ARCHIVED: Renaissance of Law Librarianship in the Information Age Special Committee Report

PrintEmail

(1996)

Toward a Renaissance in Law Librarianship
Contact: Kathleen Carrick


I. Introduction

II. Fundamental Changes Challenging Law Libraries

  • Technology
  • Economic and Social Change
III. The New Law Librarian in the Information Age
  • A Future for Law Librarianship?
  • Redefining Law Librarianship
  • Professional Mission and Values
  • Professional Knowledge
  • Professional Traits, Attitudes and Skills
  • Developing the New Law Librarian

 


 

I. Introduction

To fulfill an initiative proposed in the AALL's Strategic Plan for 1994-98, President Carol Billings appointed the Special Committee on the Renaissance of Law Librarianship in the Information Age to redefine law librarianship in light of radical changes in systems of information delivery and to recommend measures the AALL might take to facilitate the transformation of the profession in accord with that definition.

The Committee met at length during the AALL annual meetings in 1994 and 1995 and the AALS annual meetings in 1995 and 1996, exchanged and commented on many individual documents, statements, reports, and drafts, and published a "white paper" or draft of issues for membership comment in the 1995 AALL meeting newspaper. The Committee offers this final report including recommendations to the Executive Board in partial satisfaction of its charge.

The report is divided into three basic sections: Fundamental Changes Challenging Law Libraries, the New Law Librarian in the Information Age, and AALL Initiatives.

 

II. Fundamental Changes Challenging Law Libraries

As the time-honored maxim goes, change is the only constant. Though something of a cliche, this maxim is as true in law librarianship as in virtually every walk of life. During its first century as a profession (from approximately 1875 to 1975), law librarianship experienced three momentous changes. Before the turn of the century, West, Lawyers Co-op, and Shepard's introduced new sets of materials that revolutionized legal research and the practice of law librarianship. During this century the American Legal process was itself transformed from an overwhelmingly common law system to one combining statutory, administrative, and case law, with looseleaf services constituting its principal new research product. Finally, law libraries grew from staid, lightly staffed law-book warehouses to large, complex, dynamic, full-service research operations. The first one hundred years also saw other less far-reaching changes such as the addition of interdisciplinary materials to law library collections and the expansion of service to anyone in need of legal resources.

Although no one should gainsay the transformational impact of these developments on law librarianship, the changes were generally gradual and did not essentially alter the basic roles of the law librarian: to collect and organize physical materials; to instruct library patrons in their use; and to retrieve for users information contained in the collections, or elsewhere if unavailable in the library.

TECHNOLOGY

Conversely, we believe it incontrovertible that law librarianship today faces a veritable sea change. Along with a number of far-reaching economic and social developments, highly sophisticated information technology is totally transforming the nature of law librarianship. We are now in the midst of the digital age and law librarians must become legal information specialists capable of performing in heretofore inconceivable functions.

It all began in the mid-1970's with the introduction of computer-assisted legal research systems and online cataloging services. Soon after the advent of CALR and OCLC, academic and other large law libraries began automating their internal operations, in some cases through OCLC's online system and in others through turnkey systems, either autonomous or as part of a main library system. Now, public catalogs, serial records, acquisitions, circulation, and financial accounts are automated in most law libraries of sufficient size for this to be cost effective. Simultaneously with the introduction of internal automation, most law libraries contracted with online bibliographic services to provide various nonlaw indexes and other reference sources. By the early 1980's avant-garde librarians were experimenting with microcomputers, student computer labs (in academic libraries), and CD-ROMS. Now all three are commonplace in law libraries. Finally, the information highway in the form of the Internet has been routed through most law libraries. Electronic mail is now pervasive and web home pages are fast becoming so.

The rapidity with which the digital revolution has advanced and the totality of its impact can't be overstated. In only twenty years, law libraries have gone from being entirely manual and paper in nature to combinations of manual/paper and electronic, with the latter permeating every aspect. Paper continues to be used both operationally and in the collections but in a constantly declining proportion. Many law libraries are also now responsible, beyond the traditional role of libraries, for all their parent institutions' computer operations and related services.

