there are three general types of law libraries: academic, public, and private.
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Types of Law Libraries
Academic law libraries are usually the ones found in law schools. Private law libraries are usually found in law firms. Public law libraries are usually managed by a government entity or open to the public. I’ve spent the past twenty-something years working in public law libraries. Since that is my wheelhouse, so to speak, the articles I write for this site focus on public law librarianship. Just like law libraries, public law libraries come in various forms. There is no widely accepted strict definition of what constitutes a public law library. [Public Law Librarianship: Objectives, Challenges, and Solutions by Laurie Selwyn & Virginia Eldridge provide a comprehensive overview of the history, development, and possible future of public law libraries.
Public law libraries, basically, fall into three categories: State/Supreme Court Law Libraries, County Law Library, and others. The “other” category includes appellate court law libraries and some university law libraries, for example. Public law libraries are organized, administrated, and funded by various methods depending on the state. Most states have codes or statutes governing the authority of structure and support. Many state law libraries are open to the public. Almost all county law libraries are open to the public. County law libraries vary significantly in size, staff, and collections.
The primary mission of most county law libraries is to help provide equal access to justice for everyone. [For an overview of access to justice as it relates to public law libraries, view the Law Library Insights Access to Justice: Best Practices for Law Libraries Guide.] This means their patron usage base may consist of a wide variety, including but not limited: to students, authors, reporters, pro se litigants (or people representing themselves), potential pro se litigants, attorneys, judges, paralegals, and researchers. Providing equal access to legal research materials is essential for many reasons.
Legal research materials in print and access to legal research materials online can be expensive. Performing legal research can be complex. Public law libraries can provide staff members to assist patrons with performing legal research. Staff members can also provide legal reference assistance and connect patrons with resources. Navigation of court systems is not straightforward and can often be confusing. Some courts do a great job of providing self-help materials, resources, and legal information. Some public law libraries go above and beyond to provide access to legal research materials, resources, and information not provided by their local court systems.
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Accurate, Reliable Information
Technological advancements have always impacted law librarianship and continue to do so. There is a misperception that law libraries can be replaced by internet resources. Believe it or not, however, that currently is not the case. When it comes to legal materials, everything is not available online. Much of what is available online is not accurate or reliable. Most accurate and reliable legal materials available online are not available for free or at a low cost. Public law librarians help people sort through the abundance and focus on their needs.
As private and academic law libraries downsize their print collections, they increasingly rely on public law libraries to supplement their collections (especially for access to older materials). Computer-assisted legal research, information, and other resources are expanding and becoming even more accessible to the general public. Public law librarian skills, knowledge, and expertise remains critical to help people use it. [For more details, access Law Library Insight’s The Value of a Public Law Library] “Public law libraries are continually developing new ways to make information more readily available, thus providing equal access to the law and keeping our centuries-old adversarial system alive. As the nature and functions of our court systems continue to experience a dramatic evolution, law libraries play a key role in helping our user base keep pace.”
Professional organizations for law librarians provide access to networking, resources, education, and information, among other things. The primary organization for law librarians is the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL). The primary section of AALL for public law librarians is the Special Interest Section — Government Law Libraries. [Government Law Libraries SIS — Government Law Libraries SIS] This section publishes helpful resources such as the Public law library Standards [Public Law Library Standards — Government Law Libraries SIS], other Resource Guides [Resource Guides — Government Law Libraries SIS] and Toolkits with information on topics like Disaster Planning, Sample Job Descriptions and Collection Development [Toolkit — Government Law Libraries SIS].
In addition to traditional library services, such as photocopying/printing/scanning, many public law libraries also provide programming. Some public law libraries operate as self-help centers for self-represented litigants or potential self-represented litigants. Many of these public law libraries offer facilitation services allowing the participants to bypass performing traditional legal research on their own or consult with an attorney for legal advice on how to proceed with their issues or case. Others provide Lawyer in the Library clinics and similar programs that help connect patrons with attorneys. Some public law libraries have classes on various legal topics like landlord and tenant information, how to file a small claims case, changing your name, drafting your own will, and so much more.
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Contact a Law Library
If you have a legal issue or question, check your local area to see if a public law library is available. If not, search outside your area. Public law librarians are usually available to assist everyone regardless of location and demographics.
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