Interview with the Author: Helping Library Users with Legal Questions

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

September 27, 2022

Deborah Hamilton wrote Helping Library Users with Legal Questions. My interview with her is below.

Lauren Hays: Deborah, please introduce yourself to our readers. 

Deborah Hamilton: I am the Strategic Services Librarian who oversees the Law Collection for Pikes Peak Library District in Colorado Springs.  I have been in this position for almost eight years.  Prior to taking this job, I had not worked in legal research, so this was a new subject to me.  For the past four years, I have been on the board of directors for the Justice Center, a legal services non-profit.  I served as both treasurer and chair.  I currently serve on the Fourth Judicial District’s Access to Justice Committee as vice-chair.  This committee works to break down barriers to the court system and legal services.   

I am originally from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.  I received my Master’s in Library and Information Science from the University of Washington in 2011.  After graduating, I relocated to Austin, Texas where I worked at UT’s Briscoe Center for American History and then the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.  In 2014, I moved up to Colorado Springs and began working at PPLD.  

Lauren Hays: Please share a brief summary of Helping Library Users with Legal Questions: Practical Advice for Research, Programming, and Outreach.  

Deborah Hamilton: My book provides an overview about the Justice Gap and why libraries are seeing an increased need for legal information.  In it, I cover how to conduct a legal reference interview, what to consider when developing a legal reference policy, and some suggestions for how to build a collection.  I also offer advice on where to look for community partnerships and suggestions for possible programs.  The second half of the book examines some basic legal research concepts and then discusses how to find laws for all three branches of government.   

Lauren Hays: What led to your desire to write this book? 

Deborah Hamilton: I had not been planning to write a book.  Since this was a new discipline to me, I suppose I felt a bit of imposter syndrome.  I was approached though by my editor from Libraries Unlimited, Jessica Gribble, at a conference where I was presenting a session on “Legal Reference for Beginners.”  She invited me to submit a proposal since she was hoping to publish a book on that topic.  I had been presenting quite a bit at local and state conferences because I felt that there was a need for people working in libraries to be comfortable in helping patrons with legal questions.  A lot of librarians tend to be uncomfortable with these types of questions because they do not want to accidentally provide legal advice and then be liable for the unauthorized practice of law.  However, we can provide patrons with access to legal information and connect patrons to legal services in our communities.  This is still an important service we can provide since there are a lot of people representing themselves in civil cases in the courts.  In civil cases, you do not have the right to an attorney if you cannot afford one.  So, we are starting to see in at least half of civil cases at least one party representing him or herself.  In family law matters that is closer to 80% and in landlord tenant cases it is usually over 90%.  When people have access to legal information and even limited legal services, they have much better outcomes in court.  It makes our judicial system more efficient and more fair to provide patrons with these resources.   

Lauren Hays: What are two tips from the book you hope all readers put into practice?  

Deborah Hamilton: First, learn who provides legal services in your community.  The bulk of the work that I do is to provide referrals to people.  Legal services can take a variety of forms, whether that is pro bono or low-cost legal representation, free legal clinics, self-help offices at your court. Most people really want to speak with an attorney or a legal professional, they are usually less interested in doing complex legal research on their own.   

Second, anyone can do this work.  While the law can be intimidating, you can teach yourself enough to point patrons where to look.  Since we cannot provide legal advice or interpret legal sources for patrons, I generally try to think in terms of where the patron might find an answer to the question, not what the answer to this question is.  Then you can provide the patron with a few different options for them to investigate.  This takes the pressure off you and puts the responsibility back onto the patron to research their own legal question.   

Lauren Hays: For librarians who want to add more legal resources to their library, where do you recommend they start?  

Deborah Hamilton: Books from the publisher Nolo are great because they are inexpensive, written for a lay audience, and cover a wide range of legal topics.  If you can afford it, I would also recommend purchasing a copy of your state’s statutes.  Keep in mind though that you will have to purchase updates for that set.  Most patrons have questions that pertain to state laws, like divorce, estate/probate, and landlord/tenant.  Lastly, a legal forms database can also be helpful.  This can provide patrons with free access to a variety of legal documents and templates.   

Lauren Hays: Are there any community partners that librarians can work with to assist library users with legal questions?

Deborah Hamilton: Yes, every community will be a little bit different in what is available.  One good place to start is https://www.lawhelp.org/.  There you can find both legal information as well as what organizations receive funding from Legal Services Corporation in your state.  There still might be other legal aid groups in your community, so I would also check with both your state and local bar associations.  If you live in a rural area, you might not have a legal aid office in your community, but there still might be statewide organizations that can offer remote or other limited services.   

You should also check with your courts.  Again, every state will be different.  But a good number of states will have self-help resources in their courts.  The scope of these resources will be different.  In some states though you might have court employees who can answer questions about court paperwork and procedures.   

Also check with other non-profits because they may offer legal services as part of the work that they do.  Check with domestic violence assistance providers, veteran’s assistance providers, senior assistance providers, groups that work with people with disabilities, etc.   

Lauren Hays: Is there anything else you would like to share?  

Deborah Hamilton: The biggest mistake that I see frequently is that librarians refuse to help at all with legal reference questions. I understand that the unauthorized practice of law seems intimidating and that the law is often very confusing and difficult to navigate. However, we do not need to be legal experts to offer patrons some kind of help. We can still connect patrons with where to find different types of information or where to go in the community to seek help. I try to think of the law like any other subject area that I am not familiar with. For example, if a patron comes in asking for diagrams on how to fix their car, I don’t refuse to help them just because I don’t understand cars. I show the patrons the automotive databases that we have and how to search them for what they are looking for. I think you can take a similar approach if you learn a little bit about the basic resources and where to refer people.

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

​Lauren Hays, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at the University of Central Missouri, and a frequent presenter on topics related to libraries and librarianship. Her expertise includes information literacy, educational technology, and library and information science education.  Please read Lauren’s other posts relevant to special librarians. And take a look at Lucidea’s powerful integrated library systems, SydneyEnterprise, and GeniePlus used daily by innovative special librarians in libraries of all types, sizes and budgets.

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