Public Access Libraries: An American Institution

BY: Theodore Pollack Senior Law Librarian New York County Public Access Law Library

The United States Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal….” Perhaps no more beautiful words have ever been written. However, self-represented litigants who are attempting to protect their rights, often discover the vast gulf between the political platitude and the reality of becoming self-educated attorneys competing against trained litigators before the courts.

In order to bridge this gulf, self-represented litigants look to a variety of resources. New York State established by statute the existence of a public access law library in each New York State county. These libraries are part of the New York State Unified Court System and are charged with providing access to legal materials in the hope of making the legal process more equitable and transparent. Legal databases, case reporters, encyclopedias, codes all provide a means for the self-represented litigant to learn the law and educate him/herself.

“Law sharpens the tongue and narrows the mind,” Edmund Burke humorously said of the evolutionary process involved in studying the law. However, anybody who has ever tried to read cases or statutes will acknowledge the struggle encountered in trying to decipher multi-layered procedures and a new language filled with unfamiliar and archaic terminology. Similarly, many fledgling and experienced attorneys have spent long hours trying to decipher the meaning and intent of statutes whose meaning is unclear. In order to shed light on determining, the meaning of a law, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter was credited with saying: “Read the statute. Read the statute. Read the statute.” Is there any better environment to proceed with this activity than a library?

Libraries since ancient times have been the repositories of written knowledge. We in public access law libraries are charged with teaching novice to best utilize legal research resources in order to facilitate advocating their causes and cases before the courts. In the New York County Public Access Law Library, a diverse group of users cross through the Library’s doors each day. The clientele spans the socio-economic spectrum and may very well include a stock broker who lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side or a destitute individual who is homeless. Self-represented litigants are involved in a multitude of cases. However, in New York County, a majority involve housing, family, and other civil issues with a smaller portion involving criminal issues. Other researchers who have used the Library include a Brooklyn College professor doing historical research, journalists examining high and low profile cases, journalism students trying to make sense of the court system, and paralegal students beginning their studies. For each of these types of patrons, the Library is a place to gain research skills and insight into the judicial process.

Are all of the Library’s users successful in their cases and research pursuits after using the Library? Honestly, that is an impossible goal to accomplish. Some Library “graduates” have been successful in the state and federal courts. Yet, it is our true hope that we place self-represented litigants in a better position to advocate their causes. Fairness is an integral value of the American judicial system and is embodied in the due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. It is this spirit of trying to make the judicial process more just and open that the staff of public access law libraries seek to help the self-represented litigant. I think that the comment of Court Officer Charley Freeman regarding the New York County Public Access Law Library applies to all public access law libraries: “There is something very American about it [the New York County Public Access Law Library], and we are lucky to have it.”

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