As I grow older and crabbier, I attend fewer conferences. Seeing old friends is a treat, but the standard meeting format that is built around a parade of speakers, many of whom are not natural communicators, and many of whom do not understand the inner soul of using PowerPoint, holds less and less appeal for me. But on June 16, 2011, The Future of Law Libraries Conference at the Harvard Law School gave me new hope. John Palfrey and his staff, with special nods to Meg Kribble, put on a stimulating, provocative and, well, classy event. The legal information situation in the United States is more backward than that of Canada. The size of the market and the money involved both conspire to complicate any coherent change. But crisis compels change and crisis is upon it. This conference was great for flushing out the problems and, incredibly, proposing solutions. John Palfrey, the former Director of the Berkman Center and now Law Librarian and Professor of Law at Harvard, has the creativity and the pull to bring in a stellar set of speakers. With one forgivable exception John kept the speakers to time and the discussion was fun. Your best move might be to check John’s live blog of the conference.
A few themes struck me. John Palfrey’s appointment as law library director at Harvard was viewed with trepidation by many in the law library community. He was not a librarian. How could he understand the problems confronting them? But John has proven to be a brilliant appointment. He understands information, he cares about access to it, and he has the power to pull together speakers that range from Robert Darnton and Jonathon Zittrain (heavy hitter scholars), to Carl Malamud (political activist), to the best of the United States law librarian-scholars like Dick Danner and a refreshing cast of the new generation of law librarians. With the arrangements done in a golden-hued understated style that only an institution like Harvard can pull off, discussion flowed freely.
An arresting theme was the changing of the guard. There was discussion of the fact that the Baby Boomer generation was holding on too long, squatting on directorships, and that real innovation was going to come from those under forty, not those over fifty. My favorite younger speaker pointed out how listening to me deliver the keynote address made her remember the first time that she had heard me speak at an AALL Convention and how excited she had been. But, she noted, I was still there. She enjoyed my presentation but, no way around it, I was STILL there. Some truly diverting discussion developed. BTW I agree with her completely. We need to cede control to the youngest professionals that we can find.
The conference made clear that the alliance of law librarians with technologists, political activists, and the community of scholars who seek a place for free access to information, is upon us. These are natural alliances. Do we organize around law.gov? Do we throw in our lot with the Digital Public Library of America initiative? (John pointed out that each word in that title has been disputed.) Is it time to restructure law libraries? My favorite line from the conference was Carl Malamud warning that if we do not change, we might end up serving as little more than 7-11 of legal information.
The American Association of Law Librarians must see that this discussion should be its central agenda item. The path ahead is foggy and strewn with obstacles. John Palfrey, Dick Danner, and many of the folks sitting in that room in Cambridge or watching the webcast have the maps. It is time to begin the journey.
I cannot close without urging you to read John William Wallace’s 1876 address to the ‘librarians of America’ as reprinted [PDF] in the Winter, 2011 Green Bag, where it is ably introduced by Professor Femi Cadmus. Professor Cadmus is currently morphing from her position at Yale to the directorship at Cornell. Wallace’s speech, which I used as the taking-off point in my keynote at the conference, could hardly do a better job of showing how the battle has been a long one and the problems unchanging. Besides, it made me laugh. Anything that involves pneumatic tubes as a solution wins my vote.