How to Handle Legal Questions in the Prison Library, Learn From Public and Law Libraries

I recently read Yvette Brown’s From the Reference Desk to the Jailhouse: Unauthorized Practice of Law and Librarians. It came to me while searching for prison librarianship articles due to jailhouse in the title.

Even though this article focuses on public librarians’ experiences with law at the reference and circulation desks. This article is helpful to learn where to ethically cross the line without obstructing a patron’s need for legal information and legal advise that may lead to violating ethical codes and / or the law due to performing unauthorized practice of law in the prison setting. We as librarian need to know the difference between legal information access and advise, but also make our patrons aware of our limitations.

Brown reminds us to remember the variety of people who are our patrons:

When patrons approach the desk seeking legal advice, they are approaching the desk from various standpoints, from being unable to afford or locate low cost or free legal services to plain curiosity about the law. In many cases, they view the person sitting behind the reference desk as the solver of their problems and not the guide lo the solution. (32)

Even in a law library setting, patrons blur the lines of attorneys and librarians. Here, Brown informs us on what a librarian CAN do and what attorney’s are for:

Law library patrons are unaware of some of the fundamental differences between the services of an attorney and the services of a librarian. First and foremost, an attorney’s job is to provide legal advice, counsel, and representation. In sharp contrast, when a library patron approaches the reference desk, the patron is entitled to legal reference, not legal research, or legal advice, or legal representation The librarian’s role is to disseminate legal information, not vindicate fundamental rights at the reference desk. The librarian may tell the patron where supreme court decisions are located; the librarian does not read, analyze, interpret or apply a decision to the patron’s personal situation.(32)

Brown also offers us some advise when in the reference interview on to distinguish legal information or advise and what the patron must do on their own:

“Err on the side of caution rather than recklessness” should be every librarian’s motto when providing legal reference.Librarians should apply a two prong test to each reference request. First, does the question require legal advice or legal information. Second, does the answer to the request go beyond mere guidance. The patron is entitled to be pointed in the right direction and instructed in the proper usage of legal materials. The patron must personally go to the index or digest, select the proper form, case, or statute, and apply it to his or her personal circumstances. The patron, not the librarian, interprets and drafts all legal documents. (33)

In the prison system, there are some differences in assisting patrons with legal needs:

The only library patrons who are entitled to assistance with preparing and filing legal documents as a matter of law are prison inmates. The United States Supreme Court held that prison authorities must assist inmates in filing and preparing legal documents with either adequate assistance from individuals educated in the law or they must provide the inmates with an adequate law library? In the dissent, Justice Rehnquist noted, however, that the majority opinion is based upon a fundamental constitutional right of access to the courts which can not be found in the literal text of the United States Constitution and that he “would not have the slightest reluctance to overrule Younger and reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals in this case.” (33)

Ms. Brown suggests librarians do 10 things to make clear to patrons that librarians can offer legal information access and not advice beyond taking a conservative approach to legal questions:

  1. Post a sign at various desks patrons can approach distinguishing what legal services librarians can and cannot provide.
  2. Have handouts prepared to give patrons with legal hotlines and low income legal services in the community.
  3. Sign up for mailing lists of legal hotlines and low income services to be aware of any legal workshops that might be available to the public. Make these date available for patrons and put on a community calender.
  4. Libraries may want to partner with low income legal services by putting legal packets they distribute on reference or placed where the public can pick up when needed.
  5. Libraries should provide professional training for their staff about unauthorized law practice. Asking a local law firm to participate in the education of librarians and staff might work out nicely.
  6. Collect self-help legal books and how to interpret the law books for patrons needing such help that staff cannot offer.
  7. Librarians might want to use examples of non-legal materials when explaining how to find materials in the library, therefor the patrons knows how to find anything and then can find legal information on their own.
  8. Prepare a line or two that staff and librarians are comfortable saying when patrons insist on legal help to help them understand that they need to contact an attorney.
  9. Prepare a guide to law information at the library for patrons to get familiar with legal information access they have available to them at the library.
    • This handout should have a disclaimer similar to what Brown offers: “This handout is only for informational purposes regarding the library’s holding and anyone with a legal problem or question is strongly advised and encouraged to consult an attorney” (42).
  10. Try to prevent a patron from telling them their predicament with why they are needing legal information. This will help stop the temptation of wanting to help the patron and giving advice. Complete your reference interview and rely on information that the library has available.

It seems like the best practice to serve patrons with legal needs and not violate ethics or laws is to be prepared for these patrons, especially with materials that can guide them through the materials at the library and partner with community legal organizations to provide further access for patrons.

Below in the resources are also links to codes of ethics for the ALA and the AALL (American Association of Law Libraries).


Brown, Yvette. From the Reference Desk to the Jailhouse: Unauthorized Practice of Law and Librarians. Legal References Quarterly. 13.4 (1994): 31-45.

Code of Ethics of the American Library Association

Monaco, Ralph. Revision of the AALL Code of Ethics: Role of an Ethics Code. AALL Spectrum. (Nov 1997): 14-8.

A Guide to Prison Libraries

Changing Lives, Changing Minds

By Jeffrey Roe

Most people intending to become librarians often have strong memories associated with their school libraries and the people who worked in them. Those memories are likely what draws some librarians back to primary school, where they work to foster and promote literacy, learning, and, simply, a love of books. Others opt to go into research, working in high profile special collections with fragile documents full of unique information or of particular significance to history.

