Reopening During a Pandemic: A Second Look

Reported by Pauline Afuso, Ramsey County Law Library, Sarah Bates, Second Judicial District Court Library (Reno, NV), Sarah Larsen, Minnesota State Law Library, Catherine McGuire, Thurgood Marshall State Law Library, Jenny Silbiger, Hawai‘i Supreme Court Law Library, Karen Westwood, Hennepin County Law Library

Last fall and winter, the LISP/SR blog featured posts from law librarians who shared how their libraries were reopening to the public after months of closure due to the pandemic.  As expected, there were similarities – extra cleaning, masks, social distancing.  There were some differences, too, such as requiring appointments, imposing limits on visitors, and providing remote services for patrons.

Months later, we are still in a pandemic, but now with new considerations:  vaccines, virus mutations, evolving executive orders relating to masks and indoor gatherings, new surges, and more.  We checked back in with some of these librarians to see what changed, what stayed the same, and what they are preparing for as we move forward in 2021.


So many things have happened in the past year that there were bound to be some changes to policies and procedures.  As Catherine McGuire from the Thurgood Marshall State Law Library in Maryland said,

“I think all our procedures have undergone changes, from tiny tweaks to significant shifts.  We reopened on June 8, 2020, so quite a lot of time has passed, restrictions have been reimposed, and are now lifting again.  We learn more about the science of transmission.  And of course, the vaccine has been introduced.  The basics have stayed the same – we’re asking that visitors schedule with us ahead of time.  And the spacing of our public computers hasn’t changed, as they are set in a piece of furniture that can’t be broken up.  Until the distancing requirement is removed, I think we’re going to have to continue to schedule public computer time, since we can’t use all of the seats simultaneously.”

Pictures of the computer carrels at the Thurgood Marshall State Law Library with only three open workspaces.

Meanwhile, in Honolulu, Jenny Silbiger reported a positive change:  After an inspection by the Department of Health, the Hawai‘i Supreme Court Library was allowed to double its capacity, as long as the patrons maintained their social distancing.  They have also added two more appointment slots to allow for even more visitors to the library.  Jenny’s main concern is for the safety, health, and well-being of her staff and visitors.  She very much appreciates the judiciary’s leadership with their support of flexible teleworking schedules and building access policies appropriate for the library.  She feels

“very fortunate that our case numbers are low in the islands, but because of our limited healthcare facilities (we are an island chain, after all), weʻre always keeping our eye out, and Iʻm glad we were closed for a bit during the second surge in the late summer into the fall of 2020.”

A view of the circulation desk at Hawaii Supreme Court Library with a blue tape line to remind patrons to maintain their social distance from library staff.

At the Ramsey County Law Library (St. Paul, MN) and at the Second Judicial District Court Library (Reno, NV), much of the policies are tied to the orders from the Court.  In Minnesota, the Chief Justice issued several orders over the last year, ordering the courts to hold hearings remotely where possible to minimize the number of people who physically had to come to the Courthouse.  The library adjusted its policies to follow the Chief Justice’s mandate to limit exposure at court facilities: the library has reduced the number of people who can come into the library at any one time (from 10 down to 5) and are limiting visits to an hour at a time. 

Similarly, in Reno, Sarah Bates reports that in November when COVID cases surged, the State of Nevada relocked down the courts.  Despite that, the Washoe County Law Library continues to assist patrons via phone and email.  They plan to open in-person research appointments, but that will depend on the Court’s approval.  They have converted their in-person Lawyer in the Library program to a virtual format using Zoom.  Sarah reports:

“I do not know if our Lawyer in the Library program will ever be an in-person program again.  Not only does keeping it online mitigate the risk of having a group of 25+ people gathering in the library, but it is much more convenient for our volunteer attorneys and many of our patrons.  At the very least, it will remain virtual for the foreseeable future.”