The impact consists of more than the physical change in communication methodology and publication format. Paraprofessionals increasingly are doing work that was performed by professionals in the past, and library staffs at all levels are now being called on to perform entirely different kinds of tasks. Public service personnel must be knowledgeable about and select among dozens of possible sources of information. Acquisitions/collection development personnel must be knowledgeable about and make decisions regarding the purchase of materials in hard copy, microform, CD-ROM, online, computer disk, video, and multimedia formats. Catalogers must provide bibliographic and intellectual access to this full range of resources, including online resources that may not be owned by the institution. Library personnel must take the initiative through the Internet and other forums to provide information alternatives to commercial or governmental vendors. Library administrators must maintain far more sophisticated financial and accounting records than were necessary in the days of exclusively paper and microform publishing. They must now negotiate contracts for types of equipment and services unimaginable in simpler eras. Where possible, they must creatively market their libraries' services and actively seek new sources of funding. Finally, the technological invasion of libraries necessitates the designing of new physical and human resource structures and organizations.

There is every indication, moreover, that the technological revolution is only in its early stages. We can expect the capacity and power of microprocessors to continue to expand exponentially. Fiber optics, wireless communication, and previously undreamed of technological developments will revolutionize the speed, capacity and quality of communications. Laser disk capacity and capability will continue to advance. Video quality and compactness should improve into the far future with multimedia applications becoming commonplace. The information superhighway will continue to grow and change in ways that will allow for further innovation in information organizations and retrieval. Other completely new and unimaginable technologies are sure to emerge in the years ahead that will transform libraries in unpredictable ways. Whether these developments soon -- or ever -- eventuate in the paperless or virtual law library is not the issue. The point is that change will be rapid, it will be dramatic, and it will be comprehensive. Thus, just as their work is now different than twenty years ago, we can anticipate that in the future law librarians will be performing drastically different roles and tasks.

 

ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL CHANGE

Unfortunately, during the same period in which technology has gained its foothold and proliferated, law library budgets have stagnated. The reasons for this budgetary stagnation were (and are) various and contestable but its reality is undeniable. The process began in the 1970's for academic law libraries and in the late 1980's for law firms. In the 1990's, fiscal constraints have reached new levels for government libraries, as well. Adding to law library woes, hyper-inflation in library materials continued unabated and the value of the dollar declined, raising the prices of foreign materials even faster. While financial resources were stagnating or declining relative to costs, law libraries were expected to acquire information sources in alternative formats, to provide several additional services (e.g., student computer labs, searching of online services and the Internet, instructing users in new technologies), and to acquire the infrastructure to support those new sources and services.

Another development placing new demands on the beleaguered resources of law libraries is the globalization of law. Firm and corporate libraries especially are now expected to serve attorneys engaged in international trade and investment. This requires expanded collections, facility with new networks and sources, possible expectations of language skills, and other new functions.

Another dramatic change affecting law librarianship is the recent spate of mergers and take-overs of publishers and information vendors. Between them, Thomson and Thomson and Reed Elsevier now own more than a dozen formerly independent vendors. In addition, a number of new publishers of traditional books have entered the competition for dwindling library resources. It is too early to say exactly what the effects of this activity will be, but the concentration of firms has the unmistakable appearance of oligopoly. As we know, oligopolies tend to produce rising prices. On the other hand, new publishers have entered the market and, when combined with the proliferation of CD-ROM and online services, this new competition may counterbalance the tendency toward higher prices through the concentration of established vendors in a few mega-firms.

Nonetheless, it is safe to say there is little prospect of a resurgence in budget growth or a decrease in the demands on law libraries. Consequently, legal information specialists must develop skills in doing and acquiring more with less. Though this appears to be a logical impossibility, the amazing capabilities of technology provide the potential for fulfilling end-user needs while operating with reduced financial resources. Accomplishing this daunting goal, however, truly demands a renaissance in law librarianship.

