Reference in Law Libraries

**crossposted at Literature Review for Library Techs**


I have already written an overview on the reference interview, and on search strategies.  This blog post is about reference work specifically as it may apply to reference staff in law libraries.  Of course, there are different kinds of law libraries with different demographics.  Law firm libraries serve the lawyers working at the firm.  Law school libraries assist law students and faculty.  Courthouse libraries serve the public.  With different types of clientele, various law libraries presumably will have different approaches to serving their clients.

Characteristics of Legal Research Resources

According to Cassel and Hiremath (180-182), there are seven characteristics of legal research resources that need to be considered:

  1. Criticality – there is greater importance in responding to a legal question accurately than, say, to a question about gardening tips.  To that end, it is important to ensure that resources offered are both accurate and up-to-date.
  2. Knowledge – it is helpful to have some basic knowledge of legal structure to help patrons find the information they are looking for.
  3. Restraint – reference staff must restrain themselves from providing legal advice.  A strong referral network is helpful.  This topic will be further discussed later on.
  4. Ethics – confidentiality must be respected.  You must not discuss patrons with co-workers.
  5. Volume – as the demand for legal information is high, so is the supply of legal information in libraries.
  6. Updating – as the law is ever changing, so is legal information continually updated.  This includes looseleaf updates.
  7. Expense – legal information resources are very expensive.


Law Firm Libraries

Libraries in law firms may have a collection of which a much higher percentage is electronic, and where a priority is placed on access to databases.  They often require a high degree of specialized knowledge for library staff (Klinefelter, 76-77).  It is essential for staff to remain up to date on the current knowledge of legal information and reference tools.  In addition, it may be helpful to keep up with knowledge about certain areas of the law.  Be careful to “get a full description of the item sought.”  More so than in other libraries, the client will want document delivery rather than help with research strategies, though in some cases, lawyers may want to learn research techniques as well.

Law School Libraries

In law school libraries, as in most academic libraries, the focus is more so on teaching the students how to conduct research rather than delivering the information sought.    This will be mostly, but not exclusively, law students.

Pettinato points out that there are three things legal reference staff should know about law students:

  1. How law students feel about the search process
  2. How context shapes needs
  3. Why law students do or do not ask for help.

At the beginning of the search process, users can often feel various “negative” emotions such as uncertainty, doubt, confusion, and frustration.  Two things that are helpful at the beginning of the process are an understanding that there may be uncertainty, and that it is a common experience among users.  Instead of being thrown into the library with little research education, but rather gradually introduced to the search process, all the while learning new skills.

According to Whisner (in Pettinato), there are a variety of reasons why users might not ask for help

“They think they know the way

They know they don’t know the way, but believe some guess-work will get them on track

They enjoy the challenge of researching without help

They don’t want to interrupt the reference librarian with their questions

Asking for help would embarrass them, damaging their images of themselves as competent researchers.”

Pettinato observes that the last reason might apply particularly to law students.  “By understanding that users have myriad reasons for not asking for help and by understanding which of those reasons law students are especially vulnerable to, law librarians can tailor their methods of encouraging librarian-user interaction to the particular needs and concerns of the user.”

Courthouse, Academic, and other Libraries that serve the public

Courthouse libraries serve, among others, the general public.  A common concern in this realm is awareness of the line between providing reference service to the patron, and practicing law.  Staff should be cautious not to practice law, as not only can it mislead the client, it can also result in legal consequences for the staff person and the library.  This is particularly relevant concerning  pro se patrons, or patrons representing themselves, especially where they have little knowledge about the law.  “Even identifying the relevant area of law for the patron could constitute legal advice.”

Mosley wrote a paper on this, and made a strong argument the reference staff should not spend time worrying about whether they were practicing law.  “Whatever reservations reference librarians have in working with legal literature should come from the nature of the literature, not from a concept imposed on them by another profession.

Ultimately, Mosely says that reference staff

can draw the line between providing reference service and giving legal advice by being careful not to act in a lawyerly capacity.  They must not speculate as to the outcome of an issue or tell an inquirer what procedural steps to follow.  Neither should they go before tribunals or agencies on behalf of library users.  Unless state statutes or court rules specifically allow, they should refrain from filling in forms for library users.  These are activities within the practice of law.  Activities that assist library users in locating information they feel addresses their legal problems are reference activities and are the appropriate province of reference librarians.

