trust your online “virtual reference” librarian


        An article last week in the Washington Post is headlined “Web Searches Go Low-Tech: You Ask, a Person Answers” (by Yuki Noguchi, Aug. 16, 2006; pointer from TVCAlert).  After describing efforts by Yahoo and other companies to connect people with questions with human beings who will assist in finding answers, the reporter worries:

  QuestionDudeN  “[S]uch projects raise their own big questions: Will users trust the advice of volunteers, and is this new form of sharing information online useful and accurate?” 

The WaPo article correctly notes that “the whole system rests on the integrity and reliability of people who donate their time and knowledge.”  This is a great opportunity for SHLEP to remind readers that (1) public law libraries in numerous states already offer similar online search assistance from human beings for those looking for answers to legal questions [offering help with researching and finding relevant information and not, of course, giving legal advice]; and (2) you can trust that they will provide “useful and accurate” virtual reference services, because the reference librarians are professionals trained in the business of answering research queries and of knowledge management in the legal field.       

Gail Warren, of the Virginia State Law Library has given a good description of Virtual [or Chat] Reference services offered by law libraries, and how they can help assure access to justice for the self-represented, in a piece called “Reaching Out to Self-Represented Litigants Through Virtual Reference and Education” (National Center for State Court, 2004):

GuidedSupport.gif  “What is virtual reference?  Not long ago, a visit to the law library was required for access to legal reference assistance. Even if the law library maintained a variety of electronic resources, many available remotely to library users, most conversations with the law librarian occurred in the law library. Self-represented litigants with questions about how to use their state’s code or how to locate a relevant case might have to take time off from work to visit the law library during the day or attempt to use the materials in the law library while accompanied by their young children. E-mail reference services improved services by allowing patrons to submit questions at their convenience, from a location of their choosing—no matter the time of day. Of course, patrons would have to wait for the library to open before receiving any response from a library employee. If the librarian’s response triggered other questions, patrons would need to submit a second e-mail message and, again, wait for the answer. Virtual reference, also referred to as chat reference, takes this exchange one step closer to traditional library reference services by offering live digital reference—that is, a librarian will seek to assist individuals through a live digital ‘conversation”’much like an in-person reference session.  During this electronic conversation, the law librarian will guide patrons to resources relevant to their questions and, often, will recommend that individuals visit their closest public law library for information not available online.” After describing programs available in several states, Warren concludes:         

        Expanding law library services to include virtual reference and educational opportunities to meet the needs of the self-represented litigant is a trend that will continue to grow. The ability of the professional law librarian to explain and clarify the process of legal research or to assist a patron who is trying to access the world of legal information on the Web is essential to the self-represented litigant’s successful navigation of the courtroom and the judicial process.  What is the role of the law library when providing services for self-represented litigants? Perhaps Frank Broccolina, Maryland state court administrator, says it best:                  “Public law libraries are . . .  an increasingly critical resource for self-represented litigants engaged in the judicial process. The role of the public courthouse library must not be overlooked as a legitimate gateway to an individual’s access to justice.”


onlineHelp.gif  Check out the following websites for access to Virtual/Chat Reference Services in a number of states:

  • The AskNow program of the California Courts Online Selp-Help Center, which “lets you ask questions and get answers, in real time, right here on the Internet, from live law librarians throughout California.”  (find more Ask a Law Librarian examples from California in this pdf document.)
  •  Librarian services from the Massacusetts Trial Court Law Libraries, which offer Chat Live with a librarian!(with the reminder “Please keep in mind that your response will be from a librarian, trained to help you find information. If you need legal advice, please go to Find a Lawyer to search for an attorney.”), as well as E-Mail a Librarian (using this simple form) and Call a Librarian services.
  • Legal Centers of West Virginia has a prominently-displayed Ask A Librarian button on its website.
  • The King County Law Library [Seattle, WA] also offers e-mail and chat reference services, under the inspiring tagline “Without access to information, there is no justice.”


  1. Eve Ricaurte, Pro Se Coordinator, Iowa Legal Aid

    September 13, 2006 @ 9:47 am


    In addition to the examples described above, Montana Legal Services Association and Iowa Legal Aid now offer LiveHelp chat assistance on the statewide legal information and referral websites and
    LiveHelp uses LivePerson’s Timpani software ( Funding has been provided by the Legal Services Corporation through Technology Initiative Grants as well as by project partners, Montana Legal Services Association, Iowa Legal Aid, and Pro Bono Net.

    The goals of this project are
    • To enable low-income persons to find and better use the legal information available online and to more easily access legal aid intake and services.
    • To improve the overall quality of the content and user experience for all LawHelp Web site visitors.

    Disclaimers are given before the chat begins so users of LiveHelp understand that the use of the chat feature does not establish an attorney/client relationship and that operators cannot give legal advice, only legal information.

    The LiveHelp staff can:
    • Send the visitor a link to a specific resource through the chat box.
    • Escort the visitor to a particular page on the Web site using a co-browse feature.
    • Direct pro se litigants to forms and information not only on the LawHelp web site, but also on other sites, such as court web sites.
    • Send information in other languages, such as Spanish, and translate information for visitors, as needed.

    Future tests of the LiveHelp service will include:
    • LiveHelp- assisted online intake for visitors to apply for assistance from Iowa Legal Aid.
    • Cross-jurisdiction assistance where LiveHelp operators staff LiveHelp chats for two or more states. This may be especially valuable in disaster response situations.
    • Review of web resources online with clients in conjunction with brief services on an intake and advice hotline.
    • LiveHelp to assist pro bono attorneys on the Georgia LawHelp advocate site,

    Interested readers of this blog can find out more about LiveHelp in this FAQ from Montana Legal Services Association:

  2. shlep

    September 13, 2006 @ 11:13 am


    Eve, Thank you for a very informative Comment. Please come back regularly with your insights.

  3. Laura the Law Librarian

    March 19, 2007 @ 11:54 am


    First, you don’t always have to find a LAW library that offers virtual reference service in order to get virtual legal reference. A lot of law librarians (there are at least two of us in Oregon) participate through their statewide public library virtual reference services. Our own law libraries are too small to set up our own virtual reference service, but we still want to contribute. People with legal questions might talk or email first with a generalist librarian, but they are then given the option to have their question passed along to a specialist law librarian. So, sometimes all you need to do is to email or Chat with your own public library’s virtual reference service. If the answer isn’t satisfactory, ask for a specialist.

    Second, this (above) is not to say your virtual law librarian is going to “answer” the question. An awful lot (meaning about 99%) of “legal questions” put to us in virtual reference situations need to be researched by the person doing the asking or by an attorney. Your law librarian can help focus the research, recommend good legal research resources, help you use those resources, and make referrals to advocates or others who might be able to answer the question. The last point about local referrals is another reason to make full use of your LOCAL library’s resources before emailing a law librarian half-way across the country with a question about your own city’s and state’s laws. Your local librarians will know more about the full range of legal and non-legal resources available. But we do operate outside our geographic limits when we need to, which is what virtual reference is all about :-)

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