Sarah Larsen, Outreach Librarian for the Minnesota State Law Library, also reported on some changes that have occurred in St. Paul.  The main change is that staff will have the option to work from home one or two days a week.  They plan to continue to offer remote access for their clinics.  They have gotten feedback from both attendees and the volunteer attorneys that the convenience of the remote clinics is working well.  She added,

“We also changed how we provide the documents to our attorneys, and I think we’ll keep that as well. We used to print court documents on the day of the clinic and run them in to the attorneys.  Now, we upload the documents into a shared folder ahead of time. This cuts down so much on paper usage, and the attorneys seem to like to have this kind of access. I think we’ll probably continue doing this sort of thing as much as possible.”

The Hawai‘i State Law Library’s Lawyer in the Library program also successfully transitioned to remote conferences, and they also plan to continue to keep that format after restrictions are relaxed.  They might compromise and offer both in-person and remote clinics, but it is too early to say for sure. 

Some of the changes regarding staffing that were implemented during the shutdown will continue even after the libraries are fully opened.  In Maryland, Catherine said that even with service restricted to phone, email, and limited in-person appointments, they have had a usage increase of 25% over non-pandemic times.  She’s not sure if the increase in workload was caused because people can’t visit, or because they just managed to find the library while in lockdown by cruising around the internet.  They are looking to keep the increased reference staffing because they don’t see the workload decreasing once they are fully open, currently planned for the end of April.

In Hawai‘i, the Supreme Court Law Library was able to hire and onboard a new staff member.  It was a little difficult, as she was hired while half of the staff were teleworking from home, but Jenny reports that she is settling into her new position.  One of her responsibilities is to manage the laptop access station used for district court remote hearings. 

A view of the workstation used to attend court hearings remotely for Hawai‘i District Court.

But the prize for the biggest change since the start of the pandemic goes to the Hennepin County Law Library, located in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Karen describes how the law library has adapted since her article came out last December. 

“Greetings from Hennepin County Law Library in Exile!  As you may recall from my past writing on the pandemic experience here, we never did open to the public but have had staff in the building since last June.  This allowed us to access our print collection for reference, offer curbside circulation, and manage the print collection (checking in materials and filing loose-leaf pages).  A countywide email came out in January indicating in-person services would fully open September 7, at the earliest.  But, if I’m honest, as the vaccination numbers began to improve, I harbored hopes of reopening during the summer.

And then it became apparent that there was another elephant in the room jockeying for space with the pandemic.  The Derek Chauvin trial would begin in our building in early March, and an administrative decision was made to move all services not related to the trial to alternative locations.  We chose to move to another county building because the county will forward mail to this temporary location. This way we can still receive titles and check them in (although we are unable to file loose-leaf services). 

Our patrons have been understanding, and (as we all learned last spring) we can continue to provide a high level of service via phone and email.  But I worry that after more than a year of being closed, we’ll have enormous challenges getting folks to return to our physical space.  In addition, the defensive measures we see downtown and the extensive reporting on the trial feel like an additional weight during an already heavy time.

But here’s what I can also say – my local Minnesota colleagues have been more than generous, whether it’s providing materials that we can’t get to or offering us space if we want to work in their libraries.  They’ve reached out as the trial has gotten underway to offer help but also just to check in.  And my colleagues across the country have done the same. It’s been heartening to be the recipient of such compassion and understanding. We’re looking forward to getting back into our space and eventually reopening, but for now we carry on as best we can.”

Hennepin County Law librarian, Rich Harrington, stands near part of the reference collection we moved to our temporary space in March 2021.  These titles help us answer phone and email questions effectively.
The temporary home of the Hennepin County Law Library, in the shadow of U.S. Bank stadium.  These are some of the books and filings that have arrived since our move.  Note all the monitor “arms” – we are on a floor that previously provided shared workspace for social workers and other employees who came downtown only on occasion and would work at any open carrel or desk.

So stay tuned – we have a ways to go before we get past the challenges caused by the pandemic. Until then, as Karen put it so nicely, we’ll carry on as best we can.

