The most popular reference question people ask librarians, both law and public librarians, is “is it legal?” Is it legal for me to copy this DVD, is it legal for me to evict my roommate, is it legal for the kennel to refuse to take my dog, is it legal for my HOA to remove my “vote for x” sign from my front lawn, is it legal for me to have sex with my friend, is it legal for me not to pay this bill, is it legal for the hospital to stop treatment as soon as they find out I don’t have insurance, is it legal for my employer to tell me I can’t have time off to do volunteer work, etc., etc., etc.
The most common variation on the “is it legal” question is the “can s/he do that to me?” question. “S/he” may be a landlord, an employer, a partner, a bus driver, a parent, a teacher, a traffic cop, etc. and sometimes it is prefaced with variations on “s/he done me wrong.” Apart from the fact that I always itch to say, “don’t you mean ‘is it LAWFUL?’” (but I don’t do that because snarkiness isn’t nice and besides I know what the person means and mostly because I really admire people who are brave enough to come into a law library – it is a very intimidating place), I am also full of wonder at how many people live on the edge of lawfulness and unlawfulness. My life just isn’t that exciting. Maybe I have to work on that.
Anyway, I bet public librarians get this “is it legal?” question much more than law librarians, though I have no facts to back this up – but librarians can make themselves really believable at times (trust me). Our credibility comes from all our practice solemnly swearing that “yes, I too would wear that tin foil hat, but our evil bosses who are in cahoots with the All Powerful won’t let us.” Follow this up with a loud sigh, and after a brief interval (librarians learn about this Magic Interval in Library School) we then perk up and ask, “now, how may I help you today?”
Yesterday all I got in exchange for a, “may I help you find something” was a “quit bugging me or I’ll sue you. I never liked women anyway.” Very scary to the lawyer who overheard it (“he threatened you!”) and the behavior preceding the remark but most of us in my profession shrug – though don’t confuse that with not being alert. We’ve all seen worse, much worse. This man’s behavior notched my heart rate up a few beats, but nothing beyond that. Yes, we have seen worse, where we have to back up slowly, scan for sharp objects, and check out the escape routes.
I did post a few days ago about the subject of mental illness in libraries, but it struck me today as I read the local papers on my morning commute that we can no longer go a single day without a serious news story online or in print on our failure to find our way through the complexity and sadness of mental illnesses. I’m lucky to work in a county where the Judges talk to the Sheriff and they all talk with the County Commissioners about how to coordinate their efforts, put the brakes on jailing people with mental illness, get housing and medical care for people who need it, etc., but even with all that effort problems, huge problems remain.
So why aren’t the most commonly asked questions in the law library:
How do laws get made?
How can I change the laws?
Would changing the law help?
What are my elected officials supposed to be doing?
How do I make a difference?
We do get these on occasion, but not enough, which is why law librarians can be very sneaky. Whenever someone comes into the law library with that “is it legal?” question, we take the opportunity to slip in a, “do you know where these laws come from? Let me show you.”
Education with a smile, if you will.
Power to the librarians – raising the level of civics knowledge everywhere.