Academic Law Librarianship


Cheryl Kelly Fischer; Sangeeta Pal; and Alena L. Wolotira

Student Services is a key role in any Academic Law Library.  One of the challenges facing librarians is students’ ever-changing needs and the growing ways in which libraries are expected to serve those needs.  An additional challenge is that many law libraries do not recruit specifically for student services librarians but instead use existing roles, sometimes across departments, to meet the needs filled by student services librarians elsewhere. This chapter will explore many of the commonly offered services to students, the skills required of student service-focused librarians, and look more closely at some specific engagement strategies in action at two different law libraries.

Key Concepts
  • Student services design and implement library services for the benefit of law students.
  • Student services are likely staffed differently depending on institutional needs but would benefit from cross-departmental collaboration, such as between Reference and Access Services.
  • A passion for helping law students and the ability to find creative ways to engage students are essential skills for the Student services librarian.
  • Student engagement involves meeting students’ immediate needs, bringing them into the library space, educating them about the library’s services, and providing opportunities to communicate future needs.


Student Services Librarian positions are relatively new in law libraries.  The job descriptions for these positions typically require some teaching and working directly with students, including working with student journals and organizations and often have an outreach and marketing component to foster greater student engagement.  In schools without positions devoted expressly to student services, these same needs are filled by other librarians often in either the reference department, the access services department, or both depending on institutional needs.  Student services often greatly benefit from cross-departmental collaboration, such as between reference and access services.

The core skills needed for a successful student services librarian will also vary based on institutional needs.  Two essential skills we have identified are a passion for serving students and an interest in outreach and increased student engagement.  These are especially important when identifying librarians to serve in this capacity when there is no explicit student services librarian on staff.

A clear interest in serving students’ needs is critical because this is an ever-changing area of librarianship, which varies widely due to the makeup of your student body.  As students matriculate each year and new students come in, their interests, needs, preferred methods of communication, and demand for library services will often change.  Staying attuned to student needs must be a genuine interest to be most effective in developing and changing library services accordingly.  Likewise, communication and outreach are critical to raise awareness among students about new and existing services offered by the library as well as demonstrating the value these services will bring to their law school experience.  When communicating with law students, consider sending the same message in multiple ways. Announce new/useful services via social media platforms, in reference signature lines, email, in person at student gatherings like SBA meetings, and post flyers in common areas and study rooms. More detailed information about Outreach and Marketing can be found in another chapter, but we will explore this concept with a focus on increasing student engagement with the library and its services.

Student Services

The following are some common law student-centric services offered by academic law libraries.  Services will vary based on the needs and size of the student population, size of the library staff, and student services budgets. Services should also be regularly assessed to determine if new services should be added and existing services should be retired or adjusted to better meet student needs.

Reference Services

Law students have diverse research needs and often operate on compressed timelines and with little understanding of the role of a reference librarian. Providing students with multiple means of contacting reference (chat, phone, in person, text, email, etc.) is helpful. However, expect that law students will try to use any and all communication channels to ask questions of the library, so ensure that all of your communication channels are checked often and try to make it clear in any communication where they should write to ask questions.  In addition to these on-demand options, many libraries also offer students the ability to schedule one-on-one meetings with a librarian to discuss in-depth research questions. Reference staff can also engage in ambush-style quick trainings, walking up to law students using the library to offer a short demo of a database or research guide. Expect that law student reference questions will range from simple (how to use the library catalog) to very complex (how to pick a topic for a research paper, how to structure research, and how to support research with legitimate sources). Likewise, research guides and librarian training screencasts can be used to introduce students to simple and complex areas of research, which are then available to students on the library’s website to access when they have a relevant research need.


Law students spend a significant amount of time in the library space. Many libraries invest in and lend useful equipment for law student comfort (blankets, fans, yoga mats) and convenience (chargers, laptops, headphones). Consider this an evolving service, and add conveniences and technology to your equipment collection as the students need them.

Course Reserves

The cost of new casebooks is increasingly high and thus unaffordable for many students. Many libraries actively collect required course materials such as casebooks, study aids, and code supplements. Course reserves can be print or electronic, although U.S. legal casebook publishers do not, as of now, typically provide multi-user licenses to their texts and instead require a library to subscribe to an entire package that is often extremely costly.  Course Reserves is most typically managed by Access Services departments and is one example of how collaboration between Access and Reference Services could be beneficial in serving the needs of law students.