In the social realm, a significant change in perception and attitude has altered the dynamic of all American institutions, including law libraries. Law librarians are now expected to acknowledge the specific needs of peoples of different colors, cultures, education levels and backgrounds and to adapt their professional roles in accord with a commitment to democratic values. Library staffing, while visible, is not the only area requiring commitment to diversity, and we must ensure that our collections encompass resources for all groups and that our services are designed to be inclusive and not exclusive. Technology itself is not value neutral and we can no longer pretend that racial, ethnic, social, and economic disparities do not exist. Differences in how we ought to respond to the reality of disparities and diversity are inevitable but respond we must. How we respond will be a major ongoing challenge for law libraries and for the profession. Nothing less than a demonstrated commitment to assuring the basic value and equality of the individual befits this profession.


III. The New Law Librarian in the Information Age

A FUTURE FOR LAW LIBRARIANSHIP?

Before attempting to redefine law librarianship in the digital age, it is appropriate to ask whether the present period of technological change utilizing the active participation of law librarians is only transitional and whether the era on the far side of the transition will include a meaningful role for law librarians. The more pessimistic among us fear that the information revolution will -- in the not too distant future -- culminate in the virtual library with essentially autonomous end users. In the case of law librarians, this scenario has lawyers, judges, law professors, and law students conducting all of their legal research on desktop computers, with little or no need for assistance from legal information specialists. Without books to buy, without printed sources to organize and retrieve, and with the legal profession capable of unassisted use of modern technology, law librarians will be without a mission. As evidence for this likelihood, the pessimists cite the present undervaluing of librarians, including the enthusiasm of lawyers for directly accessing electronic sources without the use of librarians as intermediate or consultants.

This is truly a bleak prospect, but how realistic is it? No one, of course, can predict the next few years with any assurance, let alone the next few decades. There are, however, other scenarios that seem more plausible to most of us. The one we find most persuasive avers that for many years alternative information systems (books, microform, laser disks, video, multimedia, and computers) will be employed by researchers and that information specialists will be required to make choices about their acquisition, organization, and use. These specialists, moreover, will in some instances need to create relevant databases themselves, instruct in their use, and serve as consultants to the researchers.

In contrast, for the more pessimistic scenario to occur, several unlikely developments must take place. First, users must collectively determine that books are virtually never as convenient as digital media. This seems questionable, however, in light of the existing problems with electronic research, such as the difficulty browsing in it, its lack of portability compared to individual paper documents, and the inconvenience of simultaneously using several digital documents, and the inconvenience of simultaneously using several digital documents compared to spreading their paper versions out on one's desk. For the virtual library to supplant the traditional library completely, moreover, computer programs must become more user friendly, proliferating data bases must become highly integrated, and search methods must significantly improve on Boolean logic and the current state of natural language searching. Finally, even if these difficulties are largely overcome and all research is conducted electronically, the systems' deficiencies, complexities, and ever-expanding capacities and capabilities will surely require information specialists to advise and instruct on their use. In other words, a library without walls does not mean a library without librarians. On the other hand, a virtual library is likely to require fewer clerical and support staff, and technical services specialists are likely to apply their skills in new ways to solve some of the problems of database design and organization mentioned above.

 

REDEFINING LAW LIBRARIANSHIP

Rather than describe only what is or should be new in the definition of law librarianship, it is more useful to attempt a comprehensive definition, highlighting elements that have always been and will perhaps always be a part of our profession. There should be value in reminding ourselves what we have always been about. As we progress through this attempt at a redefinition, the new elements will be obvious.

The model of law librarianship appropriate for the information age represents an ideal. The ideal law librarian is in harmony with the values at the heart of the legal profession and librarianship, is completely knowledgeable about everything relevant to legal information, and has all the necessary character traits, attitudes, and skills to be a superbly effective legal information specialist. This librarian has also integrated an appreciation of the importance of library services into the larger culture of the library's parent organization. Though none of us may legitimately claim to embody this paragon of librarianly virtue, we may nonetheless benefit from reflecting on this ideal, on how we can individually become better librarians, and on how our libraries can become more productive and efficient.