Arant and Carpenter further point out that the electronic age has brought with it a range in quality of information produced on the World Wide Web.  The range in quality has brought out the question of whether it is appropriate to suggest some items, or any items for that matter on the Web.  Those relying on legal information for their own legal protection should stick to print sources (Deboo).

Arant and Carpenter refer to general guidelines for library reference staff at Texas A & M University:

  A. When assisting any patron with legal research [attorney or non-attorney] remember:

    1a. Conduct a reference interview to find out as much as possible about what the patron is trying to find.

    1b. Allowable assistance is quite limited. Possible search strategies may be suggested, but not specific searches.

    1c. Preface your response to any query with the following: Remind the patron that this is a research library and neither the library nor its staff are qualified to provide legal advice or counsel. However, there are sources and services that can be pointed out to users to enhance their research.

    1d. Patrons must sufficiently identify a case, statute, regulation, form, or other legal material by name. For example, if they are searching for legal information on a subject, staff may only show them the research sources and how to use them.

    2a. Remind the patron that we [Evans library staff] want to assist them in their research efforts, but their results largely depend on the information they provide. The more information that is provided, the better their results are likely to be.

    2b. If the request is nonspecific, the library staff may direct patrons to the general location of materials and instruct them only in the use of the indexes and finding tools. Showing them nonrelevant examples of what possibly could be found using the source is acceptable.

    2c. Do not interpret what the patron finds. It is okay to discuss their questions, but do not provide explanation or clarification of legal matters found.

    3a. Staff may provide computer aided legal research for the patron if the topic keywords are formulated by the patron without assistance.

Anderson (14) conducts a literature review of communications theory as it applies to library interactions, and posits that it is important to consider the power imbalance inherent to the staff-patron relationship, where the staff have the advantage in terms of knowledge and familiarity.

Summary and Conclusion

There are seven characteristics of legal research questions that need to be considered by reference staff: criticality, knowledge, restraint, ethics, volume, updating, and expense.

There are different kinds of law libraries that serve different patrons.  Law firm libraries serve the lawyers and paralegals that practice at the firm.  Law school libraries serve mostly law students, but sometimes other students as well.  Courthouse libraries serve the general public.  Law questions can also arise at public and general academic libraries.

Reference staff at law firms and, perhaps, law schools will likely want some general knowledge of certain areas of the law.  In contrast, it would not be necessary when dealing with the general public, and it could be argued that it might even be a hindrance.  Probably the largest issue in the realm of law libraries is knowing where to draw the line between reference work and the practice of law when dealing with the general public. Texas A&M (as of 1999) had guidelines to help reference staff distinguish between the two.

In conclusion, legal reference work is a field which is quite diverse in terms of the patrons it serves, and in terms of the degree of knowledge required of reference staff.  Having spent time in various law library settings myself, as a patron, volunteer, and practicum student, I can say that what unites them is library in the service of justice.


Anderson, Steven P.  “Communications Conflict at the Law Library Reference Desk: A Survey of General Library Science and Communications Literature.” Legal Reference Services Quarterly 16.4 (1998): 5-21. Print.

Arant, Wendi, and Brian B. Carpenter. “Where Is The Line? Legal Reference Service and the Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL)—Some Guides That Might Help.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 38.3 (1999): 235-239. Library Literature & Information Science Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 19 Mar. 2013.

Cassell, Kay Ann, and Uma Hiremath. Reference and Information Services in the 21st Century: An Introduction. 2nd ed. New York: Neal Schuman, 2009. Print

Deboo, Shireen. “Legal Reference For Neophytes.” Alki 20.3 (2004): 24-26. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts. Web. 20 Mar. 2013.

Klinefelter, Anne. “Public Services.” Law Librarianship in the Twenty-First Century (Lisa Smith-Butler, Roy Balleste and Sonia Luna-Lamas, eds.) (Scarecrow Press, 2007).

Mosley, Madison M. “The Authorized Practice Of Legal Reference Service.” Law Library Journal 87.(1995): 203-209. Library Literature & Information Science Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 20 Mar. 2013.

Pettinato, Tammy R. “How Can I Help You? Three Things Legal Reference Librarians Should Know About Law Students.” AALL Spectrum 11.3 (2006): 20-31. Library Literature & Information Science Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 19 Mar. 2013.


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