Is there a role for the subject specialist in today’s academic law library? Have we become too “lean and mean” for them to survive and thrive in today’s market? Are we so concerned with out “bottom line” and the high cost of staff that we cannot afford them? Whatever the budget process, it seems that, like politics, all management is local, and these decisions depend on each institution’s particular and sometimes peculiar mix of faculty, programs, librarians, and custom.
We’ve long been accustomed to international and foreign law librarians as specialists. These librarian specialists have been among the most respected and productive law librarians. They have also been successful in establishing institutional support for their interests. Foreign, comparative and international librarians established an AALL Special Interest Section in 1985, but they were active as an organized entity in the AALL as early as 1947. Foreign, comparative and international law librarians are well established as specialists both within the AALL and in their own institutions in law schools throughout the country. But, what about the interests of other subject specialists? In today’s market can law libraries afford to support specialists rather than generalists? Are our libraries fated to be organized along functional lines only? Is any serious organization of our services by subject specialty past? Perhaps at this point, there are more questions than answers.
Yes, there is a personal reason for this reflection. My responsibilities as instruction librarian at New York Law School have become focused on tax during the past two years. This focus began when I was assigned to be the librarian liaison for the tax faculty, who had previously been assigned to three different librarians. This change came during the planning stages of a new LLM program in Taxation. Later I was asked to co-teach the required Tax Research and Writing Seminar. Gradually I was assigned or simply assumed responsibility for a number of projects supporting the tax program including preparing guides to tax research resources at the library, guides to web resources, legislative history, collection development and collection management issues for the area. During this time I also developed a one hour introduction to tax research class for the J.D. students.
As I began to work in this area, I approached it as I have approached new responsibilities during the past three decades - I looked to my librarian colleagues for help. I looked to them in our organizations and its entities, in listservs, and in the library periodical literature. What I found was that some librarians had been very active in the tax area. These librarians had published some outstanding guides and articles, both in print and on the web. What I did not find was evidence of institutional support for “tax librarians” in our organizations. I also did not find a listserv or other means of communication. However, our sister organization, Special Libraries Association, does have an active tax roundtable which I will probably join.
I began to wonder how many librarians are “out there” working independently as tax law librarians who might be in a position to help each other if we could establish more formal and informal means of communication. Recently I sent out notices to listservs inquiring about others who worked in tax law. During the first day I received twenty responses from academic law librarians who support tax LLM programs or faculty either formally or informally. Many were quite enthusiastic about the possibility of setting up a listserv for informal communication among the group. Surely with this much interest we will find ways to communicate and share our various issues and solutions. Communication is a good beginning, and perhaps it will lead to more collaborative efforts.
Now, however, this exploration into tax specialization has provoked further questions about the role of the subject specialist in academic libraries. Time is ripe for a serious look at how our academic law libraries meet the need for specialized expertise in various legal fields. Many of our law schools beg, figuratively at least, for subject expertise. Our law schools often have recognized subject specialties and well-known scholars working in these areas. The schools may also have LLM programs in the same subject areas. Many of our libraries have developed subject collection strength over a long period of time. In these instances faculty and students undoubtedly look to the library for expertise. Are our libraries providing this subject expertise? Are our libraries supporting the professional development required to acquire the expertise and to keep it current? Are the various entities in our professional associations supporting us as subject specialists in useful ways?
If you have duties as a subject specialist in your law library, please send me an email (email@example.com), noting your area of subject specialty, and whether your duties as a subject specialist are a formal part of your position description or simply a result of informal custom. Please contact me so that we can development an inventory of those institutions with librarian subject specialists and perhaps develop some new methods to share and develop this expertise.