When they’re stuck on a piece of research in my course on fact investigation, I often tell my law students that the loneliest people in the world are waiting to help them: reference librarians. That line came to mind this week after I read a blog entry by Kevin O’Keefe of Lexblog, who asked in a thought-provoking post: “What’s the relevance of your public library in a digital world?”


Kevin rightly notes that public libraries are wonderful refuges from the commercial world. Content there is free, as opposed to just less expensive than something in print. Another perspective advanced by Emily Badger in The Atlantic this week is that libraries can act as incubators for new ideas as they did in Alexandria 2,200 years ago.

As importantly for the kind of work we do, there is no commercial consideration in the advice the reference librarians can offer. We have written about the commercial aspects of Google many times, for instance in our entry A Fact-Finding Test for Lawyers and Google is Not a Substitute for Thinking.

What we often have to explain to clients is that it’s not enough to have a lot of information at your fingertips if you don’t know how to sort through it. Even knowing where to look can be a challenge.

Imagine the world of U.S. public records – every city and county clerk in the country as a one big library. You want to find court or real property records involving a person, but where do you begin? If you think that he lives in “Atlanta,” which county do you mean? There are about 20 in the greater Atlanta area. Can you get records on line at the county you need? Is the online database reliable, or do you need to search the database in the courthouse itself? We find on-site searching is nearly always mandatory for a thorough search.

At the real public library (or at your high school or university library), the same bewildering choice of sources awaits. For anyone interested in not missing a critical source, the reference librarian is your best friend. Paid for not by the highest bidder, but by taxpayers or the institution to give you impartial and helpful advice.

What a bargain.