The word or phrase “law library” used to mean “the place to get the law”. Before online databases, there wasn’t any other place to get the law – it was too big to put in your pocket or sit in your office. Even law firms with a few shelves of books called it their “law library”.
“Law librarians” were the people who knew where to find the law and how it interrelated. Law is certainly not self-organizing, nor is it immediately obvious what the best path is to finding the law and its meaning. You need help, guidance and tutoring, That was the law librarian.
How has this changed?
The “place to get the law” is not a room, building or book. It’s a screen that connects to the Internet. Sure, there are still books, sources and materials that are not online, but not for much longer and not nearly as ubiquitous – that’s the not the direction the world is headed. We still need help, guidance and tutoring in finding the law, but increasingly, that is seen as a UX/UI problem. With the right user interface, I can find things myself and interact more rapidly – and anytime I want. I cannot do that with a live law librarian. Plenty of analogies to make here – travel agents, buying a car, doing your taxes. With some pretty good websites and some Google-fu I am off, believing that I can do this myself. I don’t need and may not want a travel agent, salesman or accountant to help me. This is not entirely true for everyone and not entirely ubiquitous everywhere, but it’s where the world is heading. It’s also not the best or perfect way to do things, but perfect is the enemy of good enough.
Are law librarians obsolete?
If the definition is as described above, then yes. More people are doing things that support what the purpose of law libraries do and not calling themselves librarians at all. The “library” meme is associated with books, rooms, buildings and places and the new meme is “legal information”. It’s a little painful and nostalgic, but that’s change for you – almost always uncomfortable.
I work in helping law faculty create materials that help law students understand the law. The results of my efforts overlap with what law librarians do. I make the law available (freelawreporter.org), I tutor (cali.org), publish law texts (elangdell.cali.org) and I help people get a legal work product (a2jauthor.org) – all things that law libraries and law librarians do. I am not a law librarian. I am an information professional, educator, interface designer, programmer, product developer and systems architect – but none of those things full time. I am a member of AALL.
Changing the name of our association from the American Association of Law Libraries to the Association for Legal Information is a meme change. In some ways, it feels “too soon” since the body of law librarianship is not dead and still quite kicking, but it is meme of the past when it was the only way that we found the law. Changing the name feels right, though it feels like a betrayal. I get that. The term “Legal Information” seems to contains little space for friendships, shared causes, etc., but I guess those things are what I brought to AALL and perceived from my relationships found via AALL – they were not inherent in the association name.
I can bring those things to the new association. If I want to continue to work in this space – and I certainly do – it’s my responsibility to raise this child and make sure it appreciates its elders. Institutional memory is a good thing, but so is progress. Can we have both? I think so.
This is a kind of rebirth, reboot or re-imagining and it’s actually useful to discard … no, wrong word … it’s useful to archive the old meme, but keep its spirit alive with the new one. That is what I will do when I vote YES on changing the name to the Association For Legal Information.