Trends 2013-2016

A list of monthly Trends articles for August 2013 through October 2016 has been compiled.  See full article archive.

State Court Law Libraries Address Access to Justice

Dana Deseck-Piazzon, Librarian, Knowledge and Information Services, National Center for State Courts

State court law libraries are well-positioned to help improve public trust and confidence in the courts. In the following interviews, we see how two state law libraries, Texas and Minnesota, demonstrate leadership and innovation with Web site redesigns and expanded services facilitating access to justice.

Texas State Law Library

Texas state law librarians have been instrumental in promoting access to justice. One key objective of the state’s law librarians was providing resources to attorneys who desire to do pro bono work. What follows are highlights from an interview with Leslie Prather-Forbis, assistant director, Texas State Law Library.

Texas Chief Justice Nathan Hecht formed a commission to broaden legal services to people in Texas. How did the library approach the initiative?

We try to provide information on how the courts work. For example, many people who are facing a criminal indictment for the first time do not know the basic procedure for a criminal case and, thus, are unable to identify when their rights have been violated. Giving such basic procedural information to patrons often boosts their confidence in navigating the system. . . . Our engagement and interaction with the public makes them feel more connected with the legal system. We provide unbiased, reputable resources to the public. More importantly, . . . we search for information relevant to their situation. The information we send often includes an excerpt from a legal treatise, links to relevant statutes, and plain-language explanations of the law. We then explain how to register with us and where to find additional resources on their issue. This is followed by an explanation of what an attorney could do for them and references to places to go for help. . . .

Geographical disparities among law libraries are a challenge. How has the state law library coordinated with counties to provide a summary of legal clinics throughout the state?

Our librarians are always on the lookout for new legal services and clinics to refer our patrons to when we cannot assist them. Our Where to Go for Help page compiles all the available information that we have located on legal hotlines, clinics, legal-aid organizations, and county law and university law libraries, as well as lawyer-referral services. . . .

How does the Texas State Law Library’s new Web portal make legal research accessible to all Texans?

Our website is a portal in that we bring together in one place . . . primary law and the secondary sources that assist in understanding the law and putting it to practical use. While these resources are great, people need guidance in how to use online resources and where to look for relevant information. . . .

Our Web portal has several access points through which patrons can find the information they need, depending on their level of research proficiency or how they’re approaching their problem. These multiple access points increase the likelihood that a patron will find what they need and gain meaningful access to the law. . . .

Many patrons have simple questions that can be answered succinctly. Many of these questions get asked over and over, and . . . we have compiled a list of legal FAQs. . . . Here is a link to the one on common-law marriage. . . .

These comprehensive guides are known as Research Guides by Topic and are aimed at those unfamiliar with legal research. . . . Many novice researchers don’t even know where to start researching their problem and have trouble evaluating the legitimacy of websites that may come up in a Google search. By compiling relevant and reputable primary and secondary legal sources, our Research Guides . . . skip the difficult and possibly frustrating steps of locating the law and move straight to determining how to use it in their situation. . . .

Our Digital Collection connects lawyers who want to do pro bono work outside their usual area of law with professional-level material so that they may confidently provide high-level assistance to their client. On the right-hand side of the page you will see . . . many other resources they can access from home with a library account.

What was the biggest challenge in the development of the Web portal?

In 2013 we began steadily adding electronic databases and e-books to our collection. Following this shift toward electronic resources, we have found that some patrons get confused about which resources are electronic and which are in print. It’s difficult to present legal information, which is full of jargon and specialized vocabulary, in terms that are easy to search for and easy to understand in a manner that does not purport to interpret the statute and its intent or purpose, which we are prohibited from doing. E-books are also an emerging technology, so some of our patrons who don't have any experience with e-books have to tackle a new and difficult technology, as well as a realm of legal information with specialized vocabulary.

Another problem . . . is finding content from legal publishers. [Some publishers] are allowing us to make electronic versions of their resources available, while [others are] not. We need for the publishing world to come up with a business model that allows us to make material available while protecting their trade.  

That said, we need funding to support purchasing access to the material that is available and the infrastructure and staffing to maximize their use.

Public law libraries have a vital role in the effective administration of justice. What information and services does your library provide that are aimed at various, diverse user groups?

Our collection contains legal resources aimed at a wide range of legal-literacy levels. For the general public and those new to the law, we have several . . . entry-level, plain-language resources. . . . These self-help type books tend to be on the types of legal problems that everyday people encounter: wills, debt, real estate, and divorce/child custody. . . .

An innovative project that we have undertaken in the last few years is the Historical Statutes Digitization Project. With permission from Thomson West, we have begun digitizing our complete collection of historical Texas statutes, and made them freely available on our website. Very few libraries in Texas have a historical statute collection of the caliber of the state law library’s, and the need for such material arises in a variety of contexts. . . .

Law librarians are teachers and trainers. How have the law librarians provided outreach and training opportunities to public libraries and county library staff?

We have given presentations of our resources to the Texas Library Association, regional library associations, the Texas County and District Clerks Association, the Texas Court Administrators Association, and local bar associations. We plan to continue marketing as broadly as we are able. We are hampered by our small staff and lack of travel budget. Justice Hecht was instrumental in getting an article about our services in the Texas Bar Journal. . . .

