Synergy and Hope in Philadelphia

Time and circumstance have been good to me. I began studying China in 1968. Why I did so was a mystery to all concerned. No one in my family had dreams further than the boundaries of Canton, Ohio. As my father, a working man who thought that I was throwing my life away by studying the Chinese language, put it, “You never even met a Chinese person before you went off to college. We don’t even have a Chinese restaurant in this town!” My decision was not based on practical reasoning; I just discovered as a freshman in college that I loved China. Thus, I witnessed the incredible journey of China over the past 40 years. As a gray-beard of Chinese law, I have watched the whole movie.

I began attending Library and Information School in 1973 while a third year law student. Once again I puzzled those around me. My father despaired of the fact that I was turning down a law firm job where my starting salary was as much as he was making after thirty years on the job. My friends could not understand what I was doing. Once again there was no good practical reason for my choice; I just loved libraries and librarians. My timing was perfect. I studied programming under Professor Michael Cooper. Professor Cooper would flow chart up and down the chalk boards and it all made sense to me. These were the days of programs written on punch cards and students fighting for time on the campus mainframe. In the days before PCs, a 30-minute time slot at 4 a.m. could be sweet. So I was witness to the arc of librarianship and the arrival of the digital revolution. As an undergraduate I filed cards into the Harvard University catalog; as a law library director, I moved our catalog into the basement. My early days in legal research involved pocket parts, loose leaf services and the nefarious Shepards updating system of multi-colored pamphlets. Now I preach in the church of Google and Facebook when I teach advanced legal research.

See what I mean? Right time, right place.

It all came together on July 22, 2011 at the Chinese and American Forum on Legal Information and Law Libraries summit in Philadelphia. It was a momentous day and not simply because it was the hottest July 22nd that Philadelphia had ever experienced. Here were 35 law librarians, law school deans and university administrators gathered with their American colleagues to discuss the role of law libraries and legal information. Issues of information access and digitization were also on the table. The current stars of United States legal information, Professor Richard Danner and Professor John Palfrey, were even there to discuss open access.

One might have to be as old as I am to realize how amazing this meeting truly was. China is building a legal system. The path is not linear. The GPS does not quite work, but think of the progress that China has made. Thirty years ago I was offering basic training sessions for librarians in China, and the word basic directly applies. Now I sat with sophisticated information professionals who wanted to learn. Starting from zero, while weathering storms internal and external, China is building a legal system as it goes. In the gray interstices of Chinese law and society, they work to build a stable, reliable legal information system.

If you have read my previous columns you will know that a strong streak of cynicism runs through my thinking. The future of libraries as we know them is tenuous, and the entities that replace them may not be staffed by librarians. But, I see hope too. At the CAFLL Conference I saw it undeniably in the room with me. If the Chinese can build a legal information system out of nothing, maybe we all can make it to the other side intact.

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