AALL Candidate Interviews

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AALL Vice President/President-Elect candidates Janis L. Johnston and Kathie J. Sullivan present some of their views about the profession in the following interview. We thank them for their participation.

1. A Managing Partner, Faculty Member, Board Member or Chief Information Officer is standing at the doorway of your library and makes the following observation. "Now that everything is available on the Internet, we don't really need all this space for books any more, do we?" How would you respond?

Kathie Sullivan:  The web can be our best friend or our worst enemy. Much information is on the Internet but we can't always trust its accuracy, authority, or comprehensiveness. Each search engine works differently, sites disappear daily, agencies change their names and design of web pages: we can't put all of our trust in a media that is still developing and evolving. We have relied on the printed word and books for centuries; we don't need to discard them because they are no longer "new." I'd hate to rely completely on a media that is dependent on external power, the vagaries of progress, or obtuse web design when assisting our user groups. After all, we still use flashlights despite the invention of the light bulb!
     However, some information, as we all know, is best found on the web, but ALL information may not be there at any one time or ever. It's a situation similar to the educational principle of "least restrictive environment;" in this case, the web may be the best place to put some documents and not the best for others. We have to think of the economics, the ease of access, the reliability, and the users when we talk about books vs. the Internet. The Internet is one of the tools we use to manage and navigate through information but it won't be the only tool we use.

Janis Johnston:  You know, that's true, there is a lot of great information on the Internet, but not everything the legal researcher needs is there. There are some very good sites available but much needed information is still not in digital form. Many other sites aren't always accurate, current or permanent. As yet no one has figured out how to archive digital information for the long term.
     The virtual law library may be coming, but it hasn't arrived just yet. Law librarians are working on creating standards for digital libraries to insure necessary information, whatever its format, is never lost or made inaccessible by limitations or changes in technology. But as information experts, we struggle with the basic question of whether access to information controlled by others is a viable substitute for permanently owning information. You just never know if an important database or file will simply disappear from the web.
     Even with the advantages of electronic sources, many users still prefer books for many types of research. There are real advantages to seeing the hierarchy and organization of information that books are better able to provide. Have you ever done extensive code research online? I'll take books for that task anytime!

2. Others have been sounding the death knell of our profession for several years, and yet, with the advance of information technology, most of us see a need for librarians now more than ever.

a. How do we redefine ourselves?
b. How do we continue to inspire and bring new people into the profession?
c. How do we create diversity?

JJ:  Librarians will always be around because ours is a necessary profession that adapts well to change. But occasionally we do need to redefine ourselves, and in my mind that is a process with two dimensions. First, let's analyze thoughtfully our core functions in a way that does not connect us to a particular information medium or a physical place. Then we can develop new terms and concepts to describe our expertise - not jargon or trendy phrases - but terminology that ties us more firmly to the future and reduces perceptions that we are pertinent only to the past. We know that whatever descriptors we use, our fundamental skills of gathering, organizing and accessing information will still be in demand. But a new way of talking about what we do might change attitudes as well as energize us for the future.
     Secondly, it is time to examine further our training. We have skills of continuing importance, but we need additional skills that will heighten our public profile. We can and should teach users more about the research process and the complexity of information sources. Our communication skills could improve to insure our voice is heard when decisions concerning libraries and legal information are made. Individually and collectively we need to better understand the economics of legal information and build our influence in the marketplace. Expanding skills is critical to claiming our place in the future.
     On a practical level, three things are needed to attract others to our profession: we have to make better salaries, we have to promote law librarianship at every opportunity, and we have to increase scholarship dollars. But inspiring others to join us takes additional tactics. I believe the most inspiring aspect of our profession is our commitment to service and to affordable legal information. We didn't become law librarians for the big bucks, the high status or the glamour! We're here because of our dedication. To inspire let's expose others to our core values and to the importance of our profession to society.
     We must seek diversity through aggressive activity. Our nation's demographic makeup is changing and we want law librarianship to reflect the society we serve. Let's begin working with career counselors in high schools, colleges, library schools and law schools. Increased scholarship funds, grants and awards will encourage diversity, but additionally, law librarianship should be presented as a great career option when young men and women first think about their futures. And for those of us already in the profession, we need to insure that our community is a welcoming environment for all.

KS:  Information is a commodity and a business needs information to sell itself. If we're visible, supporting the business goals of our employer, marketing, communicating, and creating connections between library users, we become an integral part of the parent organization. It's no accident our job titles have started migrating to "Knowledge Manager," "Chief Information Officer," and "Vice-president" or "Executive Director." Librarians who have these job titles lead our profession by example and pass along their insights and best practices. Mentoring is synonymous with diversity; networking, mentoring, and seeking out people with specific skills helps strengthen our roles in our jobs but also strengthens our profession in general. Mentoring a diverse population of librarians and information workers and encouraging the sharing of skill sets ensures our profession will continue to flourish and produce leaders in the business of information.
     The health of our profession and our association is part of a huge cycle: we learn a skill, we share it, we pass it on, we learn from others, we share it, etc. We need to give back to our profession to help it grow and stay healthy. We do this by encouraging a wide population of people with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and interests. I'm not sure we can CREATE diversity but we can encourage the INVOLVEMENT of a diverse population, achieving the same end results.

3. Librarians have been called gatekeepers of information, but many of our library users are receiving information directly from publishers and service providers. How can we demonstrate our value to our employers? How do we convince them that we are the information experts?

KS:  Being an information gatekeeper can have a negative connotation of "withholding information," but I rather think we are "information consolidators" who package and synthesize information from a wide variety of sources and media to help our decision makers be more effective. Moreover, by anticipating the information needs of our users and being proactive, we demonstrate our value as the "keeper" of the institutional history. We provide the continuity in the information stream.
     We, as the inside information professionals, know the value and limitations of attorney time. As gatekeepers, we make informed decisions to filter information to save key business people time and money. Of course, it's difficult to quantify the synergistic relationship between the information professional and user, but knowing the needs of users before the questions are asked creates our value and sets us apart from the outside entities that don't know the business.

JJ:  No one knows better than we how to find and evaluate legal information - no one. Waiting for our users to come to us seeking assistance is part of a bygone era. We must create opportunities to demonstrate our expertise. For users who want to be direct consumers, offer training and techniques that show mastery of electronic resources. Develop high quality web pages as portals to the best sites. Impress users with your ability to wade quickly through the mass of available information. Anyone can find abundant information these days, but it is law librarians who have the expertise to order the chaos. I think the term "gatekeeping" is far too passive to describe all we do. We're more; we're the experts!