Printing & Scanning

The academic law library often houses much of the printing and scanning technology in the law school building. Some libraries allow free printing with an annual page limit for each student, subsidized by student technology fees charged with tuition. Many others charge printing fees, especially for color printing. If such equipment is housed in the library facility, staff should expect to troubleshoot hardware and software issues for library visitors. Consider requiring students to install the printer software on their personal devices during orientation to prevent panicked students flooding the reference desk minutes before their final papers are due.

Comforts in the Library Space

In addition to checking out equipment, consider providing other comfort items for students spending much time in the library such as soft seating, places to take naps, coloring books and board games, hand sanitizer and facial tissue, earplugs, and first aid kits (replete with over-the-counter painkillers and band-aids).

Library Facility

Try to ensure that all new students receive an in-person or virtual tour of the library space and design this tour to include lots of information about library services for law students. Law library facilities can be configured to meet law students’ specific needs, with law student-only areas, quiet spaces, group workspaces, and study rooms that can be reserved for law student competitions or on-campus interviews.

Student-Specific Collections

As one of the primary groups of users a law library serves, law student needs should drive some of a library’s collection development decisions. In addition to print and electronic study aids and course reserves, many law libraries provide additional supplementary materials to assist law students in absorbing core legal concepts such as audio lectures, flashcards, and copies of print commercial bar prep course materials, which may take some negotiation with bar prep companies to acquire. Other libraries have “Good Reads” or popular reading collections with law-related novels, DVDs, or popular biographies.

Access – For General Study and for Full Services

Study space, access to closed stacks resources (ex. Reserves), and consultation with librarians are all essential services to Law Students.  Most Academic Law Libraries aim to establish hours to access these services to ensure that the facility and reference hours correspond with student needs. Library hours will vary on many factors including the types of programs offered by the school, the demographic of the students (ex. do many commute long distances to campus?), and the specific needs during the academic year.  If the law library is only open for business when students are in classes, it may not be meeting the needs of this essential group of users. Some libraries allow 24/7 access to the library facility for law students, with an after hours Code of Conduct posted and tied to the Honor Code.

Special Events

Library-sponsored events are an excellent opportunity to meet and talk to individual law students, bring students into the library space, and foster increased student engagement with the library. Please see the Concepts in Action for a couple of examples of these activities.

Exams Support

Final exams are an extremely stressful time for law students. Many law libraries provide special accommodations for their students during final exams. Please see the section on special events for more detailed information

Summer Support

As law students prepare to leave for their summer jobs, law libraries often offer research bootcamps to ensure that students’ research skills are on par with what their employers will expect. Student services librarians should consider reaching out to their local AALL chapter to check in with area firm librarians to learn more about the areas of research in which they need summer associates to be competent. Law libraries typically continue to offer reference services to students over the summer, and can expect a few panicked phone calls from summer associates who need help structuring their research given to them from their supervisors.

Student Services During Emergencies

Pandemics, natural disasters, and the like can have huge impacts on student access to the library facility and services. Whether remote library services exist or not, the library is certainly less visible to law students when students do not regularly use the library facility for studying, course reserves, equipment checkout, etcetera. Proactively reaching out to students to let them know what services are still available despite the emergency is helpful, as is engaging with students to learn how their needs have changed in the new setting so that you can tailor your services to meet those needs.

Student Engagement

Providing student services involves designing and implementing library services for the benefit of law students. Outreach and marketing, discussed in another chapter, makes those services known to students. But student engagement is the connection between the two, making or breaking the success of the provided services because students benefit most when their level of interest and participation is high.  To achieve this, academic law librarians employ many student engagement techniques, including tabling, law journal support, and special events.


Tabling is the rather literal name for the practice of setting up a table in a high-traffic location and engaging with those who are passing by or who approach the table. The benefits of tabling include the potential for enabling many students to participate in library services at once, the opportunity for brief interactions that don’t take much student-time, and a way to efficiently provide information on multiple unrelated topics to different students at the same time. Tabling can be used for training purposes or for the purpose of gathering feedback from students.  Librarians must put thought into not only the purpose of the tabling, but the set-up of the table itself.

Academic law librarians often use tabling for training purposes, as a way to provide reactive, or “just in time” training to law students on myriad topics.  The alternative to this type of training is proactive or “just in case,” which often takes the form of in-depth workshops on predetermined topics held in a classroom.  Although such workshops have many benefits, they are often rigid in timing and content, and designed for information to travel in one direction, from librarian to student.  Tabling is a way to complement workshop offerings by offering a training opportunity with more flexible timing and content, and in a format that encourages information to be exchanged in two directions, from librarian to student and vice-versa.  Both of these features can increase the instances of student participation and engagement.

