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Homesteading Whatchamallit or The Perils of Providing Email Legal Reference Service to Non-Attorneys

A posting a while ago on Shlep reminded me of this: Non-attorney patrons often ask for legal information the way I ask for things at the automotive-parts store. We both use the wrong words, lots of gestures, tell confusing stories of things gone wrong, and do our darnedest to communicate a problem in search of a solution to someone who we hope and pray has a clue what we are talking about. (You can see why the Car-Guys are geniuses. They do all this over the phone. They are too smart to try and do it by email so why are we trying? Legal reference, unless it’s of the simple Q&A variety, which it seldom is, is not meant for email, though we continue to try our best.)

For example, I recently had a 3rd-hand email legal reference request from someone who wanted “homesteading forms.” When someone is here in my library, in-person with flesh-and-blood and facial-expression, it can take a little time but we can usually figure out what someone really needs or wants (yes, there is a difference). Second-hand and beyond can get a little tricky, which is why email legal reference work is fraught with all sorts of perils. It’s hard enough explaining to people that seldom are there any easy answers in the law, no irrefutable answers, even fewer checklists, and whether or not the sentence will be 3 months probation or 10 years hard-time or whether or not the statute of limitations has tolled, but to have to translate the question over the “Internet Pipes” 3rd-hand can make even a determined public law librarian’s head hurt. We just want to help, but sometimes it can take a really long time and sometimes there just isn’t an answer. And there we are on the front line, taking the heat for the court, the lawyers, and the legislators who are probably most to blame but the furthest away at the crucial moment.

Anyway, back to homesteading. If a non-law librarian (or even an unsuspecting attorney or civil servant) is asked for “homesteading forms,” does s/he know what the law librarian knows, which is that you have to find out if the person means forms from the now repealed Homesteading Act of 1862, an adverse possession case, or even a homestead exemption in a bankruptcy action. (I’m sure there are other possibilities too – there is no end to the creativity of the non-attorney, and this can include newspaper reporters who also sometimes make my head swim.) All of these inquiries have presented themselves to law librarians in the form of “I need homesteading forms.”

I tell public librarians when I teach them how to respond to legal research questions, remember the old joke about the 5 year old who comes home and asks her mother where she came from. The mother groans inwardly and resigns herself to answering the Birds & the Bees question she has always prepared for but also always dreaded. Five minutes later, her 5 year old said, “I don’t understand. My friend Sally said she came from Chicago and I wanted to know where I came from.”

See, there is such a thing as being too clever. Never answer any reference question right away. And always answer a legal reference question (or the Where Did I Come From question) with at least one and maybe even one-hundred other questions. And no, I don’t always take my own advice. I have the scars to prove it too.

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