Advocating for Public Law Libraries – Becker, Rachel
An Essential Service: public law libraries
If you walked into any county courthouse twenty years ago you could expect to find many attorneys consulting with their clients and courtrooms filled with well-dressed lawyers arguing on their client’s behalf. Walk into the same courthouse today and you will find a much different landscape. A rapidly growing number of people are representing themselves (pro se litigants) in the courtroom and many do so without ever consulting an attorney. Where does someone turn when they need to prepare for court and cannot afford an attorney? How does the pro se litigant find reliable information on legal topics? This is where the county and state law library comes in.
If you were to sit in the Dane County Legal Resource Center (the library located in the Dane County, Wisconsin Courthouse) on any given day you would see a wide variety of patrons walk through the door. Judges come looking for specific laws, attorneys come seeking forms only found in certain books, and paralegals come to do research. But the overwhelming number of patrons who walk through the doors are pro se litigants who are faced with a legal issue and have no idea where to turn or who to ask. Now, law librarians cannot give “legal advice” which is the interpretation of legal topics nor can they recommend specific attorneys. But what they can do is help patrons locate the proper forms, find resources explaining legal topics in plain English, and provide a welcoming space for them to work.
One of the founding principles of the United States court system is to provide open access to all and to facilitate a neutral environment to settle legal disputes. Would it be possible for our court system to be open to all if everyone does not have equal access to legal information? The public law library is open to all regardless of income, status, race, or gender. Anyone who walks through the door will be assisted in the same helpful manner in accordance with professional guidelines set forth for librarians. The librarians who work at the public law library are committed to providing the most open access possible to the court system as seen in their involvement with Public Access to Legal Information (PALI), a division of the Law Librarians Association of Wisconsin group. This group meets regularly with state judges, Supreme Court justices, attorneys, and other members of the legal community to address issues limiting public access to the legal system.
As budgets are getting increasingly tighter and public services are fighting to stay relevant it’s important to remember that libraries are an essential part of American society. In the words of respected novelist Zadie Smith, “Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.” Without the proper funding this free space will become increasingly rare. The public law library is often the only space where the pro se litigant can have free access to essential legal databases such as Westlaw and Lexis Nexis and free access to legal texts. Also these services cannot be offered without a law librarian working everyday to ensure access to these services. The best way to make sure the library will forever be open and free is to fund it. Thank your local librarian on your next visit and vote to keep libraries open.