Tabling for training purposes can include interactions that range from answering student reference questions, to demonstrating the study room reservation system, to showing off the features of a complicated research database.  These are disparate types of training, and one way to efficiently provide many types at the same time, is to make the tabling a joint effort between Reference and Access Services librarians. See details about UCLA’s Lightning Lessons in the Concept in Action Box.

Because student interest is essential to engagement, tabling can also be used to gather feedback from students on library topics.  These interactions can take the form of open-ended soliciting of student feedback, or surveys designed in advance to be filled out on a mobile device at the table. Surveying students while tabling can increase the amount and diversity of survey responses received in comparison to surveys distributed solely through email.  Further, by engaging with students about the survey while tabling, librarians can gather informal feedback as well as formal responses.


Reference and Access Services librarians provide weekly lunchtime 5-minute walk-up lessons while tabling in the law school courtyard. A menu of 5-minute lessons spanning both reference and access topics is created each week, printed, and displayed at the table.  Lesson topics change frequently and have included “Secret After Hours Access for Students,” “Supercharge Your Google Searching,” and “Study Smarter with Online Study Aids.” Students can choose from the 5-minute lessons listed on the menu, or they can ask their own question. Because there are two librarians staffing the table at the same time, one from Reference and one from Access, topics taught and questions answered can span both types of services.

Another aspect of tabling that requires librarian planning is the table’s set-up.  The location of the table can reflect the intended goals of the engagement that day.  For example, a busy outdoor courtyard might serve as a good location for gathering feedback from all students, but the corridor where 1L research and writing classes are taking place would be a good location for tabling intended to train 1Ls.  Even the most thoughtfully placed table location could engage additional students with enticing objects prominently placed.  These might include food to accommodate a variety of dietary restrictions, a jar to collect entries into a drawing for a gift card, or a colorful game element like a spinner with opportunities to spin and receive a give-away item.  Give-away items can be virtual like electronic gift cards for coffee, or physical like fun or useful items.  See details about Mystery Bags at UW in the Concept in Action Box.


Librarians provide a tabling opportunity for students to provide feedback and suggestions about the library.  To entice students to stop by the table and engage, librarians set out a selection of mystery bags, each containing a small item, like a pen or other marketing items collected from companies who visit the law school or from exhibitors during conferences.  In exchange for sharing a comment about the library, the student can take a mystery bag.

Engagement with students who are remote can be achieved through virtual tabling.  In practice, this is achieved through online meeting/video conferencing software like Zoom.  Creating a welcoming space in a virtual environment can involve inclusive practices such as live captioning the conversation for deaf and hard of hearing people, and including pronouns as part of screen names. Game elements can be made virtual as well as give-aways.  For example, electronic gift cards to a location that is accessible to all are an easy option as they can be emailed.  Physical give-away items are more challenging but can be mailed to students who are remote. See details about UCLA’s Remote Lightning Lessons in the Concept in Action Box.


During a recent months-long school closure, librarians shifted their weekly lunchtime tabling in the law school courtyard to an online format using Zoom. The online meeting room carried over much of the content, format, and staffing practices from the in-person tabling. The give-away items included digital-friendly items like creatively designed Zoom backgrounds.

Law Reviews and Journals

Law reviews and journals are student-edited publications requiring those students to utilize many types of library resources.  Therefore, engaging and supporting this group of students can be an important part of the student services role of law librarians.  The number of law journals at a law school can vary, and while each law school has a flagship law journal, many schools have additional specialized law journals numbering anywhere from a few to a dozen or more.  The number of law students working on editing law journals can likewise vary from 50 to 250 in a given school year. Therefore, like other areas of student services, the support of law journals is handled differently at each institution. Approaches can include designating one librarian to liaise with all journals, designating a different librarian liaison for each journal, or dividing the support along department lines allowing reference and access librarians to help in their areas of expertise.

Working on a law journal involves spending a lot of time with library resources, but most law students who take a staff/editor position have little experience with them, and the constant turnover of journal leadership as students graduate compounds the need for repeated training and lots of assistance.  A new group of student staff members joining a flagship law review after the summer write-on competition averages about 40 students but can be fewer or can include up to 60 students.  While a new group joining a specialized journal can be as few as five.  In some journals, the entire staff will stay on a second year switching to editorial roles, meaning the number of journal editorial board members is similar to the number of staff. On others, the attrition rate is high and only a few staff remain on as editors in their second year.

