The basic library has not changed for centuries. It is a collection of printed materials such as books and periodicals, and managed by staff members. In the Middle Ages, the collection may have been managed by monks; today it is managed by librarians or information specialists. Librarians serve as a major access point to the contents of the collection.
Over the years, the format of the information has changed from print to CD-ROMs to electronic databases, but the content has stayed pretty much the same. Public law libraries have treatises and formbooks, provide access to Lexis, Westlaw and other resources available through the Internet, and provide reference services to assist their patrons in finding the appropriate tools to answer their questions.
However, the role of the library is changing. The library is no longer merely a repository of information. It is a community center, a place for public meetings and a place to obtain help with homework, complete IRS forms and meet with the nurse-for-a-day. Public law libraries are changing as well.
Triage is the new service model for public law libraries. The library works with the public patrons to determine what kind of resources they need - a treatise, a set of forms and instructions, or statutes or regulations.
It serves as a place of referral. Does the patron need to talk with an attorney? Which is the most appropriate referral to make: 2-1-1; KCBA Neighborhood Legal Clinic; Northwest Justice Project Debt Collection Defense Clinic; KCBA Young Lawyers Division Walk-In Clinic; or Columbia Legal Services Legal Financial Obligations Clinic? Where can the self-represented litigant obtain assistance in completing forms?
As the courts work with more and more self-represented litigants, the need for assistance becomes greater. The trend is for public law libraries to partner with the courts and play a greater role in assisting the public patron.
I recently attended the Court Technology Conference. One track dealt exclusively with self-represented litigants and how the courts and law libraries can provide these desperately needed services.
More than 150 law libraries across the country participate in self-help clinics. Services range from hosting the clinic in the law library, as we do now, to building a self-help clinic in the library, staffed by attorneys who are part of the library staff.
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