Patrons are asking for it.
- Do you have this book?”
- Where can I find this information?
- How can I use a computer?
and (the most important question for many in our community)
- Can YOU help me use the computer to do…?
Staff at the Alameda County Law Library, because it is a public library, regularly answers these more traditional types of library questions. We also answer not-so-traditional, issue–specific information questions related to law. Public librarians at a city public library, such as the Oakland Public Library, stretch the furthest across the information universe. Those of us who work at subject-focused special libraries, like ACLL, can go deep into a topic. ACLL’s focus is on legal information – local, California, federal – but that still has us covering quite a bit of information territory.
Libraries disseminate information. ACLL staff members are experienced in helping people find, retrieve, and share legal information – via a page in a book, a view on a computer screen, a download to a USB, or an attachment to an email. Our job not only involves finding the text of information but assisting a patron in the delivery of the information to a file or to others. What patrons do with the information is up to them. Librarians do not provide a legal interpretation for any information retrieved since that would be providing legal advice.
What kinds of questions are we asked at ACLL? Most of our patrons are non-attorneys (about 80%), so it is no surprise that one of the more popular questions is along the lines of “how can I talk to an attorney for free?” We do not have attorneys on staff at ACLL but we provide information on legal aid organizations, area clinics, and FAQs written by attorneys. ACLL currently administers the countywide program, Lawyers in the Library. It is a legal aid program that provides 20-minute free consultations with volunteer members of the CA State Bar.
At ACLL, questions involving civil law and court procedures are asked at about a 4 to 1 ratio in comparison to criminal law questions. Questions range from the basic “How do I file a lawsuit?” to “I need the form to complete something called a writ of mandate.” In the law library, as in life, some simple questions do not have simple answers. Family law comes next on the list of frequently asked about topics. Family law covers marriage, divorce, child custody, and financial support. Modern families come in many varieties. The law is constantly adapting to the realities of our societal units and interactions. Facebook posts used as evidence in a contested marital dissolution matter would be a case in point. We have patrons on both sides of the issues for landlord-tenant cases (which include unlawful detainer actions and evictions.) Real estate or real property ownership questions are popular, whether it is adding a person’s name to property or an issue with a neighbor’s fence.
Much staff effort is directed at trying to sort out the issues from the facts and emotions during the reference interview to allow staff to direct patrons to the most helpful resource. Families can have other types of issues between members that are outside the area of “family law” as the courts and codes define it. Patrons might need to be directed towards probate or trusts and estates materials. (Fold family emotional issues into real property matters then mix well with trusts and estates procedures. Careful, it is combustible.)
Reference librarians love an interesting question – one that makes them say – “That’s a new one on me.” There are too many of these interesting topics handled by the ACLL librarians to list them all but the chart below summarizes the topics most frequently asked over the past few years here at ACLL.