 

PROFESSIONAL MISSION AND VALUES

The foundation of our profession is its mission. In its broadest sense, that mission can perhaps be characterized simply as one of serving the information needs of the legal profession and the legal information needs of the public. All the functions of acquiring, collecting, organizing, retrieving, and disseminating legal and related information are only subsets of that basic mission.

In order to accomplish this mission it is necessary that we ascribe to a set of essential values or principles, including genuine belief that the world is a better place when people and institutions have optimum access to information, faith that the world is also a better place when the rule of law prevails, conviction that serving the information needs of the legal profession is a noble calling, belief that democracy is the best political order, firm conviction that an effective democracy requires ready public access to law, opposition to censorship, and commitment to fostering the equal participation of diverse peoples in library services and library employment, especially those who have been previously excluded or marginalized. If some or most of that sounds too idealistic or even sanctimonious, we remind our colleagues that belief in the value of what one does and who one serves is a precondition to doing one's work most effectively.

 

PROFESSIONAL KNOWLEDGE

It seems appropriate next to address the profession's knowledge base. What do we need to know to achieve our mission? To be most effective as law librarians, we should first have a solid grounding in the liberal arts, particularly the humanities and social sciences. This background allows us to best understand the institutional, social, psychological, political, and economic context we operate in, whether we are specifically engaged in technical matters, service obligations, or administration. Although it is frequently assumed that technical knowledge alone is sufficient to be an effective information specialist, we can in fact better serve our clientele, make better institutional decisions, raise more money, and do many other tasks better through that greater contextual understanding.

Second, law librarians do not always need to be lawyers, but they should be knowledgeable about the legal system and the legal profession. One cannot serve the profession or the public, if one doesn't understand legal institutions and their modes of operation.

Third, law librarians must be well informed about information and library science theory. Again, technical information is not sufficient; in order to provide high quality service, professional legal information specialists ought also to understand the purposes, functions, systems, and alternative methodologies of information creation, organization, and delivery. This isn't to suggest that law librarians must be philosophers but that they ought to have a reasonably firm grasp of information theory.

Fourth, law librarians need to be knowledgeable about legal resources and legal research, including their history. This should apply to all library professionals, not only those specializing in public services. Technical service personnel can better understand and perform their work if they also understand the library's clientele and its needs. Public service personnel can better understand legal resources and legal research if they are also knowledgeable about the legal publishing industry and the library's business relationships. Administrators can make better decisions about the library's resources.

Fifth, we need to be well informed about commercial, governmental, and nonprofit information providers, including the traditional publishing industry (especially legal publishing), vendors of online, CD-ROM, and media products, and providers of Internet sources. Public services specialists, as well as librarians specializing in the acquisition of information, should stay abreast of developments in the trade such as mergers of existing firms, new providers, and the demise of existing vendors.

Sixth, all law library professionals should be knowledgeable about information technology. We should understand its basic principles, its capabilities, its deficiencies, its various manifestations and newest innovations, its applications in different contexts, and its costs and cost effectiveness.

Seventh, a law librarian needs to be well versed in the culture, structure, and likely future of the organization where they work. Academics need to know where the institution is going and how top administrators plan to get there, law firm librarians need to know about the firm, its alliances, directions and priorities. Government librarians need to know about the citizens they serve, and the priorities of the government entities they work for. Libraries do not operate in isolation.

Finally, legal information specialists can be more effective today if they are well versed in a number of management and administrative functions. For example, in an age of declining budgets or minimal budget increases and increasing demands for service, it is incumbent on librarians to be knowledgeable and aggressive marketers of their libraries and library services. Knowledge of appropriate organizational structures, proven human resource and technology management methods, accounting techniques, and budgeting is also indispensable in the modern library. While most of us acquire the expertise to perform these functions on our own, a formalized program that would advance our greater knowledge of proven methods would improve our performances and help guide our continuing education.

 

PROFESSIONAL TRAITS, ATTITUDES AND SKILLS

Knowledge by itself is of course insufficient to make an effective professional. There are additionally traits, characteristics, attitudes, and skills that, if held by law librarians, are likely to enhance their capabilities and add value to the services they perform.

