Sheffield 2007: BIALL Annual Study Conference
by Edward T. Hart
British and Irish Association of Law Librarians (BIALL) is the British Isles couterpart to AALL, and like AALL is a group of legal information professionals who join together for educational and professional development purposes. BIALL members hold an annual meeting to undertake professional development, hear the latest on products and services, and network with their colleagues. About 600 registrants attended over the course of the most recent meeting, providing a much smaller, more congenial atmosphere than AALL meetings. What also contributed to the closeness was that all the programming was in one venue with only the two evening social functions short walks away in the city center.
The meeting was 14-16 June, in Sheffield, England. Sheffield is England's fourth largest city and is located in Northern England. The city's history is linked to many heavy industries related to its being a center of coal and steel, but it has transformed itself into a hub of light industry and education. For outdoors folks, Sheffield's location on the eastern edge of the Peak District makes it a good starting point for exploring the moors and scenery featured in so many British films.
Importance of Networking
The meeting runs for three days, with the first and third days centered on plenary presentations, while the middle day is one of parallel sessions along the academic and firm tracks familiar to law librarians everywhere. The opening speaker this year was Rob Brown, a relationship and marketing expert, who gave an inspiring talk about networking, called "How to Work a Room." One of the clearest examples of where to start networking that he explored, and that would be used as an opening line at nearly every break and social event, was how to recognize the way people grouped themselves when standing at a function such as a reception.
How people stood in their groupings told whether they were open or closed to additional members. Quick example: two individuals facing each other within an arm's length were probably less open to the introduction of an additional individual, while two individuals standing side-by-side would likely welcome additions to their conversation.
Other plenary speakers included Derek Law of Strathclyde University, who spoke on the future of libraries and Phil Bradley who talked about "Web 2.0: the Issues and Law Libraries." It was enlightening to hear issues shared with librarians everywhere, discussed from a British and Irish point of view. This continued in the parallel sessions I attended, mostly given by academic law librarians, although one presentation was from information specialists at a Dublin law firm. A common concern of direct interest to American law librarians, was the Anglo-Irish academic law librarians' repeated discussion of how law librarians have the ability to influence research instruction. Librarians from Oxford and Sheffield spoke about adopting and developing electronic platforms to deliver research instruction to their students, both as part of existing courses and as new programs. One aspect touched on by each presenter was the need for law faculty to support programs of research instruction.
Many of the vendors we know,Thomson-West, LexisNexis, and Oxford University Press filled the exhibitors' hall with interesting twists on their products. It was informative to see how WestlawUK is adapted for British legal education which is dominated by the undergraduate market. The issues in the UK are less about keyword searching and more about retrieving documents.
The fun side of the conference included two social events which were dinners: one casual with an 80's cover band in a hotel ballroom, and the other more formal, black-tie optional, in the Cutlers' Hall, home of the Company of Cutlers who govern the cutlers' guild and regulate the quality of Sheffield cutlery.
One interesting side note: the average age of attendees in Sheffield was lower than one observes at AALL. For a large number of British and Irish law librarians, particularly those in academic settings, law librarian positions are at an entry level that they will move out of if they seek promotion or more responsibility. Only a handful of academic law libraries, such as the Bodleian Law Library at Oxford, have the administrative structure Americans would recognize.
Next year's meeting is 12-14 June 2008 in Dublin at the Royal Dublin Society. If the opportunity presents itself, I highly recommend anyone with interest in Anglo-Irish legal information or comparative law librarianship to attend. And if an additional inducement is needed, Dublin is home to many great cultural institutions, including Guinness.