Recommended Collections for Prisons and Other Institution Law Libraries

By Jessica Almeida, LISP-SIS 

One of my wonderful colleagues in the Social Responsibility Special Interest Section (SR-SIS), who is also a Massachusetts court librarian, reached out to me about working on a project together.  The project, Recommended Collections for Prisons and Other Institution Law Libraries, is being organized by the SR-SIS’s Assistance for Prisoners Standing Committee.  The committee is looking for librarians to create publication lists of recommended collections by jurisdiction.  My colleague suggested we work together on the Massachusetts list and I was more than happy to help. 

We contacted the committee chair and she sent us a template and example to follow.  At that point, we decided to split the list in half.  She worked on reporters, rules, and codes.  I worked on legal newspapers, legal research handbooks, and practice manuals.  The library I work at has a large collection of Massachusetts secondary sources in print, so I was easily able to go through our collection to determine the types of secondary sources that might be helpful in a prison library.  I included a state specific legal research handbook, a variety of criminal practice manuals, and juvenile court treatises.  We were also asked to include family law, immigration, and estate planning materials too.   

Using the sample, I was quickly able to provide the list in the preferred format, including author, title, publisher, and cost.  The only tricky part was determining the shelf space requirements.  Luckily, we had many of the books I recommended on our own shelves, so I was able to do a bit of measuring and math to come up with an approximate number of inches needed to shelve the books recommended.   

The Assistance for Prisoners Standing Committee is still looking for volunteers.  If you are familiar with the legal resources in any of these jurisdictions, I highly recommend you volunteer.  If you are interested in creating a publication list for any of the following states or territories, please reach out to Kristen R. Moore at   


American Samoa 











New Hampshire 

New Mexico 

North Carolina 

North Dakota 

Northern Marianas Islands 



Rhode Island 

US Virgin Islands 




West Virginia 



About the author: Jessica Almeida is a Public Services Librarian at the University of Massachusetts School of Law.  She is also the co-editor of the LISP/SR Blog. 

Calculating the Justice Gap in Your Community

By Joe Lawson, LISP-SIS

Regardless of your library setting, you will need to justify your budget occasionally. For LISP libraries, that may mean specifically justifying services to the public. Recent trends among administrators and elected officials suggest that a data-driven approach to budget justification can lead to better outcomes for law libraries and their patrons. So, what data can we provide to justify services to the public?

One measure we can calculate on a local level is the Minimum Justice Gap (MJG). Combining factors derived from census data and metrics suggested by the 2017 Legal Services Corporation (LSC) Justice Gap Report can provide a reasonable estimate of the justice gap for individuals with household income below the federal poverty line. Here’s the formula:

Minimum Justice Gap Formula

N x P x L x U = Minimum Justice Gap for Service Area


N = Total Population of Service Area (e.g. county)  |  P = Poverty Rate of Service Area

L = Percentage of Individuals Living in Poverty with a Legal Need

U = Percentage of Individuals Living in Poverty Whose Legal Need Goes Unmet

For example, the U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts page for Harris County, Texas lists the population as 4,713,325 people as of 2019 and the poverty rate as 15%. The 2017 LSC Justice Gap Report suggests that 71% of individuals living in poverty have at least one civil legal need each year and 86% of those needs go unmet. Plugging the numbers into the MJG formula suggests that 706,999 Harris County residents live in poverty (i.e. 4,713,325 x 15%), of whom 501,969 have a civil legal need (i.e. 706,999 x 71%), and 431,693 people living in poverty in Harris County will have an unmet legal need this year (i.e. 501,969 x 86%). Therefore, at least 431,693 people are at risk of falling through the Justice Gap in Harris County, Texas, and law library services for the public are needed to help bridge the gap.

It is important to note that this is not a complete picture of the Justice Gap, since individuals with incomes at more than the federal poverty guidelines may still qualify for legal aid or may be unable to afford an attorney. However, data that provides a clear picture of the number people living above the poverty line who are falling through the Justice Gap can be elusive. As such, estimating the minimum number of marginalized members of our communities who benefit from the valuable services public law libraries offer is the best data-driven approach to demonstrating the scope of the problem our institutions are working to solve.

