Change and Tradition: Identity and the AALL

2016 began with a strange drama in the world of law librarianship in the United States. The American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) held a referendum on changing the organization’s name to the Association for Legal Information (ALI). The name change was unanimously approved by the Executive Board of the AALL at a meeting in November of 2015. To make the change official, the AALL’s bylaws had to be amended. Amendment of the Bylaws necessitates the approval of the membership, hence the referendum. Voting was conducted online between January 12 and February 10, 2016. The Board explained its rationale, even producing some personal videos explaining the journey taken to make the change. Lively discussion occurred on the AALL bulletin board. The new name was designed to decouple the work, the identity, of AALL members from that professionals who play roles in libraries to that of those who work with legal information. The plan was to accomplish this by converting to a name indicating members primary role lay in the search for information in the new digital world.

As one seated in the geezer section of law librarianship, I observed this process with avid interest. Making an argument for either side was easy enough. The idea of change was sensible. The world of information has transformed. The traditional image of the library and the librarian are fading from the culture. Libraries are no longer great containers of information that held the materials that researchers needed. The challenge for librarians once was to locate, acquire and protect physical materials, making them available to those who needed them. No more. Today the information that most lawyers and law students use arrives on a screen, descending from a cloud or piped from a giant proprietary data base. The library as a physical entity continues, but for most, it is a place to do work on one’s materials, not a place where one finds one’s materials. Librarians no longer parse out access to information that they hold and preserve. Today a law librarian advises on searching, or does the research, as requested. The librarian still understands information and its forms better than most researchers, but the skill set is different. The word library derives from the word for book. Books are still with us, and will continue to be a part of our world, but they no longer are the defining center of legal research. Tying one’s identity to a fading cultural artifact is not a wise professional move. (This leaves aside the oddity of naming the association after the place one worked since the new name did not introduce a reference to the humans who do the work). So a change makes sense.

On the other hand, abandoning a one-hundred –and- ten- year name and the baggage that travels with it is no easy task. AALL is an established brand. Its niche may not be all that one would like, but a niche it has. For many it provided an identity. One attended library school in order to become a library professional. The title librarian carries with it a boatload of concepts, ideals and stereotypes. I have long contended that Librarianship was the last true service profession. Underpaid, often underappreciated, librarians served their patrons and their collections. Even in the private sector librarians shared information with one another, supported one another. The goal is to get the information to the patron who needs it. Early in my career I worked for a Dean who told me that librarians were socialists at heart. Our credo was: information for those who need it and fair play for all. Many years of idealism and effort built the profession. Should the name be defended, or should it be abandoned in the hope of changing the world’s perception and gaining a better foothold in the 21st Century?

The issue was muddied by the new name that was proffered. Association for Legal Information has a cold ring to it. The abbreviated title is ALI, an abbreviation already associated for U.S. legal professionals with the powerful American Law Institute. Quite a marketing effort would be needed to establish the new identity. A further problem was the process used to choose the name and bring the name change to a vote. A tussle ensued between the Executive Board and some members over the process followed to bring the issue forward. The resulting contretemps blurred the substance of the matter. (Process overwhelms substance in much of U.S. law, this matter was no different). Waiting for the results I had no confidence in predicting how the vote would go.

The results of the vote surprised me. By a vote of over 80% the membership rejected the change. The AALL leadership was kind enough to provide a breakdown of who comprised the 59% of the membership that voted. (90% of the voters volunteered information about themselves). It is worth noting that 46% of those voting belonged to the group who had been in the profession more than fifteen years. Another 16% of those voting have been in the profession for eleven to fifteen years. Law librarianship is a graying profession. It is not surprising that those who came into the profession in the 20th century feel a strong attachment to the old name.

Was the vote a rejection of change? Of this particular name? Of the process used to bring the idea forward? If any pundits care, I leave it to them to speculate. But one message is clear: librarians chose to fight for the name, not put it aside. At least for now, this is round- one in a ten- round fight. The answer may be finding a better new name. The answer might be digging in and holding high the old name. It is not yet endgame. Time will tell.

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