Legal Reference for Public Libraries: Questions to Ask

There are a few key questions you can ask your patron to help guide your choice of resources with which to start.

What are you trying to accomplish today? What is your goal?

Someone with a legal situation, whether simple or complicated, may try to provide you with as much information as possible. Often, they provide more detail than you really need (or want) to know. Rather than trying to respond to the full situation, it can be helpful to focus on one specific step. For example:

  • Say someone is going through a complicated debt situation that includes a foreclosure. They may be focused on the overall loss of the property, and not looking at the short-term goal of temporarily postponing the foreclosure sale or finding a place to move to for the short term. Asking what their immediate goal is helps point them, and you, to a limited question which you can address (for example, suggest they contact the Maryland Court Self-Help Center or MD HOPE to help with a court filing to postpone the sale, or suggest they contact 2-1-1 for information about housing assistance).

Focusing on one goal helps you to identify one or two resources, which in turn will help the patron take one or two steps towards their end goal.

Where is this happening?

When looking for legal information, location is a critical concept. Where an action takes place can impact which laws apply, where documents are filed, and other details. For example:

Do you have any paperwork? Would you mind if I looked at it?

You may be reluctant to ask this question, thinking you'll either learn more than you want to, or the patron will expect more from you than you can provide. However, legal terms can be confusing to the non-lawyer, and government structure is not always understood by the citizens who live within it. Briefly stated - people will get things wrong. If your patron is carrying paperwork related to the question they are asking, seeing the actual words used in that paperwork can help correct any errors in understanding the patron might have.

For example: Your patron wants you to tell him when his court date is. You hop onto the Maryland Judiciary's website and check the Case Search system for the patron's name. After trying all kinds of alternatives (misspellings, middle initials), the only court record you can identify for this patron is a traffic court appearance from eight years ago. Then you notice the papers in your patron's hands. Taking a look, you see that your patron has received a summons for jury service. Case Search lists parties to cases, not jurors. So you direct your patron to contact the jury office at the court for which they were summoned.

What have you already looked at? Who have you talk to so far?

Asking what or whom they have consulted so far serves a three-fold purpose:

Time Savings - You may be saved time in not duplicating work already completed. Most reference staff will review and possibly take a second look at sources already consulted, but it can be a time-saver to know the first look has been taken.

Level of Understanding - Knowing what your patron has looked at can help confirm the level of understanding of resources that your patron has, and thereby help you choose which sources to point them to next. For example:

  • If your patron indicates he has already consulted a legal treatise, you may be able to presume he is familiar with more advanced legal materials, and may accept a referral to a nearby public law library, staffed or unstaffed.

Topic Recognition - Sometimes, the patron does not use language you recognize as a particular area of law. If you ask where they have looked, and they indicate several sources, those sources may help you determine what the topic or area of law is, and therefore help point you to the next set of resources. For example:

  • Your patron asks about the procedure for kinship care. You think perhaps they are asking about guardianship, but aren't sure of the context, so you ask what they have consulted so far. Your patrons says they have asked their local school, but the school wasn't helpful or didn't have a form. This demonstrates to you that kinship care is related to school, or education, so you check the Maryland People's Law Library, under the Education topic, and see a link to School Enrollment and Informal Kinship Care Arrangements. Looking at the information page, you note a link to further Kinship Care Resources.

Are you in court already or are you planning to be in court? Do you know what court you are in?

Certain resources apply to certain courts. If you are able to identify which court a patron's situation is or would be in, you can point them to more accurate and specific resources. For example:

  • Your patron is a minor asking if they have any say in which parent gets custody in their divorce. You know that divorce is a "family law" matter, which is in the Circuit Court, so you can point your patron to the Family Law Self-Help Center at the local Circuit Court.
  • Your patron is upset that their landlord isn't fixing the hot water problem in their apartment. You know that landlord/tenant matters are in District Court, so you can point your patron to the District Court Self-Help Center as well as to the District Court website for more information.

The above examples are pretty straight-forward, unlike many reference questions, and there are certainly many more resources that could help for those questions. But knowing the court helps speed the interaction along.

Make sure to educate yourself about the basics of state and federal court structure.

There are a few easily-identifiable details that can point you and your patron to the right place. For Maryland state courts, these include:

Courts Lists

Ask questions to help identify the topic or issue.

This sounds obvious, but always bears a mention. A reference interaction will include the asking of multiple questions aimed at determining what and how much information is needed. Part of this determination includes identifying the topic, first general, then more specific, about which information is needed. This is a process, and is not always arrived at with one or two questions.

Remember your reference behaviors checklist, specifically the part about admitting to ignorance. You can't know everything about everything. A librarian's strength is in knowing how to find information. A vital part in finding information is asking questions.


Last revised 05/09/2018