About the author: Joe Lawson is Deputy Director of the Harris County Robert W. Hainsworth Law Library.

Access to Justice Technology Spotlight: ABA Free Legal Answers

By Jessica Almeida, LISP-SIS

Many of us are aware of the 2017 Legal Services Corporation Justice Gap Report which noted the following key finding: 86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help.  To help narrow the justice gap, the American Bar Association created Free Legal Answers, a virtual legal clinic, comprised of existing and expanded state projects.  Free Legal Answers is an online portal that allows low-income individuals to ask civil legal questions of volunteer attorneys.  It also allows lawyers during COVID times to provide pro-bono services when they are needed most. 

Created in 2016, ABA Free Legal Answers (ABA FLA) is now available in 38 states with 7 more committed to participate in the future.  As of December 2020, over 140,757 civil legal questions have been submitted from individuals with limited income or inability to access legal services due to geographic and transportation issues.  While most questions are family law issues, ABA FLA also receives questions covering a variety of situations, including housing, consumer, and health issues.  Currently, over 8,000 attorneys are registered to provide pro bono legal advice through the portal.

When asked in February about the impact the pandemic has had on ABA FLA, ABA President Patricia Lee Refo responded, “ABA Free Legal Answers has answered 145,000 questions since its inception, underscoring the need for free and affordable civil legal services. Earlier this year, we expanded its reach to veterans, immigrants, and asylum seekers, who all have legal problems that can’t be solved easily without a lawyer’s help. Coupled with the legal pressures presented by the pandemic, we expect to see continuation of the steady increase in both the number of inquiries and volunteer lawyers who have generously given their time and talents.”

To help in this uncertain time, many states have increased the questions per user limit as well as the income threshold, so that attorneys can reach more people.  ABA FLA continues to grow with the roll out of a federal site which began tackling immigration and veterans’ questions in January 2021. 

For more information, visit

About the author:  Jessica Almeida is a Public Services Librarian at the University of Massachusetts School of Law in Dartmouth, MA.  She is currently the co-editor of the LISP/SR Blog. 


“ABA Free Legal Answers Reaches Milestone with 100,000 Inquiries since Launch.” American Bar Association, March 17, 2020. .

 Albukerk, Tali K. “‘ABA Free Legal Answers’ Connects Clients and Pro Bono Attorneys Online.” Business Law Today from ABA, April 13, 2020. .

“Justice Gap Report.” LSC, 2017. .

Robert, Amanda. “Working from Home? ABA Free Legal Answers Offers pro Bono Opportunities.” ABA Journal, March 17, 2020. .

One Year Later: Reflections on COVID-19 Monitoring in Latin America and the Caribbean

By Yasmin Morais

Last March, Marcelo Rodriguez (Foreign, Comparative and International Law Librarian at the University of Arizona, James E. Rogers College of Law) invited me to be a part of a small group of librarians monitoring the legal responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in Latin America and the Caribbean. Despite trying to balance work and homelife as well as settle into the new work-from-home routine, I was enthusiastic to join the project for several reasons.

  • It was therapeutic for me to track the responses of governments in the region and absorb as much information as I could. I still have family and friends in my native Jamaica, so I was eager to find information on policies, statistics or regulations, and any progress in containing the pandemic.
  • The economies of this region are heavily dependent on tourism and foreign direct investments and there are other challenges related to capacity to manage the pandemic, so I was curious about immediate steps being taken by governments to mitigate these challenges.
  • As a member of the Latin American Interest Group, I was familiar with the main sources of information, and the work of regional, non-governmental and international organizations operating in Latin America and the Caribbean. This made the information-gathering process easier.
  • The project was an opportunity to bridge the information gap and to disseminate widely the emerging COVID-19 policies and legal responses.
  • This global pandemic meant that no region was spared, and therefore the information collated had the potential to provide best practices and new knowledge for institutions and governments grappling to understand this new epidemiological threat.