Although law librarians, like other librarians, have been the objects of stereotyping, we often tend to use those same stereotypes ourselves when appraising our own profession. We typically consider it desirable for technical service professionals to be deliberate, detail-oriented, meticulous, and cautious. If, in the process, they also display rigid personality characteristics and are lacking in interpersonal skills, we tend to accept it as the price to pay for the desirable qualities. Conversely, we desire our public service staff to be out-going, imaginative, dogged, service oriented, and deferential to patrons. At the same time, we tolerate their inattention to library processes and ignorance of internal technical systems.

In the midst of today's technological revolution, we pay a high price for the negative features of those stereotypes. Divisions between technical and public services are breaking down. People in positions we still consider technical service in nature are engaged in designing innovative tools for our clientele. Our public service personnel are knowledgeable about intricate and complex technologies and understand the value to our users of systems and procedures developed either by others on the staff or even by themselves. Consequently, all law library professionals must be not only well informed about information technology and applications but also creative, innovative, imaginative, flexible, service oriented, cognizant of the effects of the technology on internal processes, and sufficiently people-oriented to interact effectively with the clientele.

The sort of versatility expected of today's legal information specialist is reflected in law firm librarian Kevin Miles recent description of the several hats he wears in his firm: "I am a cost-cutter, an information buyer, a library 're-creator,' and a TQM manager, to name just a few of my roles. Also, I sit on the Computer and Technology committee and influence the decisions about the future of our legal information stream."

The traits, then, that we have tended to overlook in the past are those that suit today's technological revolution: versatility, creativity, adaptability, flexibility, and being comfortable with changes in information technology. If there is one overcharging characteristic of the model law librarians in the information age, however, it is one who revels in change, who not only doesn't dread the next development in computer hardware or research software but is positively excited by its prospect and wishes to assume a leadership role in bringing change to the organization. This is not to suggest that we want to encourage technological determinism -- the tendency to adopt every new technological development whether useful or not ("If it can be done, it should be done.") In that respect, we wish law librarians to make decisions about information technology, as well as all their professional decisions, judiciously, analytically, and rationally. It is also important that today's legal information specialist not feel threatened by institutional reorganization or re-engineering made necessary by the rapidly changing legal information environment, but be ready to participate in those processes to improve the organization.

Increasingly, law libraries are expected to provide extensive and intensive group instruction in legal research. In the past academic library staff often participated in teaching introductory legal research (frequently just the library director delivering a few lectures), but today more personnel are involved and they are often involved more deeply, while also taking on additional responsibility for advanced legal research and for various kinds of new computer training. Law firms today are increasingly expecting their new associates to hit the ground running in many practitioner skills, including legal research. In addition, of course, legal research is far more complex than twenty years ago. Consequently, these firms have placed increasing demands on their library staffs to instruct new associates in legal research skills the associates either never learned or have forgotten. Law librarians in government should be training judges and legal staff on a continuing basis using individual instruction as well as group presentations. Since many corporate and government legal staffers do not have opportunities for continuing education, the librarian must be proactive in training. Public law librarians must explain to citizens not only the access points to legal information but now an increasing variety of types of literature. It is therefore, desirable for law library professionals to be skilled instructors who are articulate and comfortable with public speaking, as well as knowledgeable.

The confluence of technological change and budget constraints produces the need for another particular trait: equanimity in the face of frustrations from being unable immediately to acquire or adopt the latest technological development due to financial limitations. This does not mean that fatalism and passivity are desirable attitudes; only that being overcome by frustration is counter-productive.

Another skill worth special mention is the ability to work collaboratively in a team setting. Although group tasks have always been present in law libraries, the tendency in the past to rigid hierarchy and narrowly defined job responsibilities has tended to isolate library employees from each other, as well as from other departments of their parent organization. Rapid technological change, together with the resultant breakdown in hierarchy, on the other hand, compels cooperation, continual consultation, and joint decision making both within the library and with the larger organization. At the same time, though, that collaborative work becomes imperative, the need for high levels of innovations tends to encourage hiring autonomous, isolative, creative "geniuses." Such people are not always comfortable working with others, especially those they consider uninformed, insufficiently imaginative, or even hopelessly rigid. Personal tensions, of course, are inevitable in any group setting, and this is simply one kind that library staff need to be aware of and to resolve as best they can.

