Legal Reference for Public Libraries: The Legal Reference Interaction


A reference interview or interaction for a legal question is conducted in much the same way any reference interview would be. One main difference separates general reference from legal reference:

  • Public library staff are trained to ANSWER questions.
  • Public law library staff are trained to RESPOND to questions.

Most often, an answer to a legal question requires some level of interpretation - determining how the law might apply to the specific circumstances provided by the patron. As information experts, librarians can provide information to the patron, but not advice - which means, most of the time you are responding rather than answering. Law librarians rarely ask, "Does this fully answer your question?"

Determining where the line is between information and advice is covered on the training element, Distinguishing Between Information and Advice.

Reference Behaviors

Legal reference behaviors mirror general reference behaviors. The behaviors you use in other interactions work with legal interactions as well. Review the RUSA Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers.

  • Be kind and approachable.
    Make the patron feel comfortable. People with questions or concerns about law-related matters are often scared, angry, confused, frustrated, or all of the above. Your initial response sets the tone for the interaction.
  • Keep an open mind; don't judge.
    Legal problems can show people at their worst. They are trying to make the best decision for themselves, often with little understanding of the process and factors involved. How you might approach the problem in your own life does not have any weight in this situation.
  • Listen patiently.
    Sometimes the patron will need to vent a little. Often they are feeling unheard. Your listening skills may be the single most critical factor in the patron feeling helped and heard.
  • Admit to ignorance.
    Let them know they aren't alone in not knowing the information, then reassure them that, as an information professional, you are an expert at locating resources.
  • Apply your searching skills.
    Ask where they have already looked; explain your strategy; work with the patron to evaluate the results; explain how they can use the resources themselves.
  • Remember that a referral is an excellent information resource.
    Referring someone elsewhere is not a failure to assist, in it connecting someone with the best resource to help them.

Practice Tips for Legal Reference

  • Always start with what you CAN do, not with what you can't
    For example, "As a librarian, I can help locate information resources that may help; only an attorney can apply that information to your set of circumstances." Say right up front that you can help locate resources, provide referrals, and demonstrate how to use indexes and online databases. Play to your strengths - offer resources, demonstrate how to use them. Keep in mind that people with questions about legal problems are often angry, frustrated, and scared. Starting with what you can provide helps temper and calm those emotions.
  • Set reasonable limits on what you can provide.
    Establishing limits helps manage the patron's expectations, right up front. Let them know the kinds of materials you can provide. Make sure they understand they might need an attorney (see above). Your library system may have other limits - costs, time, formats. If you can tell, right away, that these may limit what you can provide, tell the patron.
  • Draft sample scripts so you can respond quickly and calmly.
    Practice saying the scripts repeatedly, until they become easy to verbalize. This way, if you are feeling pressure during an interaction, you do not need to be nervous that you will trip up and say the wrong thing.
  • Remind yourself that it's okay not to solve someone's problems.
    If someone came to the reference desk upset that their dog walker had just cancelled an hour before she was expected, would you feel obligated to walk the patron's dog? Or would you offer her a local phone directory and suggest looking under dog walking services?

Distinguishing Between Information and Advice

See discussion, examples, and resources.

Rephrasing the Question

See discussion, examples, and resources.


Last revised 10/26/2018