My first report in April looked at my reason for joining the project and a summary of the CARICOM/OECS response at that point. In the second report, I focused on the role of Caribbean Disaster Agencies, and their impact on COVID-19 management.

One year later, I am proud of what this project has achieved, and how I personally have benefitted.  More librarians have come onboard since last March and have shared valuable reports on their respective countries. In addition to their legal skills, some librarians bring language skills, so our reports reflect the multi-lingual nature of the region. From our meetings, I have had the opportunity to meet these amazing librarians, some of whom have been working in challenging situations. I have gained a greater understanding of the legal systems, institutions, policies, and challenges facing the governments and people in Latin America and the Caribbean. However, I am also hopeful of some of the best practices and improvements in COVID-19 management that have been highlighted. I am also very proud of the recognition that the project has received from AALL, and that HeinOnline has included the project under Librarian-Curated Content in its COVID-19: Pandemics Past and Present library.

For more information on the Monitoring COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean project, please visit

About this author: Yasmin Morais is the Reference and Cataloging Librarian for the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law. 

Outreach and Access to Justice in a Pandemic

By Sarah Larsen, LISP-SIS

By the time this is posted, the U.S. will have been living with COVID for an entire year. To say that this last year has challenged the way we think about libraries and librarianship would be an understatement. For those of us who work in Outreach Services roles, this shift has been especially pronounced. I’ve joked many times during the pandemic that my job used to be trying to bring patrons in to the library, but now it’s to keep them out. Bad jokes aside, the pandemic has forced us to reimagine how we connect with and serve our patrons – especially our public patrons.

Before the pandemic, much of our outreach work focused on going into the community and meeting potential patrons where they are. This included a wide variety of initiatives, ranging from offering legal reference help at the local public library to presenting training to attorneys and public librarians to helping staff a booth at the Minnesota State Fair to educate the public on Minnesota’s justice system. Obviously, these types of projects are not possible currently, so we have had to get creative to reach those who need our help finding legal information. For the vast majority of our patrons, this has simply meant expanding the remote services we already offered – emailing documents, handling reference by phone, expanding our remote CLE offerings, or holding consults by Skype or Zoom.

Most patrons are grateful that we are able to save them a trip to the library (and potential exposure to COVID-19). But electronic services do not serve all of our patrons: those who lack technology skills or who do not have access to the internet at home are left behind. I suspect I am not alone in taking for granted the fact that I can easily access the internet at home, but there is still a large share of the population that cannot. According to the Pew Research Center, 73% of Americans have access to broadband internet at home (meaning 27% of Americans do not) and nearly one in five Americans only have access to the internet through a smart phone. With the public libraries these Americans usually rely on for computer access largely closed, simple tasks like attending a remote court hearing or accessing court forms become nearly impossible.

I certainly cannot solve the problem of the digital divide in one blog post, but I can share some of the ways that we at the State Law Library and the legal community in Minnesota have been approaching this problem.

At the Minnesota State Law Library, one of the first changes we made was to move our Appeals Clinic and our Unemployment Appeals Clinic to be remote only. Getting the word out about this change was challenging at first, but we’ve had about 150 people attend the clinics since the pandemic started. We also began mailing court forms upon request to individuals who do not have access to a computer or printer. To date, we have mailed packets of court forms to 670 people. Most people who call asking for these forms contacted their local courts or the statewide court self-help center, who then referred them to us. Not only are we able to introduce our library to new users, but we have also strengthened our relationship with other frontline court workers.

On a larger scale, the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition launched the Legal Kiosk Project last fall with funds received under the CARES Act. The Kiosk Project offers two models: one providing access to legal information resources from LawHelpMN and intake for legal aid and the other offering a secure terminal for patrons to meet with a lawyer or attend a Zoom court hearing. Community partners and organizations were able to request kiosks to be placed in locations around the state where people may have trouble accessing the internet. Some of the locations chosen include community centers, public libraries, and domestic violence and homeless shelters. The project is still in its very early days, so there is not information available about its impact yet, but it is a good step in helping bring access to those who need it most.

