Putting a Spotlight on Civics Education: How Law Librarians Are Helping to Bridge the Access to Justice Gap

Law librarians have long ensured access to authentic legal information resources to legal professionals, enabling them to practice and uphold the law as a service to our greater communities. However, as our communities become increasingly divided by socioeconomic factors, the justice gap has widened, forcing vulnerable communities to seek their own remedies to protect their rights. Libraries “universally provide part of the social fabric that makes people feel involved and connected with their culture,” and law libraries provide a unique blend of resources and services to facilitate engagement in the legal system (Ursula Gorham and Paul T. Jaeger, Law Library Journal, 109:1 [2017-2] p. 61). Law librarians in public and academic law libraries are utilizing their skills as innovators and educators to help bridge the justice gap by making the legal system a comprehensible and accessible part of our communities.

Law librarians are utilizing their skills to help bridge the justice gap by making the legal system an accessible part of 
our communities. Photo - MICHAL JARMOLUK FROM PIXABAY

Understanding the Justice Gap

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) defines the justice gap as the difference between the civil legal needs of low-income Americans and the resources available to meet those needs.

While the LSC provides funding and support to legal services organizations across the country to assist the public with legal representation, the justice gap goes far beyond a lack of funds to hire an attorney. Other barriers to accessing justice include language, literacy, available time, and a lack of basic understanding of civics. In fact, many citizens do not have enough legal knowledge to know whether their problem is even a legal issue.

Law librarians and legal information professionals understand it may be difficult and intimidating to handle legal affairs without a legal education or experience. Public law libraries and academic law libraries that are open to the public strive to provide a safe place for vulnerable groups to learn and explore the legal system and its resources, understand civics, and learn how to engage in meaningful access to justice. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg supports the notion that libraries are vital to the infrastructure of a healthy society. In his book Palaces for the People, he states, “Everyday life in libraries is a democratic experiment, and people cram into libraries to participate in it whenever the doors are open” (2019, Crown; reprint edition, p. 46). He further states that for librarians, “helping people find more than they’re looking for is the essence of the job” (p. 50).

Continuous improvement in access to justice is a core value of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL). The 2014 Law Libraries and Access to Justice report provides an in-depth look at the role of law libraries in access to justice and how law librarians work to engage the public in legal participation. At approximately 4,000 members strong, the AALL is working in institutions of all types: academic, law firm, government, courts, and public law libraries. They work cooperatively as advocates for legislation and regulations that promote equitable and permanent public access to trustworthy legal information and provide access in their institutions and communities to improve legal literacy. Additionally, law librarians understand that access to justice is key to ensuring diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within the legal system. Law librarians are passionate legal information professionals who have created a variety of resources, outreach programs, and partnerships to engage the public in civics education to help bridge the justice gap.

How Law Libraries Are Working to Close the Gap

Many public law libraries offer free, in-person, and virtual programs to introduce the basics of legal research to encourage understanding of and participation in the legal system. During the pandemic, the Law Library of Congress expanded its work to promote literacy and civics education in American, foreign, and comparative law. According to Law Librarian of Congress Aslihan Bulut, “The Law Library of Congress transitioned its in-person classes on U.S., foreign, comparative, and international law to a webinar-based format via our newly established Law Library of Congress Legal Research Institute. This initiative allowed us to build new relationships with affinity groups around the world and post record attendance at our webinars and events.”

Similarly, the Law Library Association of St. Louis (LLAS), a public law library in St. Louis, Missouri, recently offered a free program called “Legal Research 101: A Guide for Non-Lawyers.” The one-hour course introduced legal resources available for nonlawyers and how to use them to understand and address legal issues. Participants learned the basics of the legal research process, including defining legal issues, primary and secondary sources, available print and online resources, and finding further assistance in the legal community. The program was recorded and is available here.

Law libraries also offer educational programs with local community partners to encourage and explain participation in civics. The San Francisco Law Library (SFLL) partners with local agencies such as the San Francisco Department of Elections and the Office of the Public Defender to educate the public on voting rights and urgent topics such as immigration rights, racial justice, and bail reform. All SFLL programs are free, and many of them are recorded for viewing anytime. The AALL’s website also provides voting resources for members and nonmembers, including information about registering to vote, finding your polling place, and requesting absentee and mail-in ballots.