In your opinion, what is the role of the court library in the 21st century? How can law librarians position themselves to continue innovative services and reach out to users?

I think the key in the future is outreach. We can’t expect people to come into the library. We can’t wait for questions to come to us. We need to make reliable and readily available legal information that can be found “just googling around.” We also need to make it clear that access to justice isn’t just providing links. Librarians are needed to make logical, accessible order out of information from many sources. Librarians are needed to cull through the noise of information and gather relevant resources best suited to the researcher’s needs. Librarians are needed to listen to the researchers to understand what they need and to help the researchers clarify what they are seeking. It feels like a constant battle to keep ourselves on the radar of people we help every day.    

Minnesota State Law Library

Minnesota state law librarian Liz Reppe provides another perspective about how public law libraries can improve access to justice.

Public law libraries have a vital role in the effective administration of justice. What information and services does your library provide that are aimed at various, diverse user groups?

Most of our resources are useful to the court, attorneys, or the general public. We have a robust website with Legal Topics pages . . . based on the questions we get asked at the reference desk, and they are a great starting place for research. We have created a Legal Treatise Finder, so legal researchers can easily locate the treatises we have on a multitude of topics. We maintain a keyword searchable archive of Minnesota’s appellate decisions. The content dates back to 1996. The library also has a searchable database of appellate briefs . . . for published decisions of the court of appeals and supreme court going back to 2005.

Our library is open to the public, and in 2015 almost half of the questions we received came from non-attorneys. For people seeking legal assistance, we have created a legal referral sheet for each of the 87 Minnesota counties, as well as a listing of referrals by topic. . . . [T]he library hosts two appellate clinics. One is specifically for unemployment appeals, because over 80 percent of these types of appeals are initiated by self-represented parties. Our second self-help clinic is for most other types of appeals. We do purchase self-help materials in print and recently subscribed to a database that provides online access to Nolo publications.

We take very seriously our role of supporting the research needs of the court. . . . For the law clerks throughout the state . . . we have a dedicated email help account. Law clerks send in their tricky research questions, and our experienced law librarians set aside time to help them with their searching. These questions often take longer, and involve more resources, than our typical reference questions. To help judges and court staff easily stay on top of the latest legal scholarship and news, we send out a monthly list of legal articles of interest to the judiciary. These are selected from over 400 periodicals. . . . Lastly, we offer regular free CLEs that are advertised to the judges and court attorneys in our building, but are also open to government attorneys throughout the capitol complex and others who may wish to attend via webinar.

How does your library continue to develop new ways to make information readily available and keep pace with changes in customer needs?

It is critical that we serve our patrons in the way they prefer. That means we do a lot online. We answer phone calls, emails, and chats and are able to connect most people with the information they need without them having to come to our location. We put a lot of effort into our website and strive to make our online content responsive to our users’ needs. Moreover, I travel across the state speaking to public librarians and library patrons. . . to raise awareness of our library’s services.

How have you expanded your service strategies in the last several years?

One of our more important projects was a complete website redesign, which ended at the beginning of 2016. In addition, because of the noticeable lack of free appellate assistance, we started two appeals clinics (unemployment in 2013 and general appeals in 2016). We live in the same building as the court of appeals and supreme court, so it makes sense that people look to us for information about appeals. . . .

What types of partnerships has the library made to help the public navigate the legal system?

We have provided training to public librarians so that they can assist the public seeking legal information. We encourage them to contact us, or have their patrons contact us, if they prefer. We also collaborate with our county law librarian colleagues to put on larger-scale educational programs for public librarians. We have partnered with the bar association to create two appellate clinics. We have collaborated with Legal Services State Support to assist them in providing chat service on the site.

The Minnesota State Law Library has an “Unemployment Appeal Brief Advice Clinic.” How has this service helped the public navigate the legal system?

Providing free access to an attorney for legal advice benefits the appellant and the court. The customers talk with the attorney about whether they have a meritorious appeal, and if so, what to focus on in the appeal paperwork. Many do not understand that the appeal is not a do-over and that they will not get to talk to the judges. The clinic helps to clarify the process and scope of the appeal. . . . [The] result is better submissions to the court. . . . [I]n 2015, 67 percent of the clinic customers decided not to pursue the appeal after talking to the attorney.

In your opinion, what is the role of the court library in the 21st century? How can law librarians position themselves to continue innovative services and reach out to users?

Law libraries are no longer about the place or the books. They are about the service we provide. Our services need to be responsive to the needs of our users, whether court, public, or attorney. One of the next projects . . . is to “embed” at public libraries. People won’t have to come to the law library to get information. We will be available in their communities. This is particularly helpful for people who aren’t aware that they can get assistance from a law library.


To learn more about each state’s law library, visit their websites: Texas State Law Library and the Minnesota Law Library.

Reports are part of the National Center for State Courts' "Report on Trends in State Courts" and "Future Trends in State Courts" series.
Opinions herein are those of the authors, not necessarily of the National Center for State Courts.