About the author: Sarah Larsen is the Outreach Librarian at the Minnesota State Law Library.  She is also the Vice Chair of LISP-SIS.

Thoughts on Service and Reopening: A Conversation Between Colleagues

By Barbara Engstrom & Karen Westwood, LISP-SIS

As Barbara Engstrom (Executive Director, King County Library – Seattle) and Karen Westwood (Director, Hennepin County Law Library – Minneapolis) watched law libraries reopening over the summer and early fall, they started an email correspondence about their own decisions regarding reopening and other matters.  As happens, they were both busy and the correspondence stretched out over many weeks.  But that’s par for the course for 2020, isn’t it?  Here’s the exchange, lightly edited for clarity. (Please note: Both libraries are membership law libraries – references to “subscribers” refer to patrons who hold memberships.)

October 22, 2020

KW:  Barbara, the Hennepin County Law Library in Minneapolis, MN has remained closed to the public since we were sent home in March.  We’ve had uninterrupted service via email and phone since then, and since June we’ve have skeletal staffing in so we can access the physical collection, but I’m reluctant to open service to the public.  We always pay attention to King County as a metro area of similar size to us and I see that you also remain closed to the public.   What is your thinking about reopening your physical space?  I have my own reasons here for keeping the doors closed, but am curious about your thought process.  Are you getting any pressure to open up?

October 23, 2020

BE: We have been closed since March as well, Karen.  Until recently, the decision on whether to reopen was really out of our hands.  Governor Inslee mandated that all public libraries remain closed until the county reaches Phase 3 of our reopening plan.  King County has been in Phase 2 since the spring.  The Governor issued updated guidance on October 6th allowing very limited public access but with stringent requirements for social distancing, symptom monitoring, and disinfecting.  For a library of our size this just isn’t feasible in terms of cost or staffing.  We haven’t had any pressure to open.  King County, as a whole, has directed all non-essential employees to work from home until January, so there is an expectation that most county operations will be remote until January at the very least.  We are currently experiencing an uptick in COVID cases in King County which also diminishes any expectation of reopening soon.  The real challenge for us has been trying to provide access to our treatise collection and subscription based resources remotely.  Karen, the last time that we talked you mentioned the possibility of using CARES Act funds to pay for remote access databases for patrons.  What ever came of that?

October 28, 2020

KW: I kind of wish that the decision was out of my hands.  As you well know, County Law Libraries have a variety of relationships and reporting structures.  In my case, I have a hands off board, but try to consider interests of the court, county administration, and the local public library with whom I have a close working relationship.  At the end of the day, though, I try to picture who we are not serving by not reopening.  To my mind attorneys and court and county personnel have the wherewithal to make use of our services even with our doors closed.  The main population we miss by staying closed is lay patrons who seek our guidance in learning and understanding the law and legal process – they often used to find us while they were in our building transacting court business.  To compensate a bit for this, we are partnering with district court to provide scheduling and technical assistance for people contesting citations.  The Hearing Office offers a Zoom option and we have made our law library conference room available for citizens who don’t have (or don’t understand) the technology for using Zoom.  We are averaging 15-20 people a week in our conference room now, and we feel good about assisting an underserved population.

But back to your question – I finally got a contract with Wolters Kluwer over the finish line.  Because I am entering an agreement for ebooks, pushed primarily because we remain closed to the public, my county budget colleague tells me that CARES Act funding will be available to help with this.  I had hoped to use CARES dollars for the full year’s subscription, but am told that I can only use it for services rendered in 2020.  But two months of help is better than nothing!  This is an unusual circumstance in which remaining closed actually got me some cash.  We had also discussed how you have purchased some ebooks from Lexis.  Was that primarily due to your remaining closed, or do you think you would have gone down that road either way?

