Free and Open Access to the Law
Jun 19, 2014
The mission of the Riverside County Law Library is to “enable everyone in Riverside County to perform the highest level of research and practice through free and open access to the law.”
Surely, this is a worthy goal but in a more practical sense what does this mission statement require of me as part of this Library organization? What should I do and how far should I go in order to attain this goal for our patrons? Also, what is free and open access to the law?
I reflect on these questions more now that I work at the Indio branch of the Law Library. I am a recent transplant to the Coachella Valley and I’m continually surprised how different it is here just a mere 70 odd miles away from downtown Riverside and about 120 miles away from Los Angeles.
Among the things that I am surprised about is the prevalence of individuals who speak Spanish only. In fact, according to US census data, 55% percent of people in the city of Indio speak a language other than English at home whereas about 90% of people in the city of Coachella speak a language other than English at home. I noticed that a large percentage of the population in this area is not comfortable with speaking English.
Obviously, these individuals who are not comfortable in English still have questions about that law and legal issues. Unfortunately, the law library does not have enough resources to help these individuals to a satisfactory extent. Most legal publications (except those which are put out by the courts or the ABA) are not published in Spanish. There may be several reasonable explanations for this including cost and even the trepidation of introducing ambiguity by translation legal language but the end result is that the resources do not exist.
This isn’t an issue that is limited to law libraries. In 2005, the California Commission on Access to Justice published a report titled “Language Barriers to Justice in California.” The Commission made specific recommendations for the Courts and other entities “to ensure access to the judicial system for all Californians.” The Commission made the specific recommendation that “law libraries should work to ensure adequate access to their resources for patrons with limited English proficiency.”
Fair enough. Unfortunately, this guidance doesn’t answer my question of what to do to ensure access. So it’s up to us to put on our brainstorming caps. As a start, we could translate our research guides into Spanish. Of course, some of the resources it will refer to will still be in English. We can start offering some of our classes in Spanish or set up new programs that are more likely to be of interest to our Spanish speaking population. Since I don’t speak Spanish, I can participate only from the sidelines. So how can I attain the goal of enabling everyone in Riverside to perform the highest level of legal research and free and open access to the law?
Maybe, I should finally start learning some Spanish.