My Last Virtual Conference?

From Friday July 17 through Friday July 23 I participated in the second virtual American Association of Law Libraries annual conference. I watched a number of excellent programs on a variety of subjects. What was missing however were the chances to catch up with friends and colleagues in the exhibit halls, the corridors, and the meeting rooms. Also missing were the receptions and happy hours and the chance to see a slice of the convention city. Last year we missed meeting in New Orleans and this year in Cleveland. Right now the plan is to meet in person in Denver in July of 2022. I am looking forward to going back there next year.

One of the good things about this virtual conference was the ability to watch some on demand programs before the conference began. These programs had follow up Q and A sessions later in the week. The program I chose to view was Accessing and Understanding Tribal Law. The program began with a discussion of important cases about tribal law, including the recent Supreme Court of the US decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma.

Another very interesting part of the program was the discussion of several ongoing projects to help make tribal law current and easily accessible. In the wake of the McGirt opinion the state of Oklahoma’s Indian Legal Services has mounted a state Tribal Code Resource Guide. Another project is being developed by the Open Law Library. It has received a three year grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to create a database where tribes will be able to codify and keep up to date their tribal codes and make them freely accessible. And a third project is being worked on by Fastcase. They have acquired Versuslaw and will be integrating its tribal law collection and converting it to structured data. Additionally some of the tribes have set up their own websites. An example of a robust government site including executive, judicial and legislative information is that of the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin State Law Library maintains links to much of their state’s tribal law and also to a variety of many other tribal law resources.

The full conference kicked off on Tuesday, July 20, with a rousing key note speech by Tina Tchen from She talked about her work for women’s rights. Unfortunately this organization was subsequently involved with defending the recently resigned New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo.

I watched a very interesting session that afternoon. The Bluebook Confronts Slavery was presented by Justin Simard, Alexander Harper, Julie Graves Krishnaswami, and Fred Shapiro. I was unaware that American lawyers and judges have continued to cite to pre-Civil War cases that treated enslaved people as property. I was aware of those early cases from my work annotating some of them for the database of the cases of the Supreme Court of the US at the Law Library of Congress. I was unaware however that they were still being used as precedent. Justin Simard discovered 355 pre- Civil War cases that were cited after the war. He recommends that these old cases should be recognized as slave cases, should not be treated as good law, and should not be used. The current edition of the Bluebook now includes a rule that warns against using these cases. There is a list of these cases on the Citing Slavery Project website. They are also putting the names of enslaved people mentioned in the cases into the database.

On Wednesday, July 21 there was an excellent presentation on Empathy by Ron Wheeler and Dr. Adriene Lim. Their focus was on developing empathy and using it as a vehicle for providing library service. They defined empathy as the process in which one person comes to know the internal state of another person. They recommended being honest about the personal struggles we have, telling those stories, and reading books such as Goodbye Again by Jonny Sun.

Finally on Thursday, July 21, I watched a presentation on Legal Deserts in America: What is Meaningful Access to Justice for All? The presenters were Lisa Pruitt, Suzanne Starr, and Miriam Childs. The 2020 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession included maps of these legal deserts. There are more than 1.3 million lawyers in the US, but they are not distributed evenly. There are more than 3,100 counties in the US, but 54 of them have no lawyers. Forty percent of the counties have only one lawyer. These deserts are in rural areas where 14 percent of US residents live, but where only 2 percent of lawyers practice.

Lisa Pruitt and Suzanne Starr told how South Dakota came up with financial incentives for law students to consider a rural legal practice. The state also channeled urban pro bono resources to rural areas using telephone and videoconferencing. These programs are working to reduce the problem. Miriam Childs told how Louisiana came up with a different way to alleviate the lack of legal services. There are no public law libraries in Louisiana, but there are public libraries. Their solution was to train public librarians how to provide basic legal resources for their patrons. This resulted in the Legal Education and Assistance Program sponsored by the Louisiana state Bar Association, the Louisiana Library Association, and the Louisiana Law Library. These examples of different ways to cover the gaps in rural legal services show how states can innovate based on their individual demographics and resources.

I enjoyed watching these presentations from the comfort of my home, but I hope next year’s conference will be in person. But as I write this, the Delta variant is roaring through the US. Perhaps this will not be my last virtual conference.

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