November 4, 2020

BE: I guess the theme for 2020 is change is the only constant.  In the time that we’ve been writing back and forth Karen, I received word that the mandatory work from home order for non-essential King County employees has been extended until July 5, 2021. This directive includes all public service counters for the county.  While we have a bit of an amorphous relationship with the county, their mandates definitely impact our decision-making. We plan to remain closed for the foreseeable future, but have just started curbside subscriber borrowing and have made conference rooms available for reservations on a very limited basis.  It’s interesting to hear that you are assisting with technology for Zoom hearings.  We are partnering with civil legal aid groups to provide space in the law library assist with access to online hearings.  It is currently limited to eviction and domestic violence protection orders but may expand if there is capacity. We are still in the planning stages so I will definitely be reaching out to hear what you’ve learned about the process.

Great news the you were able to get CARES Act funding for at least a few months of your Cheetah subscription!  I’ll be interested to hear about the usage you get.  Yes, we did recently add the Lexis Digital eBook collection.  I’ve been trying to get remote access to our database subscriptions for years but to no avail. I guess it’s a COVID silver lining that we are now able to offer eBooks to our subscribers. In addition to Lexis Digital — which is limited to our subscribers, we now also have remote patron access to the National Consumer Law Center database, HeinOnline, and the Nolo Press collection from Ebsco. I’m currently working with the Washington County Law Libraries Association to secure grant funding for statewide access to the Nolo Press database.

Karen, I’m curious as to whether you have any concerns about remaining closed being used as a justification for taking space currently allocated to your library. King County is undergoing a massive shift in space allocation.  Many employees have been told that they will be working from home permanently and the King County Administration building, which historically contained essential public service counters, is being mothballed.  So far, I haven’t heard of any impacts on the Courthouse, where we are located, but I imagine they are coming– especially once the lease runs out on the off-site space that the county is renting to facilitate socially distant trials.

November 16, 2020

KW: Barbara, you raise a good question about space – similar to questions many law firms are raising about how much space and what type of space they’ll need going forward.  For social distancing we would seem to need MORE space, but for other services (more database access, etc.) less space is needed.  This question is just academic for me, though.  Our library footprint was shrunk to less than half its former space several years ago so I’m certain that the county (our landlord) will look elsewhere for more square footage before they approach us.

December 16, 2020

BE: Remember at the beginning of this whole thing we all thought we’d be closed for two weeks, Karen?  It’s laughable to imagine now.  My husband recently described time being like taffy, and as I look back on the dates of this conversation, I’m both surprised and completely nonplussed to see that we started this two months ago!  It’s also looking very likely that we won’t resume full walk-in services until July of 2021 – so the needle hasn’t moved to far on the main topic of this conversation either.  I can say that I finally understand why the phrase; “May you live in interesting times” is considered a curse.   I hope you all the best in 2021, Karen and may your new year be plain vanilla!

December 17, 2020

KW:  Indeed, Barbara!  Wishing you and everyone at King County Law Library a magnificent year in 2021, full of nothing interesting!  One day we’ll meet again at the AALL Annual Meeting and visit each other’s libraries in person.  Until then, be well!

About the authors: Barbara Engstrom is the Executive Director of the King County Library in Seattle, WA and Karen Westwood is the Director of the Hennepin County Law Library in Minneapolis, MN. 

Access to Justice Technology Spotlight: Learned Hands

By Jessica Almeida, LISP-SIS

This holiday season give back to the access to justice community by… playing a game?

What is Learned Hands?
Learned Hands, named after the well-known judge and legal philosopher Judge Learned Hand, is a crowdsourcing game that asks players to apply legal labels to real life problems taken from social media.  Learned Hands is a project of Stanford Legal Design Lab and Suffolk Law School’s Legal Innovation and Technology (LIT) Lab.  The program takes the labels associated with the real-life legal problems and creates and teaches AI models, helping technology link legal information to the people who need it most.

