A recent study by the Pew Research Center suggests that 11% of Americans don't use the internet. 11%! For those of us who spend our days talking about ways to more effectively use digital resources, 11% is a staggering statistic. At the Harris County Law Library, we're on the internet every day. Pulling a case in Westlaw or Lexis requires connectivity. Assisting self-represented litigants (SRLs) access TexasLawHelp.org for forms and information does too. Access to many forms of legal information is either bolstered by internet access or, in some instances, totally dependent on it.
Legal aid organizations across the country are also on the internet every day leveraging technology to close justice gaps. In Texas, we have a variety of success stories. TexasLawHelp.org counts thousands of page hits each month and offers chat services to SRLs across the state. Houston Volunteer Lawyers and Lone Star Legal Aid share information and leverage automated intake forms on their websites. The Houston Bar Association and Texas State Law Library distribute legal information to SRLs on the most needed topics, including family and consumer law.
Can you see where this is going? What happens when our efforts to offer legal aid and share legal information are focused on a medium that the intended recipients either cannot or do not access? Diving further into the Pew report, we see the problem is exacerbated. The digital divide is concentrated in vulnerable populations that legal aid services are intended to help. Specifically,
- 35% of Seniors (65+),
- 19% of those earning less than $30k per year, and
- 35% of individuals without a high school education
do not use the internet. Building on these base statistics, if 19% of those living in poverty do not use the internet at all, how many of the remaining 81% have had the opportunity to develop the skill set to use it well?
Ok, enough doom and gloom. What do we do? Answer: remember that public law libraries are partners in access to justice. If the issue is lack of access to equipment, libraries offer public access computers. If it's digital literacy, we offer reference assistance and free learning opportunities. If information literacy is the issue, we help patrons every day wade through nonsense Google results to find authoritative resources like TexasLawHelp.org. And all of these resources are available for free to all at locations across the country.
For more information on the role of public law libraries in access to justice, take a look at the following resources: