Column

A Sobering Trip to New York City

These are ominous days for law librarians in the United States. On Thursday, February 23, I spoke at the sixth annual ARK conference on law libraries in New York City. The conference was attended almost exclusively by law firm librarians, with a sprinkling of academic law librarians and vendors sprinkled in. Jean O’Grady of the law firm DLA Piper was the lead organizer. I have known Jean for a long time; she is smart, funny and business-savvy. Her firm made news by signing on to the new Bloomberg Law service, making her even more interesting. For details check out Jean’s never boring blog at: http://deweybstrategic.blogspot.com.

At my suggestion Jean opened the day by having each person in attendance give their name and additionally to tell the group whether they were part of the Google generation or if they were pre-Google. Of these participants, 95% identified themselves as pre-Google. This was indicative of one of the law library profession’s biggest problems. Our expertise, the things that we do best– finding, organizing and preserving information– is losing relevance. Keep in mind most attendees work at large law firms, many of them global in scope. These professionals are at the cutting edge of change. The ARK meeting demonstrated once again that change is not coming, it arrived in a taxi a few years ago.

In my keynote address, I used the troubling story of the recent Harvard University Library reform as an example. Harvard has pretty much told its library staff that their jobs are at risk. Each staff member was asked to reapply for his or her job. Each person was asked to describe his or her skill bundle. This is an administrator’s dream. Zero out the staff and build a new, younger, more efficient one. But I was telling old news to this group. The law librarians in this segment of the private sector had been through this type of exercise already. The book collections are gone, the library as a community space is history. Staffs have been consolidated, functions have been outsourced. If one is to survive, one must continually adapt and craft new roles within the organization. I felt that I was in a room with battle-tested veterans of the profession’s revolution. Justified only by the bottom line, these librarians built intranets, worked as marketers, learned business skills, networked furiously and stayed on the edge of the wave of technology. New lawyers are social media savvy Google disciples. Their service needs are a moving target. These folks had seen in all.

But even with such am impressive group, the mood is grim. How long can they survive shrinking budgets and growing demands? Where do they look for allies? At one time I would have suggested that they look to the information vendors. Librarians and the producers of legal information had always been tightly bound together so financial support and help in planning for the future could be tried. Of course the librarian-vendor relationship had a sharp edge, but in past days the vendors possessed deep expertise in the law. West only hired lawyers on the editorial side and there was a phalanx of small vendors, some former librarians, who could teach a new librarian about the literature. Now West has morphed into Thomson which has become Thomson Reuters. A few months ago as a West author, I received an e-mail informing me that West was selling its Law School Publishing division. The casebooks and texts are no longer part of the plan. I am old enough to remember Roger Noreen, the West representative to law schools. Roger knew law books and he knew legal education. When he visited you he brought gossip about other law schools. Expertise like that no longer exists. How much longer will the National Reporter System survive? Bloomberg has gobbled up the Bureau of National Affairs, taking over one of the last of the independent publishing entities, one that lived off its deep subject expertise. Rumors abound. Will Bloomberg buy LEXIS? Will Google? These are just guessing games but no matter how it spins out, the information providers are corporations that in many ways are fungible with any other seller of wares. The day of the law book salesman who knew his product from years of experience is over. This is the age of the marketer.

Ominous.

Comments

  1. Gary Luftspring

    What is happening to librarians supports my thesis with respect to staffing in law firms. The skills actually now needed do not match the skills of our staff. All staff should be reapplying for their jobs having regard to the new reality and skills really needed in law firms to support practices. That of course presupposes that HR people will actually research and redo job descriptions for all of the staff positions in a law firm. This is going to happen and law firms and clients will benefit from the dramatically enhanced pool of talent out there. The difference of course is that in law firms at this point the change is not per se being driven by budgetary demands. However the ability to provide enhanced and more efficient services ought to attract this kind of dramatic re-evaluation.

  2. Yes, the “times they are changing”. Maybe I don’t get it, but when I hear or read of the “Google” generation and their expertise it makes me wonder. In many cases, the generation that has grown up with the Internet, search engines, and social media have a very narrow understanding of the technology much less their use. With the amount of misinformation widely available on the net and which for the most part many take as fact, I would hope that law students are being taught due diligence or at least to question the source of the information that is widely available to them on social media channels etc. With that said, more than ever before the skills of the librarian are needed i.e., finding, organizing and preserving information.

    This just brings to mind in the publishing world in some quarters, when word processing programs became widely available and it was believed and still believed by some today that word processing and typesetting are one in the same. And this was also supposed to be more efficient and to save money.

  3. David Collier-Brown

    My younger colleagues fall into two categories:
    – the enthusiasts and computer science students know as much about computers as I did about cars at the same age
    – the rest know about as much about computers as my did did about cars, which is how to drive.

    Alas, just as we all think we’re better than average drivers, this generation all think “we’re computer experts”.

    As Joan Rataic-Lang noted in Google-Centric Habits and Gen Y, their experience is different, not (IMHO) necessarily better.

    –dave
    [Back doing software engineering after a sojurn in legal publishing]

  4. David Collier-Brown

    In the above “my did did” was supposed to be “my dad did”

    –dave