Bob Ambrogi does a better job explaining the game’s goal in his 2018 post. Learned Hands “use[s] crowdsourcing to train an algorithm to spot legal issues in the words that ordinary people use to describe their legal problems. The goal is to develop artificial intelligence that will more accurately recognize the area of law involved in a legal question and therefore be able to better match the questioner to the appropriate attorney or legal resource.”   

In fact, in July 2019, the Suffolk Lab received a grant from Pew Industries to take the information they gather from Learned Hands to create Spot.  Using the labels provided in Learned Hands, Spot would take a client description of a problem and show a list of possible legal issues based on National Subject Matter Index (NSMI).  This helps programmers create access to justice apps and software that easily “spot” the legal issue being discussed and send the user the correct legal information or attorney referral. 

How can you help?

Learned Hands is easy to use both on your desktop or mobile device.  Register for an account at  Once you are logged in, choose the area of law you want to work on, or choose mixed mode (a mix of all the areas).  A question taken from social media will appear. Read it carefully and consider the legal issues being asked about or discussed.  On the bottom of the page, a question will appear asking if a legal issue around a specific topic of law applies to the situation above.  By labeling the question, you are helping the AI learn to label these questions as well. 

Image taken from Learned Hands

The game is engrossing – you get pulled into the people’s questions, and can get absorbed in labeling them correctly.  As this is a crowdsourcing game, the labels you apply are checked against other players’ choices.  The more players that label the problem as a particular issue, the more the label is deemed correctly applied. 

For more information, visit the resources below.


About Spot. Accessed December 17, 2020.

Ambrogi, Bob. “Stanford and Suffolk Create Game to Help Drive Access to Justice.” LawSites, October 16, 2018.

Learned Hands. Accessed December 17, 2020.

“Online Tool Will Help ‘Spot’ Legal Issues That People Face.” Online Tool Will Help Spot Legal Issues That People Face | The Pew Charitable Trusts. Accessed December 17, 2020.

About the author:  Jessica Almeida is an Associate Librarian at the University of Massachusetts School of Law.  She is also the editor of the LISP/SR Blog.

Help Seal My Record expungement program by the Minnesota’s Attorney General’s Office

By Suzanne Peterson

Minnesota’s Attorney General, Keith Ellison, has long-term criminal justice reform goals.  One of the goals is manifested through the Attorney General’s new program to help Minnesotans seal their criminal record convictions.  The program addresses the employment, housing, and education barriers criminal records can have in people’s lives after they have fulfilled all of their legal obligations.  The website’s “Help Seal My Record” page begins with this paragraph

According to the FBI, nearly one in three adults in America has a criminal record. Long after people have atoned for the harm they caused and fulfilled their obligations to the justice system, criminal records and the collateral consequences that follow serve as barriers to jobs, housing, education and more, preventing people from serving as productive members of our community. Studies have shown very few people who are eligible to seal their records successfully apply, but among those whose records are sealed, very few commit new crimes and, on average, they experience a significant increase in wages and employment within the next two years.

The program began October 1st and by the third week of October the AG’s Office had received over 1000 applications.  The application is very basic and user friendly which is a marked difference from the actual expungement forms pro se litigants are expected to understand, fill out, and properly serve and file in order to bring their request before the Court.  The attorney in charge of the expungement program gathers the applications, requests the applicants’ criminal histories, triages according to her metrics, reaches out to the county attorneys’ offices and depending on the answer, either the prosecutor’s office takes the lead or she does, pursuant to Minn. Stat. Sec. 609A.025 (2020).  This program is offered free of charge and the applicant is not required to pay a fee to court administration. 

During a prosecutors’ meeting in October of this year, many of the prosecutors present supported the program so the enthusiasm and hope for a successful program is big.  There is a concern right now about the backlog which demonstrates the severe need for the program.  Once the program gets to the point of equilibrium, the lead attorney said the expungement program should take anywhere from 60 to 90 days from start to finish.  For more information, here’s the link to the Help Seal My Record expungement program at the Office of the Minnesota Attorney General, Keith Ellison:

About the author: Suzanne Peterson is the Olmsted County Law Librarian.