A Salute to Law Librarians

I recently attended the mid-year meeting of ACLEA, the organization for continuing legal education professionals. This excellent group was started in 1964; it declares itself to be “a dynamic organization devoted to improving the performance of CLE professionals”. It has been a fantastic source of information and support throughout my CLE career. 

Many American CLEs have publishing departments. Some put most of their effort into publishing first-class course materials, but others, such as California (CEB), Michigan (ICLE), and Massachusetts (MCLE) are superb publishers of secondary material. I always enjoy reconnecting with my counterparts from across North America; we all face the same issues in our work, from “how will we make the leap to online publication?” to “what is the future of the wiki in legal publication?” to our perennial topic: “how can I get my authors to submit their material on time?” 

One great new addition to the program at this latest meeting was a panel of law librarians discussing “Tight Times in Law Libraries”. The panelists were all from the San Francisco area: two law firm librarians, one law school librarian, and one librarian from a public law library.

I’ve always admired the law librarian community here in British Columbia. (Full disclosure: my sister is librarian at a mid-size Vancouver firm.) They give us excellent feedback on every possible topic of interest to a legal publisher: Will this proposed title meet your needs? Is our new search engine any good? What are your lawyers asking for? And of course, they are our best customers. 

The panelists at the ACLEA session were also full of first-class information. Their focus was the increasing pressure on law libraries and their librarians. Not surprisingly, they had plenty to say about the impact of online publications. For instance, they were enthusiastic about incredible space savings realized by discarding print. Hein Online came in for special praise for publishing law journals online; this service alone resulted in significant space savings for at least one library. (For more on the topic of library space, see Ruth Bird’s excellent columns). 

But what is saved in shelving and real estate is often gobbled up by the high cost of electronic resources. Not only are librarians spending a much higher percentage of their budget on e-resources, they are also noticing that subscription prices are increasing astronomically.

As publishers, we were keen to know whether lawyers are starting to us e-readers or handheld devices more than print books. The librarians mentioned this as another pressure point: users continue to prefer print, while funders want the space savings that come from holding the collection online. Librarians are stuck in the middle. 

All the librarians on the panel were clear on one thing: they found books published on CD utterly frustrating. This was because the CD is a small, easily lost item that still needs to be tracked. They contrasted the ease of use of online databases that were always on and never lost.

They also mentioned the pressure from governing boards, funders, and partners arising from the perception that everything is free and available on the internet … “surely we don’t need so much money or space for the library now?”

Meanwhile, another, different, pressure is being applied as more and more people choose to solve their legal problems without the help of lawyers. For self-represented parties, the knowledgeable law librarian can be an essential resource as they struggle to locate the information needed. The panelist from a county public law library impressed me with her commitment to her mission to serve the public and support them in meeting their legal information needs.

Back in the world of big firms, the library of Morrison & Foerster, an international firm of 1000+ lawyers based in San Francisco, has renamed and rebranded itself. It is now known as “Research and Intelligence”. I thought this was a clever way to communicate the library’s value to those who sign the cheques.

The same firm has also developed its own app. The app, known as MoFo2Go, was developed for use on the iPhone and iPod Touch. It contains information about the firm’s lawyers, news, and office details (including nearby transportation hubs, restaurants, and hotels).

I was so impressed with the panel at our conference; they had such a clear understanding of the issues before them; they were so alive to the political realities of their positions, and each of them appeared deeply committed to doing the right thing. I see excellence in law librarianship at every turn: the panelists at our ACLEA conference, the always-interesting law librarian blog, and through my close connections with the Vancouver law librarian community. Law librarians: I salute you!

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