Few library students probably envision working in a prison library as their ideal place of employment. Contrary to what you might think, working as a prison librarian isn’t a maligned path so much as an overlooked one; it’s simply not a job on most people’s radar. This is unfortunate, as working in a prison library offers librarians a unique environment, one that is proactive in promoting education, literacy, and civic engagement, among other…

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A Peek into Alcatraz’s Library

My aunt and her family are on vacation in California (lucky ducks!). This morning she sent me a picture in Alcatraz Prison Library while they were on a tour.

Curious for more information, I found that you can take a virtual look at the prison library via 360 cities. provides the following information about the library:

Inmates would be given restricted access to the Prison Library, but no newspapers, radios, or other non-approved reading materials would be allowed. Receiving and sending mail would be considered a privilege, and all letters both in-coming and out-going were to be screened and type-written after being censored by prison officials. Work was also seen as a privilege and not a right, and consideration for work assignments would be based on an inmate’s conduct record.

The Carter Libraryblog provides us with a close up of the photo my aunt sent me where we can read the quotation from the Federal Bureau of Prisons Booklet (1960).

The image below of inmates using the library and is from the National Archives via the National Park Service‘s website. 

While the library’s atmosphere is described as creepy now… as well as the rest of the facility, it is also known for providing it’s patrons with the “ultimate escape.”

Upcoming Event: Beyond Lines

‘Beyond Lines’ features art work produced by incarcerated artists at Danville Correctional Center, a men’s medium-high security Illinois state prison. Students at the University of Illinois’ Education Justice Project organized the exhibition and produced the accompanying  catalogue. Their goals include challenging popular assumptions about ‘prison art’ and stereotypes about incarcerated people generally. They warmly invite you to attend the exhibit and related events, which will be shared with the men at the prison via video.

Following Events are:
September 25, 7pm: Prisons in the Media
October 9, 5pm: Danville Writers’ Symposium
October 23, 7pm: Screening of Shakespeare at Danville
October 30, 7pm: Families of the Incarcerated

The event is sponsered by the Education Justice Project (EJP) and B00ks to Prisoners.

Below you can view the Shakespeare performance from Danville with the EJP:

Prison Reference Services On Little Funding – A Perspective from 20 years ago

Let’s go back to 1991 and visit the Danville Correctional Center Library with librarian Elizabeth Robson.

Robson reminds us in her article, Reference Service at the Danville Correctional Center Library – or How to Get by with Limited Help, Funds, and Time, that the reference interview is something all librarians try to perfect, but in the correctional setting:

in addition to the usual problems faced by “free world” librarians, the correctional setting presents its own inherent set of difficulties to the reference practitioner. 567

One difficulty that is faced include communication skills of patrons behind bars and listening/interpretation skills by librarians, especially narrowing the information needed by the patron and having patrons being aware with library terminology. An example provided by Robson: a patron request of “I need a review of book xyz” really meant to be”I need to RENEW the book xyz.”

Another is trying to provide information to the information need “often with limited material, resources, and time” (567). Reference material on the cheaper side that she utilizes are the following:

  • A general almanac – the most cost effective book in the collection – “One quickly learns the variety of information available in the $6.95 almanac, a tool which pays for itself many times over” (567).
  • State maps – that doesn’t have the restricted detail that is forbidden in the prison for security reasons
  • Government directories
  • Guides to colleges, universities, and scholarship funds
  • resume-writing guides
  • medical dictionaries and encyclopedias

The prison reference collection holds many of the same items that a public library would hold. The prison’s collection may have a wider scoped due to trending interests of the patron population. Some of these key interests are:

  • Time’s Life series
  • career guides
  • African American history
  • art and music
  • Islamic items

Since the above items are of such interest to the population they have a higher rate of going missing or as Robson calls them “rip-off” items (567).  With high rates of missing materials, Robson’s library decided to handle it in the following way:

Individual inmates can check out these materials, but they are limited to one item and one-week time period, and must sign a contract agreeing to pay for the tiem if it is lost, stolen, or damaged. This practice only helps to safeguard the collection, it also increases the chances that information will be available, or at least traceable at a given time. (568)

What is not disclosed to us why patrons are able to check out reference materials, an unusual practice with traditionally non-circulating items. A possibility is that patrons are only allowed a limited an amount of time in the library and patrons check out reference materials out of necessity of time restraints.

If reference materials are not in the library’s collection, it was the librarian’s role to fulfill information needs by “telephone and personal legwork” (568). The most useful resources to Robson were the Reference Department at the state library and the single fax machine at the correctional facility.  The most unique way Robson obtained quality information from her patrons was:

Visits to the Reference Department of my public library, masquerading as a private library users and attempting to conceal my “secret library identity.” (568)

Twenty years later, where Illinois prison library have absolutely NO funding for the span of 10 years, I wonder how Robson does her services now. Is she still an undercover patron… has the public library caught on? Does her e-mail provide access more than the single fax machine? I’ve heard a rumor that Robson might now be preparing to retire. Beyond the budget freeze, there is also a hiring freeze of prison librarians, which means the library will close when Robson leave. I wonder what she thinks about the state of prison libraries after being in the field in Illinois for over 20 years.


Robson, Elizabeth. Reference Service at the Danville Correctional Center Library – or How to Get by with Limited Help, Funds, and Time. Illinois Libraries. 73.6 (Nov. 1991): 567-8.

L is for Listservs. R is for Resources.

The ALA prison library listerv is full of resources and support.

You can join the Listserv, prison-l, here:

Recently a conversation took place after a question was posed on wanting to learn about prison libraries.

Below are the recommended sources:

(Image credit)