Research guides offer another access point for law librarians to reach out to the public with educational legal information. The San Diego Law Library’s Civics 101: Understanding Where Law Comes From guide provides basic information about the U.S. legal system and where laws originate. Users are offered an overview of the U.S. legal system in a variety of formats, such as text, graphics, and videos, to satisfy different learning experiences. The San Diego Law Library’s COVID-19 Legal Issues page, which recently won an AALL Excellence in Community Engagement Award, presents and simplifies complex legal issues the public is facing during the COVID-19 pandemic. The guide presents plain-language explanations and resources on topics, such as employment and housing, and an estate planning section called “Getting Your Affairs in Order,” which explains how to compile sensitive documents to protect the legal interests of your family. The guide is available in English and Spanish to all.

Law Librarian Outreach

Because the legal system is often a mystery to the public, and many people are not aware they even have a legal issue, law librarians reach out to community partners to broaden the reach of law libraries and educate partners on legal resources and questions. The Thurgood Marshall State Law Library of Maryland created the Law on the Frontlines Project to train public librarians on legal reference and civics. Recognizing that legal reference work constitutes a specialized area of knowledge and resources, the Frontlines Project aims to “help the generalist at a public library to recognize and respond to questions about and for the law.” By training public librarians on the basics of legal reference and government structure, they are better equipped to assist the public in legal matters and refer them to law librarians as needed. To further expand their reach, the Ramsey County Law Library in St. Paul, Minnesota, presents a regular legal research program directly to the public at the local St. Paul Public Library. The program highlights authentic federal, state, and local legal resources, as well as how to start legal research and find legal forms. Topics include popular areas such as family law, the court system, and criminal expungement. Bringing the law to the public can help remove barriers of uncertainty and intimidation.

Law librarians also use their legal expertise to participate in outreach programs to educate high school students about the law and social justice. In March 2021, AALL members Marjorie Crawford, criminal justice librarian at Rutgers University Law School Library, and Yolanda Jones, law library director and professor of law at Florida A&M University (FAMU), coordinated a program for students of the Social Justice Academy at Central High School in Newark, New Jersey, as part of their Story Telling for Justice program. Together with Professor Reginald Mitchell, also from FAMU, they told the story of Virgil Hawkins and the history of segregation in the Florida University System, which Hawkins fought to desegregate. Crawford spoke about her personal experiences in the civil rights movement, and Jones spoke about the FAMU Law Library Virgil Hawkins Civil Rights Archive, including the presentation of a short documentary from the archive, A Lawyer Made in Heaven, which was narrated by the Hon. Barbara Jordan. The school principal acknowledged their contribution as “much needed professional development to enrich the cultural competency of our staff and students,” and that the presentation, “directly improve(d) the lives of Newark students.” Crawford is actively working to coordinate more programs between the Social Justice Academy and Rutgers Law School, including bringing the students to the law school campus to participate in moot court and get a snapshot of law school life.

The Future of Civics Education

The above examples are but a few of the many ways law librarians participate in facilitating engagement in civics from law libraries across the country. We are community-minded legal information innovators, educators, and facilitators who continuously seek opportunities to engage with others in providing access to justice. The AALL has established the Advancing Access to Justice (AA2J) Special Committee, which is working to promote the work of law librarians and legal information professionals and their vital role in access to justice. The committee’s goal is to highlight AALL’s commitment to DEI initiatives and efforts; equitable and permanent public access to trustworthy legal information; and continuous improvement in access to justice. The committee is also tasked with gathering and presenting a central repository for the access to justice tools and resources created by AALL members and the association to make them publicly available to all. By promoting its efforts and resources, the AALL hopes to expand its reach to more citizens and community partners.

While the pandemic continues to influence our lives and alter the way we conduct business, law librarians remain dedicated to offering online environments and engaging in new partnerships to provide access to legal resources and services to patrons. Through innovations in electronic access, virtual programs, and creative negotiations with legal resource providers, law librarians ensure that vital access to legal information remains through this time of crisis. Law libraries are “the kinds of places where ordinary people with different backgrounds, passions, and interests can take part in a living democratic culture,” (Eric Klinenberg, p. 220), and law librarians are central to that work.

Editor’s Note: This article is republished with permission of the author with first publication by the ABA – Vol. 47, No. 2: The State of Civic Education in America.

Posted in: Civil Liberties, Education, Human Rights, KM, Law Librarians, Legal Research