Roles of journal staff members in their first year on a journal include cite checking the articles that are being published by the law review.  This task requires collecting the sources cited in the article’s footnotes, in order to ensure that footnote sources support the author’s claims and that citations are in proper Bluebook citation format.  Additionally, on some law reviews, students may be expected to write a student article of publishable quality.  Roles of journal editorial staff, usually in their second year on the journal, include reviewing and selecting articles for publication, editing the articles for writing style and substance, and managing the staff editing process.

While well-trained journal staff improve the quality of the journals that bear the law school’s name and enhance the reputation of the school, those working without sufficient knowledge of library resources can create extra work for themselves and librarians alike. Proactive engagement with this student group can call their attention to available library services at the most beneficial time of need, and when access and reference librarians combine expertise, they can effectively steer the students in the right direction at the right time.  Times of need for a journal can include: new staff selection and write-on competitions, cite checking and source collection, and writing and selecting publishable articles.

Librarians can help journals with new staff selection processes.  These processes can be elaborate involving many journals with multipart applications and complex ranking systems, or write-on competitions for just one journal. Engaging with students at this time of need can mean:

  • Working with an interdepartmental team such as non-librarians in the school’s Student Services department.
  • Setting up the online application/competition platform for instructions, materials, and submissions,
  • Creating a production test (to test citation skills) and answer key for the application,
  • Speaking at the application process info sessions, and
  • Training the applicants at workshops designed to help them put their best foot forward.

Librarians can help with cite checking and source collection. Law review articles are laden with footnotes and student editors must ensure that all footnoted sources are collected, checked to confirm that they support the author’s claims, and cited in proper Bluebook format.  Engaging with students at this time of need can mean:

  • developing special circulation and access policies to streamline their source collection, and training staff on these policies,
  • training staff on skills such as using library resources and databases to locate sources, and using The Bluebook to properly format citations (The Bluebook is a lengthy manual for American legal citation),
  • holding trainings proactively and upon request from individual journals while keeping the number of trainings from becoming unwieldy, and
  • deciding whether to engage by teaching live sessions, recording videos, authoring written online guides (like LibGuides), designing interactive online quizzing tools, or a combination of the above.

Librarians can help with writing and selecting publishable articles. Most law review articles do not go through the traditional peer review process that other academic articles navigate prior to publication.  Rather, the law students select and edit the scholarly articles, and they write and publish their own student work as well.  Engaging with students at this time of need can mean:

  • training staff on preemption checking for article selection, and preemption checking prior to finalizing a student-written article topic
  • serving in an advisory role to the chief editors of the journals on topics including copyright, author agreements, and plagiarism, and
  • supporting and working with the law school’s student publications coordinator, if applicable, to handle issues related to the online or print publication process.

Student engagement with law journal staff and editors has the dual benefit of supporting those students in their journal work, while in the process making them aware of library student services in general.  And often, it is the law journal students who make the most use of other library services, likely due to a greater familiarity than their non-law journal peers.

Special Events

In most Law Schools, there are often a large number of programs and events vying for student time and attention.  Therefore it is important for librarians to actively engage with students at their point of need.  This is critical to making library services, both new and existing known to students.  While this information is widely available and offered to students in various ways (welcome literature, email newsletters, library websites, etc.) it is often more effective to get students involved with library services through hosting special events.  Hosting events in the library can bring students into the library space to make it more familiar and to help alleviate any library anxiety.  Sometimes libraries offer events as fun activities and an opportunity to take a break.  Other times libraries schedule events that are designed to gamify instruction or introduce resources in different and creative ways.  Either type of event is often combined with annual occurrences, holidays, and other scheduled opportunities to spark student interest.

One annual opportunity is at orientation.  Depending on how orientation is managed at each school, the opportunity may vary – but it is a time when students are new to the school and library services.  It is also a time when students may be actively looking for resources to help them while in Law School, so it is a great time to take advantage of their interest.  This is one example of an annual opportunity to provide substantive information to students about library services at the beginning of their time in law school.  See details about UCLA’s unique approach to orientation in the Concept in Action Box.


UCLA Law Library recently redesigned their 1L orientation program to be a “Library Tour” of services and some spaces, rather than a tour of the collection and library layout.  This newly imagined approach to orientation had two primary goals: 

  1. To provide students with an interactive opportunity to learn about relevant library services and in some cases the physical spaces to obtain these services. 
  2. To provide students with a face to face experience with many members of our public services staff (access services and reference departments) so that when they return to the library, there will be familiar faces to answer questions and assist them.  

