Legal Reference for Public Libraries: Distinguishing Between Information and Advice

There are many resources to help library staff distinguish between legal information and legal advice (linked below). The line is often blurry. Law librarians and even attorneys do not always agree on where the line is. The tips below can help you recognize the difference.

People think of the public library as a place to find answers. With legal reference, many times you will not be finding an answer, but rather providing a response. That response will include information, but may not be specifically an answer.

What is the difference between advice and information?


  • Requires careful analysis of the law as it applies to a person's specific situation
  • May affect someone's rights and responsibilities
  • Keeps the decision-making in OUR hands


  • Lets the other person know what possibilities are out there
  • Educates the person about a topic without limiting options
  • Puts the decision-making in THEIR hands

Exercise Your Skills

Librarians have a skill set that is particularly helpful with legal reference. Our strength is in our ability to teach people how to use resources, to lead them to and through materials that will help inform them. To state this more directly:

Librarians can...

  • Help find resources and information to help with understanding legal problems and options
  • Demonstrate how to use those resources
  • Educate someone about what is in those legal information resources
  • Suggest visiting a court library, where a broader range of resources may be available
  • Direct someone to legal professionals or legal service providers who are equipped to offer interpretation and advice

Librarians cannot tell someone...

  • What a law means (you CAN read them the text of the law)
  • What choice to make between two or more options, or give an opinion about which choice should be made
  • What the outcome of a court date might be
  • If a court decision is relevant to their situation
  • What form to use or what to write in a form or document (however, most courts allow a non-attorney to fill in blanks for a disabled patron, as long as the librarian sticks to the exact wording of the patron - check with your library system before do so to make sure you comply with institutional policies)
  • Which lawyer to go to (unless your library serves as the contact for your county bar association's Lawyer Referral Service)

Further Resources

Maryland Courts Access to Justice Department, What Can I Do to Help You
The What Can I Do materials include a booklet, desk card and poster, as well as a training video. The aim of the materials is to aid court staff in serving the public, but is also helpful to librarian as the distinguishing line is the same.

Southern California Association of Law Libraries (SCALL), Locating the Law: A Handbook for Non-Law Librarians, 5th ed. rev., Chapter 4: Legal Reference vs. Legal Advice
This resource provides an excellent summary of the why and the how: why the difference matters, and how to distinguish. Concrete examples of questions that fall on both sides of the line are offered. The material is directed at California librarians, but the overview and sample questions apply generally.

Findlaw's What Is 'Legal Advice'? provides additional illustrations as to what falls into each category.

Get training on how to distinguish information from advice, and learn how to turn an advice question into an information request to which you and your staff can respond. In-person training is available upon request from the Thurgood Marshall State Law Library (contact the reference desk) and other members of the Conference of Maryland Circuit Court Law Library Directors.

Last revised 05/04/2018