Beyond BC: Engaging rural libraries in Alberta to improve access to legal information

‘Beyond BC’ is an occasional Perspectives feature highlighting work being done by library professionals outside of British Columbia.

It’s far too easy to concentrate outreach efforts on big cities and other densely populated areas while ignoring their rural counterparts. It makes sense considering how much more abundant resources are and how easy it is to reach large amounts of people without physically moving too far. However, when services are clustered within densely populated areas, the services available in less populated areas are lacking in comparison.  

This is true for many services out there, including those specific to my job: helping people deal with legal issues as a Community Development & Education Specialist (i.e. embedded law librarian) at the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta (CPLEA) in Edmonton, Alberta. Self-represented litigants are on the rise across the country, which means that there are more people trying to access legal services and legal information on their own. 

In Alberta, there are six community legal clinics that people can access – Grande Prairie Legal Guidance, Edmonton Community Legal Centre, Central Alberta Community Legal Clinic, Calgary Legal Guidance, Medicine Hat Legal Help Centre, and Lethbridge Legal Guidance. These legal clinics may be helpful to people living in any of those places, but there are many rural municipalities across the province that don’t have legal clinics, legal aid,  or even law offices.  

It’s a double-edged sword that libraries are considered to be trusted places for people to access information and services. On one hand, we want more people to use libraries. On the other hand, there is a limit to what services libraries can and cannot offer. I know a number of urban librarians who have told me that they feel like they are part-time social workers, part-time counsellors, and part-time advocates because of the diverse requests they receive from patrons who walk through their doors. This experience is intensified for rural librarians. In rural areas, the library might be the only place where people can go to for help. As a result, self-represented litigants will go to rural libraries for assistance with completing legal documents or to ask for legal advice. With nowhere else to refer their patrons and the desire to help rather than turn them away, this can lead to a lot of liability issues for rural libraries and their staff. 

I have a deep admiration for rural libraries and want to help them effectively address legal inquiries, while also spreading the good word of public legal education. To do this, I have developed an informal rural outreach strategy, which involves the following: 

  • Attending and presenting at smaller library conferences (even if they might not be quite as flashy or have quite as much swag)  
  • Talking to rural libraries to identify differences in information needs, services offered, and user demographics  
  • Looking into other rural outreach strategies being conducted in the public legal education world (e.g. Saskatchewan Access to Legal Information Project, The Action Group on Access to Justice) 

It is my hope that my approach will lead to better access to legal information for rural Albertans. Will report back. 

> Megan Siu is the Community Development & Education Specialist (i.e. embedded law librarian) at the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta (CPLEA) in Edmonton, AB.