Libraries and justice: providing legal information in Ontario’s libraries

Diagram exploring library and justice parnterships in remote and rural areas

“For people living in rural or remote parts of the Canadian province of Ontario, it can be very hard to access legal information or the justice system. Ontario is about four times the geographic size of the United Kingdom, but has only one fifth of the population – and some northern Ontario communities can only be accessed by plane during the summer months.

Population density map shows large, sparsely populated areas of Ontario, Canada

Photo courtesy of Statistics Canada.

As well, internet access is more expensive and slower in rural and remote areas than in other parts of the province, and public transportation options are slim to non-existent. These factors result in geographic and digital divides that further marginalize low income people living in rural and remote communities – especially Indigenous people living on reserves in the most isolated northern parts of Ontario.

So, how to reach Ontarians living in rural and remote communities with legal information? One strategy that has met with success in rural areas in southeastern Ontario – use libraries as access points not only for information, but also for programs that reflect community specific needs. Librarians and library staff are trusted in their communities – they are “problem noticers” who can point their patrons to legal information and resources to find help.

Building upon the work of a past project that trained rural librarians on how to deliver legal information and referrals, the organization I work for,Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO), partnered with other justice sector groups and organizations to host a one day event in October 2015 – “Libraries and Justice: Innovative Access for Rural and Remote Communities.” At this event, we explored ways for libraries and justice organizations to work together to deliver legal information to people living outside of large urban centres.

Our goal: to bring librarians and legal professionals from across the province together to increase awareness of existing ways to work together and brainstorm new ways to form partnerships. Although our hopes were high, we weren’t really sure what to expect.

What happens when you bring together rural and remote community representatives from various community legal clinics, courthouse libraries, public libraries, and universities? Quite a lot, it seems.

Seventy-five people came to the event from various parts of the province. The day’s program was divided into two parts – inspiration in the morning, and action in the afternoon.

4 women looking at a map

Photo courtesy of The Action Group on Access to Justice

We heard from Janet Freeman, a community outreach courthouse librarian from British Columbia, about groundbreaking work in her province, most notably the Law Matters Program which provides substantial access to justice resources and training support for public libraries.

The morning session also featured a panel discussion that illuminated the challenges and successes of library-focused access to justice efforts from CLEO, CALC, the Quinte West Public Library and the Belleville Public Library.

An access to justice facilitator  led us through the afternoon breakout sessions. We considered questions such as:

  • what are the conditions and needs that are going unmet?
  • what problem are you trying to solve?
  • what resources do you need to get your ideas off the ground?
  • who needs to be involved and how would you engage them?

Some librarians understandably voiced concerns about being seen to be giving legal advice to patrons – which is clearly outside of their purview and could attract liability. We from the justice sector, in addition to other librarians who had already worked in library and justice partnerships, were able to share information and strategies to help librarians avoid that particular quagmire.

Tweet by Sabreena Delhon: Librarian admiration is off the charts today. So much competence, creativity & authentic community engagement #taga2j

Photo courtesy of Sabreena Delhon.

Other takeaways from the day were simple but effective – many libraries learned about CLEO resources for the first time and were eager to bookmark relevant pages on their computers. Also, some community legal clinics and libraries were able to connect and talk about the possibility of working together.

We were also encouraged by many of the responses to the evaluation forms we sent out after the event. Here are some sample responses:

Describe any access to justice related action you may be taking as a result of your participation in this program.

  • “Contacting the Ontario Library Association to arrange for a specialty clinic presence at their conference.”
  • “The Ontario Courthouse Libraries Association has created a focus group to explore how we will partner with our local libraries and community clinics.”

What did you find useful about the program?

  • “The mix of people was excellent. Not knowing what to expect and walking in to meet talented individuals from different fields, just thinking out loud on access to justice issues was phenomenal. I very much enjoyed the experience. I also liked how the needs were highlighted; how BC was given as a type of case study of what we could be doing. Just different ways to think of an age old problem was super.”
  • “It provided good opportunities for networking, and it was a great way to learn about what is happening with both libraries and clinics in R&R [rural and remote] areas. I think there was a very positive energy, and people seemed enthusiastic. Lisa’s graphic art was also very inspiring and a good way to capture themes and challenges.”
  • “Hearing other ideas from different points of view.”
  • “Understanding the resources of libraries.”
  • “Bringing people together face to face. The human connection was very useful.”

We were enthused by the commitment and energy shown by all the participants in this event, and we hope that it leads to more libraries and justice partnerships in Ontario.

View pictures from the day and find a great blog post about the event from the Southern Ontario Library Service.


Image source: Banner graphic created by DiisaKauk of Thinklink Graphics in October 2015″