New legal self-help station helps residents help themselves

News Photo by Julie Riddle Kelly Altman, youth librarian at the Presque Isle District Library’s Rogers City branch, last week explains a new computer station designated to help residents access legal self-help resources.

ROGERS CITY — Even do-it-yourselfers sometimes need a helping hand.

A computer station recently set up at the Rogers City library gives people wading through an unfamiliar legal landscape a go-to digital hub for forms, to-do lists, and answers to questions.

With that helpful technology comes a human trained to walk alongside people uncomfortable with computers or who simply feel better not going it alone.

Library staff pursued a partnership with Michigan Legal Help — a nonprofit organization supporting people representing themselves in civil legal matters — when they realized their area lacked a central place where residents could come for such help, said Nicole Grulke, reference librarian at the Presque Isle District Library’s Rogers City branch.

Grulke and another staff member, designated as “navigators,” attended training to help them steer residents through a website provided by Michigan Legal Help.

Library staff can’t offer legal advice, but they can give residents the extra guidance and support they may need to navigate their legal issues, Grulke said.

“It’s like having a personal assistant helping you out,” Grulke said. “It’s just an extra set of hands that can help get you where you want to go.”

The self-help computer station, formally titled the Presque Isle County Legal Self-Help Center, makes use of a desk in the center of the library. A privacy screen protector blocks the computer’s monitor from anyone not using it.

A few residents have checked out the station that’s been up and running for a few weeks, but the staff expects more users once word of its existence gets around, Grulke said.

Librarians staffing the library’s front desk last week said people regularly turn to the library for help finding legal documents. In the past, that meant wading through a bulky book, making photocopies and hoping previous patrons hadn’t ripped the pages out.

Now, librarians can quickly click patrons to a needed document and help print it out, the workers said.

People come to the library seeking legal forms of all kinds, from lease and purchase agreements, power of attorney forms, and divorce paperwork to wills, personal protection order petitions, and bankruptcy documents, staff members said.

Funded by the Michigan State Bar Foundation, the Michigan Supreme Court, and the Legal Services Corporation, the website walks users through Michigan legal procedures related to employment, housing, personal safety, debt, public assistance, and other matters.

The site provides contact information for local community service organizations, attorneys, and courts.

Without the self-help website, a search engine such as Google might link to the forms people need — or, those people may end up on a wild goose chase, ultimately using outdated or out-of-state paperwork requiring more work to correct, Grulke said.

Michigan Legal Help’s website directs users to correct, Michigan-specific forms that will get people the results they want, she said.

The library has partnered with the county’s courts, which now refer residents to the self-help station knowing they’ll get the help they need and return with the right paperwork, Grulke said.

Anyone can access the website at home, but the library station gives website access to people without internet access or who can’t search for legal help at home for other reasons.

Of equal importance, the library station comes with librarians who like answering questions and are there to help, Grulke said.

“If we don’t know the answer, we can find it,” Grulke said. “We’re a human search engine, I guess.”

Residents from any nearby county can access the station during the library’s normal hours, with a trained librarian available as a navigator on weekdays.

Northeast Michigan residents can also find Michigan Legal Help stations in the lobby of the Alpena County courthouse and at the Alcona County Library Harrisville branch.

Offering help with legal self-help is a natural fit for libraries, where librarians look for needs in the community and try to meet those needs, Grulke said.

“We’re here for the community to be a place of safety, whether you’re 8 years old or 98 years old,” Grulke said. “We’re here to help you, to the best of our ability.”

For Michigan-specific legal self-help, visit michiganlegalhelp.org.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.


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