Legal Reference for Public Libraries: Choosing and Making Referrals

Sometimes a patron needs more than you can provide, in resources, time or understanding. When you have reached the limit of your ability to help in a meaningful way, it is time to refer the patron to a further resource.

Why to Refer

Why would we refer someone elsewhere rather than keep looking for an answer? As librarians, we do our best service when we link a patron with a need to the resource that best fits that need. That may not always be us. The patron may be able to get a faster or fuller response elsewhere; our best service, then, is connecting the patron to "elsewhere".

When to Refer

There are several clear indicators for when to point your patron to another helpful location:

  • You hit a roadblock in your own knowledge, or feel you might be missing something
  • It will take you a significant amount of time to locate a response
  • The patron refuses to accept the information you have provided as adequate or appropriate

Where to Refer

There is considerable overlap in what different types of legal assistance entities do to help. Broadly speaking, they fall into six categories:

Government Agencies

Often, questions that sound like they are about law are really about handling a matter with a government agency. If you can identify the government agency and locate contact information, you have connected your patron with the resource best able to answer not only the question asked but also any follow-up questions.

Examples include:

Questions about taxes (state or federal): both the Maryland Comptroller and the IRS have extensive information and contacts on their websites.

  • How do I know if I'm eligible for an Earned Income Tax Credit?
  • Do I need to pay employment tax for my nanny?

Questions about motor vehicle registration and driver licensing: the Maryland MVA's website is very helpful.

  • I have a license from another country, how do I get a driver's license in the United States?
  • How long do I have after moving to Maryland before I need to re-title my vehicle?

Questions about license requirements for professions: start with the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing & Regulation's Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing. Their Quick Links provide access to numerous business and professional licensing requirements.

  • What kind of license do I need to open a sporting goods store?
  • Who do I call about my construction license?

Social Services

Like government agency questions, social services (some of which are government agencies, some of which are not-for-profits) can help with questions that may sound like legal questions but are really about solving a particular problem. And like agencies, if you can connect the patron with an appropriate social services entity, you have provided not just assistance for the question asked but with assistance for related matters going forward.

Examples include:

  • Questions about child support enforcement: the Child Support Enforcement Agency connects people to local CSEA offices for assistance.
  • Questions about innumerable benefits like help buying food or paying energy bills, or obtaining medical assistance: the Maryland Department of Human Resources connects to these services through its website, and offers an 800-number for questions.
  • Questions about immigration, disability claims, and innumerable other topics: there are many more agencies that can be listed here. An excellent way to locate an assistance agency is through the Maryland People's Law Library Legal Services Directory.

Law Libraries

Because law library staff handle law questions regularly, they have the experience to address questions about legal matters with targeted materials and referrals. Law library collections contain a broad range of resources on the law, general and specific, many of which cannot be found in a public library. For example, most public law libraries have free public access to legal databases (Lexis, Westlaw, and others), as well as print materials like the Maryland Law Encyclopedia and extensive forms books to help patrons locate appropriate forms (see Finding Legal Forms for more information). Law librarians are happy to work with generalist colleagues in getting the patron's needs addressed. Maryland is fortunate to have a number of public law libraries throughout the state.

Examples include questions that ask about the law in an area, in a more descriptive fashion, such as:

  • What is the law governing taking photographs in a public place?
  • What does the law say about searching student lockers?
  • What is the law about discharging a firearm on private property?
  • What laws regulate cemeteries?

Self-Help Centers

Self-help centers come in many forms. They may or may not be staffed. Some are staffed by librarians, others by legal professionals, or both. Self-help centers are organized to address the needs of the self-represented patron (whether litigant or not). There may be extensive signage, print finding aids, computer interfaces and other aids to help point the untrained patron to helpful legal materials. They often have forms collections. Self-help centers are especially good referrals for motivated and independent patrons. They are most often intended to provide short-term assistance - a brief discussion of processes and next steps, and references to information materials and/or forms to help the patron/litigant move forward.


Legal Clinics

Legal clinics are staffed by legal professionals who are able to offer analysis of a patron's legal situation. Clinics may have short-term or sometimes longer-term relationships with patrons (clients). Many specialize in an area of the law, like criminal, or landlord-tenant, or disability. Some are restricted to low-income persons, but many are open to all.

Examples of good questions to send to a legal clinic include:

  • Procedural questions for court actions, like the Self-Help Centers, but usually with more hands-on assistance.
  • I need help figuring out what to write in my motion.
  • Family law questions, again like the Self-Help Centers
  • How can I set up a guardianship for my aging parent?
  • My landlord isn't doing anything about the roach problem in my apartment, what are my options?


Lawyers have the ability to analyze legal situations for possibilities and to identify options within the specific circumstances, as well as offer an opinion as to the merits of each option. It may feel like you are excusing yourself from assisting, but in many situations a lawyer is the best possible option for your patron. There are a number of resources available to help you help a patron locate an attorney, and many options within those resources to accommodate expenses (note below in the Resources for Referring, the option for limited scope assistance). The Public Library Toolkit can point you to the best starting resources.

Examples of questions that need an attorney's input:

  • Tort questions, like personal or product liability (think "damages"). Issues in tort claims are complicated, often governed by case law, and require interpretive assistance. For a better understanding of the range, see the Cornell Legal Information Institute's entry on Torts. See also the Maryland People's Law Library on Maryland Personal Injury Law.
  • Contract questions. Like torts, contract law is quite complicated. For descriptive information on why, see the Maryland People's Law Library on Contracts.

Practice Tips

  • Make and keep at hand a list of frequent referrals, organized in the order you find the quickest and most useful.
  • If you are not sure what referral to use, law libraries make a quick and excellent contact.

Resources for Referring
These make great starting places:

Last revised 05/08/2018