Photo of DuPage County Courthouse

From the Courthouse

Photo of Juanita Harrell
Juanita Harrell

Once upon a time I was a librarian in a public library. I was a teen services librarian to be exact. Prior to that, I was a paralegal. My two worlds have magically come together and now, for going on three years, I have been a law librarian at the DuPage County Courthouse. Although there are differences from working in a public library to working in a courthouse library, there are also a lot of similarities.

The patrons in either setting still need information. The subject matter differs, but not as much as you would think. Sure I’m no longer doing readers’ advisory and organizing Hunger Games tournaments, but legal questions have been a part of both jobs. We walk a very fine line on giving information and not giving legal advice. The clear and distinct difference from the two is serving the pro se population.

We get a mixture of attorneys, judges and pro se patrons. Being able to help the pro se patron is one of the many things I love about being a librarian and, in particular, a law librarian. Pro se patrons have decided, either because they want to or they have no other choice but to, represent themselves in court. This is no small task and should not be taken lightly. The pro se patron is expected to know the law and how to file all things associated with their cases. I love being able to help pro se patrons get familiar with information that may, or honestly may not, help their case. I often refer them to the public library if there is something we don’t have or if they need something after we close.

The biggest difference is that, when pro se patrons come to the courthouse library, they are not always happy to be here. Sometimes they are angry. They have been chastised by a judge and are defensive. Sometimes they burst into tears because they are confused and have been told they have to do this very specific legal thing that takes a very specific legal process that they have no idea how to do. Sometimes they are scared and have come to the courthouse to file an order of protection. In all of these scenarios, as a librarian, you have to be able to find out the question that they have and get the best information for them. With some of those really complicated situations, we try to recommend that they seek an attorney. But sometimes, more often than not, they simply cannot afford one. We then refer them to various legal aid options and hope that they can get help there. The goal, no matter the setting, is getting useful information to the patron.

Much like the Hunger Games, after helping a pro se patron find information for their case to either stave off an eviction, foreclosure, or get child support, I can’t help but feel like Effie Trinket and think to myself, as they go off to file a document or to represent themselves in front of a judge, “may the odds be ever in your favor.”