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Retiring Washington County law librarian Laura Orr will continue work on research projects after years educating public

HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Laura Orr, who retired as Washington Countys law librarian in July, dedicated herself to  providing access to justice for everyone.If you think you know all there is to know, you’re not talking to enough people.

That’s what Laura Orr found out while working as Washington County’s law librarian since 2002 — and what most people, attorneys and non-attorneys alike, realize after talking to Orr.

“If you read only what’s in the statutes, cases and Constitution, you’ll be absolutely wrong about what the law is,” Orr likes to say.

She has dedicated her working years to connecting attorneys, civilians and students with the right legal resources with the underlying mission of giving every person who walks through her doors “access to justice,” a guaranteed right under the U.S. Constitution.

As a public law librarian, Orr considered it her duty to make up-to-date legal resources accessible to anyone in search of them, not just those with above-average incomes or higher education.

Access to legal information “may make a difference between your civil rights being upheld and not being upheld,” Orr said. “It’s not just dusty old history. These documents of law are totally relevant.”

Orr retired from Washington County July 24. Lee Van Duzer, a former U.S. Court of Appeals librarian for the Ninth Circuit, stepped in to take her place.

Staff members at the county’s law library, located in the Juvenile Services Building on Lincoln Street in Hillsboro, field about 50 requests for legal information a week, about half of which come from attorneys. Many people aren’t aware of the services available at the law library, said Sue Ludington, the county’s assistant law librarian.

The law librarians help patrons access print and online resources as well as use databases that catalog multitudes of case rulings, law reviews, articles, legal forms and more. While they aren’t allowed to give legal advice, law librarians like Orr assist library users with everything from finding Supreme Court cases referencing discrimination to providing guidance on finding a mediator for a divorce settlement.

Each day was different

Every day brought different legal questions from the public. If someone wasn’t actually charged with being a sex offender but it is on his record, how can we get that removed? What duties do trustees have to beneficiaries? Can I ask the court to review a housing decision to evict me and not let me claim housing benefits ever again? How do I research a crime that occurred a few years ago?

Orr’s career started after she earned a master’s degree in library science and a law degree in the early 1980s. Becoming a law librarian “was the perfect marriage of the two,” Orr said.

“I didn’t have a calling to practice law, but found it really interesting. I love law and politics,” she added.

Orr has always brought an above-and-beyond passion — and a sense of humor — to her workplace. While working at Yale Law School as a librarian in the 1990s, for example, she wrote to Bill and Hillary Clinton to ask them if it was true that they met in her library.

“I was outside looking in. Hillary was inside and walked outside. A statue marking the spot would be great!” Bill Clinton wrote back.

Orr recently donated the note with Clinton’s signature to the Yale Law Library archives.

Orr always considered her work as a law librarian “a calling.” After working for decades at universities, Orr transitioned to “serving the public — truly another calling,” she said.

Law librarians often find themselves dealing with a lot of frustrated, emotional patrons who have been shuffled around the county’s services, Ludington pointed out.

“So a lot of our job is just listening and trying to find out what people really need. We don’t want to be the people who throw our hands up and say, ‘we can’t help you,’” Ludington said.

‘Access to justice’

Javier Spyker has worked with Orr consistently over the last year since he relocated his law practice to Beaverton.

Many times while researching in the county law library, Spyker said he often witnessed civilians come in for help.

“She really stands for this idea of access to justice,” Spyker said. “If you get a notice in the mail that you’re being sued and you have 30 days to respond and you can’t afford representation, you’d be lucky if you ran into Laura.”

Most recently, Orr helped Spyker research complex civil litigation in the First Circuit of Massachusetts.

Spyker has used the law library at his alma mater and in Multnomah County, but “I’ve never found a librarian who’s willing to work so hard to help you get to the answer,” he said. “She’s an excellent researcher with a tremendous pool of knowledge. She has a passion and intellectual curiosity for finding the answer.”

Easier access

Most people think they can just Google the information they need, Orr said, but she has found that to be ineffective and even detrimental for most people trying to traverse legal complications. That’s why she’s dedicated so much time to make accessing these resources easier.

Orr started and maintained the Oregon Legal Research Blog for years, which details research sources for a variety of common legal situations, offers present examples of legal debate and highlights new laws and rulings. She also worked with Washington County Cooperative Library Services (WCCLS) to make HeinOnline, a database full of journal articles, Supreme Court cases, early American case laws and more, available free of charge to anyone with a WCCLS library card.

“It’s a labor love,” Orr said of her work.

While she plans to fill her retirement spending time with family and friends, making soap-box racer cars and starting a personal blog about the 10 years she spent commuting from her southeast Portland home to Hillsboro via TriMet, she’s also going to spend the next year slowly transitioning out of her work.

But she’s not ready to give it up cold turkey. Orr is continuing to work on a few legal research projects, including one on Oregon’s legislative history.

“It’s hard to give up the work I love,” she said.

“It’s been so wonderful to work with someone so genuinely passionate. Laura had such a network of contacts and resources and brought so many people together,” said Ludington, who worked with Orr for about three years. “She made an impact nationally. She was so influential in the state and beyond.”