20 December 2012

The Future of (Law) Librarianship

Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 37.3, December 2012

My firm’s library partner was invited to speak on a panel about the future of law librarianship at the Private Law Libraries event before this year’s AALL conference.  As part of his preparation, he asked me for my thoughts on the matter.  I told him that librarianship is a service-based field; law librarianship is simply a specific subject specialty, no different from having a resource background in chemistry or baseball in settings focused on those fields.  I do not believe that subject expertise is required to provide high-quality service, either (which means I really hate that law-school libraries generally require the JD).  What we prize is curiosity, which is necessary for breaking down questions to see what is really required, determining how to locate that, and bringing the results together into something useable.

This means that I see librarians as information guides.  What is changing most rapidly, thanks to the ever-expanding universe of online resources, is the size of the thicket thru which we must navigate to locate whatever information is required.  Lawyers need to know the law.  We need to know where to find it.  Today, that means knowing about, and how to use, a great and ever-growing number of resources; knowing how to search efficiently, both online and within databases; and knowing how to deliver material in the most appropriate fashion.

The technology is a double-edged sword: it means we have access to exponentially more information, which is good, but that we have exponentially more information to discover, sort, process, and verify.  I no longer spend twelve to twenty hours a week updating physical books; now, though, I need to check a dozen different places to see that I’ve found EVERYTHING potentially relevant, rather than relying on a single respected title.  Yet while expert database skills are becoming a requirement for librarianship, they are far from the entirety of what the position requires—we have different expectations for a librarian and a patent searcher; the patent searcher searches databases, while the librarian provides high-level services well beyond searching a database.

The key skill I see for a law librarian (or any librarian), going forward, is the ability to ask questions.  By asking good questions, we can not only better determine what is needed, but even help clarify the original question.  This has always been the foundation of library service, and I don’t see it changing: people will always have questions, and will always need help finding answers.  New tools don’t change the job, only how we do it.  We will continue adding value by providing research assistance for legal work, freeing our attorneys to focus on understanding and interpreting the law, rather than finding it; by providing research assistance for marketing, providing background on potential clients and opportunities; by providing current awareness materials to our attorneys, streamlining their professional information and continuing education requirement processes; by vetting, selecting, learning (and training others in) new resources; and by providing an intelligent outsider perspective on questions.  It seems to me that these services would support the strategic objectives of any organization.

In short, the tools of librarianship are changing; the role of librarians is not.  Even as attorneys become more self-reliant, librarians will continue to provide value to whatever organizations they serve by making information available and answering questions; fundamentally, this is what we do.

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