Pro Bono Librarianing

I’m an attorney, and one of the things that attorneys are encouraged (in some states,required) to do is pro bono work. “Pro bono” means “for good” and is generally representation of a low-income person or a non-profit organization without payment. Libraries are generally a community function and librarians generally serve communities (but see my most recent post, on independent information professionals). There’s less of an opportunity for librarians to do the same sort of “pro bono” work. Volunteering isn’t really the same thing.

But I think, nevertheless, that there are real opportunities for pro bono librarianing. I came to this conclusion while at a conference of the Law Library Association of Maryland about Access to Justice. As an attorney, I had always thought about access to justice as a lawyer thing, not a law librarian thing. It makes sense, though, that librarians would have a role in access in justice.

Why? Because librarians are all about access to libraries and access to information, and both of these are absolutely critical to access to justice. And both of these are areas in which librarians–and, of course, library students–can make a difference.

I would love for the comments section here to become a discussion of ways in which we can support the cause of access to justice as librarians. I’m sure that there are many ideas beyond those that I’ve thought of. To begin, here are my ideas, which are filtered through a local (District of Columbia) lens:

1. Prison library and homeless shelter library support. Here in DC we have a detention center that has a law library (possibly in name only?) and no general library.* And a huge family shelter that is home to many families and many problems. There are opportunities here for advocacy, for work within the public library system, even for the creation of an organization to support these needs. (Also see this on a volunteer prison library in Manitoba.)

2. Online legal information resources. Maryland has a People’s Law Library for the general public to find legal information. You could create a similar resource for another jurisdiction, or contribute information to one that exists already. (The Maryland folks are considering offering pro bono hours to attorneys who contribute articles.)

3. Librarians without Borders. By coincidence, I read about this organization while at the access to justice conference. My other suggestions are very local-community-focused; this is global-community-focused. You can donate money or even go on a trip (note that this link is for the 2014 trip, which has past).

4. Digital literacy. We all know that there is a digital divide, and even among people on the have-access side of that divide, there is a skills divide. Yet more and more, the information people need is online. Supporting digital literacy is something well suited for librarians and library students and will support access to justice.

For more information about Access to Justice, see:

*This was discussed at a hearing of the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety on March 19, but the hearing video isn’t available to link to as an authoritative source.

5 replies

  1. Thanks for this post, Becky! Librarians Without Borders and Archivists Without Borders have been on my radar for quite a while and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to eventually get involved.

    I was wondering, though, if you could elaborate a little more on the differences between pro bono librarianing and volunteering? Do you think it could extend to the attempt to build social justice into one’s daily work as a librarian, such as through critical library instruction?


  2. Hello Becky!

    Many thanks for mentioning Librarians Without Borders. It’s always nice to see our name pop up in the writings of like-minded individuals.

    There are some fairly apparent forms of poverty in the world – lack of food, lack of money and lack of adequate shelter are some obvious ones. Information poverty, however, is often overlooked. Librarians are perfectly positioned to level the information playing field.

    Mark Gelsomino
    Co-Executive Director
    Librarians Without Borders
    Twitter: @LWB-Online


  3. I am a new librarian working in a prison library and a lot of times the law side is well funded because there are resources the library is required by law to have. The recreational reading part is always an afterthought. I just started in this job at the beginning of the year and I’m trying to get the library in better shape to offer more relevant services. The inmates are always very grateful to get new materials in the library but it’s very difficult to get orders through even when we have the budget available. Anyways…yes, send us donations! And yes, consider a career in prison librarianship! It’s a lot different than I thought it would be.


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