Unlike most orientation sessions, which are held lecture style in a classroom, this session places students in small groups to visit 8-9 “stations” throughout the library to listen to a short 2-3 minute intro to a specific service.  The intent is not to be comprehensive, but rather, highlight the services that will most be needed by 1Ls and leave a positive, welcoming, and friendly impression on students so that they might return to the library to learn about other services throughout their entire time in law school.

Another regular time to reach out to students is during finals.  It is commonly known that final exam time is particularly stressful for law students.  Some libraries that are otherwise open to the public or their larger university community will close to all but law students during the reading period and exam week.  One method that many libraries use to reach students during this time is to invite them into the library and offer them stress-reducing activities.  While these are not traditional library services, the activities can meet students at their time of need and assist them in finding school/life balance.  These activities can vary widely depending on your institution and can be things like providing free healthy food and snacks, access to therapy animals, and small things like coloring pages, puzzles, or games. In addition to stress relievers, libraries will sometimes offer practical help such as earplugs, longer library hours, and more restricted access in order to create an environment conducive for studying.

Many libraries also attempt to find other specific times throughout the year to offer special events to students.  Often these events are tied to a known holiday or a locally celebrated time to promote added interest.  Some examples include special events around Halloween or Valentine’s day.  Another example is to use a time-honored college tradition like March Madness to offer a gamified opportunity to learn about electronic resources.  One annual event that offers a great way to engage with the library is National Library Week.  See details about the University of Washington’s Law Library special programming during library week in the Concept in Action Box.


National Library Week activities. National Library Week, typically in late April, is put on by the American Libraries Association and is an opportunity to celebrate the role of libraries in the community. At the University of Washington School of Law, we always use National Library Week as a reason to offer fun activities to promote and celebrate the law library and its services. Examples of these activities include:

  • #Shelfies–Take a selfie of you in your favorite area of the law library to study. Post to Instagram and tag the law library. Best entrant wins a Ruth Bader Ginsburg coloring book. All entrants get posted to a physical display at the library’s entrance. 
  • Course Reserve BINGO–there are lots of free programs online that will allow you to make a customized BINGO card. You can use common books used by law students, library locations, etc. to create your card and then host a BINGO game (in person or virtually) with prizes for the winners.
  • Librarian Story Hour–specifically for law students with children, offer a story hour (in person or virtual) where librarians read their favorite law-related children’s books

Rewarding Aspects

While this chapter focuses on the work to be performed by student services librarians, we would be remiss if we did not also point out the many rewards of serving the needs of students while in law school.  In so many ways, student services librarians are helping to shape the attorneys and legal professionals of the future.  Librarians play a major role in the educational process, especially in helping to develop legal research skills.  In addition, librarians collaborate with the law school student services departments in assisting students to find work life balance as well as creating a safe learning environment.  One of the most rewarding aspects of student services librarianship is the sincere appreciation expressed by students who have been helped and taught by librarians at their point of need.

  • American Association of Law Libraries. “Academic Law Libraries SIS Student Services Committee.” Accessed July 30, 2020.
  • Bean, Barbara H. “Cite-Checking Boot Camp: How Librarians Can Help the Cite-Checking Process Run Smoothly,” in “A Publication Based on the 59th Annual National Conference of Law Reviews: Best Practices of Law Reviews,” symposium issue, Thomas M. Cooley Law Review 30, no. 2 (2013): 85-266
  • Duke University Libraries. “Understanding the Needs of Black Students at Duke.” April 2020.
  • Keele, Benjamin J., Michelle Pearse. “How Librarians Can Help Improve Law Journal Publishing.” Law Library Journal 104, no. 3 (Summer 2012): 383-410
  • Lewis, Danielle E.  “Emergency Preparedness in the Legal Librarian Community in the United States: Current Culture and the Need to Expand Collaboration.” Legal Reference Services Quarterly 37, no. 3-4 (2019): 204-235
  • Martineau, Andrew. “Comfort, Functionality, and Popcorn: How UNLV’s Law Library Remodel Is Improving the Law Student Experience.” AALL Spectrum 19, no. 7 (May 2015): 31-33


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Introduction to Law Librarianship Copyright © 2021 by Cheryl Kelly Fischer; Sangeeta Pal; and Alena L. Wolotira is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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