One might ask at this point about the traditional categorization of library activities and whether these categories aren't also skills that law librarians need. They include cataloging, acquisitions, circulation, reference, interlibrary loan, government documents, serials control, accounts, and administration. To a large degree these functions still exist and one, of course, prefers skilled practitioners of these trades. In performing public services functions, for example, it will continue to be essential for law librarians to be skilled interviewers and adept authors of bibliographic or instructional guides, in either paper or digital format. At the professional level, however, these specializations are breaking down and people are working across those divisions and working in ways that no longer fit neatly into such classifications. People working on developing and maintaining Web home pages, for instance, can't be categorized easily as doing "reference" or even public service. Those setting up and operating a CD-ROM LAN also can't be simply characterized as computer lab, automation, or public service personnel. Those working together from different libraries on a cooperative project will virtually always cross the boundaries of traditional library divisions. These types of activities instead require the skills that emanate from the kinds of knowledge and traits discussed above, such as creativity, adaptability, cooperativeness, and being well informed about and comfortable with technology.

Though we have emphasized breadth of knowledge, traits, and skills, such versatility is only partially realizable in actual law libraries. Everyone obviously can't know and be skilled at every library function. In particular, law libraries will require a number of librarians with extensive technological knowledge and experience and will also continue to require lawyer/librarians. But, as long as law librarians share the underlying professional values, various degrees of specialization are appropriate. In the information age, though, the packages of particular knowledge, traits, attitudes, and skills will vary from position-to-position and library-to-library.

 

DEVELOPING THE NEW LAW LIBRARIAN

The next section will address what the AALL can do to help in bringing about a renaissance in law librarianship, especially in the way of education. Individual librarians have a responsibility to pursue the highest educational goals and to carry out a plan for lifetime learning. The greater role in achieving this goal, however, rests with law libraries themselves. There are, in fact, many measures law libraries can take to promote the values, knowledge, traits, attitudes, and skills among its staff necessary to cope effectively with the information age.

First, there are numerous programs, workshops, seminars, institutions, conferences, and courses available to librarians imparting the necessary knowledge and skills training in virtually every aspect of information technology and many relevant aspects of business administration. Unfortunately, law libraries often lack sufficient funds to provide for the continuing education of staff beyond attendance at one or two law library association meetings. In other instances, they are simply short-sighted in their priorities and aren't aware of the advantages of a well informed staff. In an era when libraries are being inundated with new technologies, new information, and new demands, it is essential that staff members receive the education and training to cope effectively with these changes.

Second, law libraries with large enough staffs to make it cost effective should hold frequent inhouse training sessions to inform staff about recent technology and other relevant developments. Using inhouse personnel, or experts from neighboring libraries where necessary, can save considerable expense, but on occasion it may be useful to invite nationally recognized authorities to address the staff.

Third, in every instance in which we hire a new staff member, we should emphasize experience in, skill with, and knowledge of information technology. Furthermore, we should look for people with those traits and attitudes that effectively advance the goals of our library. Libraries may wish to consider psychological profiles or aptitude tests of some kind to identify candidates for professional positions with the desired traits.

Fourth, although several library schools have closed or down-sized their programs over the past decade, we will have to rely on these schools as the basic training ground for our profession. Several schools are developing cutting-edge technological training and several are radically revising their programs to provide what seem to be the appropriate theoretical foundations for information specialists. It appears that the other schools will soon institute similar reforms. We, thus, have reason to believe that a sufficient number of library schools will remain in operation to satisfy our needs. In other instances, M.I.S., computer science, M.B.A., or M.P.A. degrees may be appropriate. In a library that has responsibility for all the parent organization's technology, computer personnel in the library should have more than a library degree or something other than a library degree. Even absent authority over all the institution's automation, the volume and extent of technology in libraries alone may justify such degrees among staff. Administrators and administrative staff in larger libraries may find benefit in M.P.A. or M.B.A. degrees.