Why our world would end if legal librarians disappeared

April 21, 2016
Clare Brown

There is a common misconception that, as the online information age ploughs on libraries are going to disappear forever. This sits in line with the perception that librarians require books in order to be needed and we are seeing the existence of print books steadily decline.

Libraries and books are not one and the same. This common misconception is a manifestation of the lack of understanding of what a law librarian actually does - where they source their information from, how they manage and curate it and, ultimately, how it is delivered to their end users.

Law librarians manage the risk within the organisation they serve, ensuring the organisation’s mission is met through the acquisition, management, distribution, and analysis of legal information needed for the organisation to perform its mission in a timely manner and at an appropriate cost - Greg Lambert

The value of a law librarian is far more than meets the eye

A law librarian must know, at the click of a finger, what sources are most reliable and relevant for their lawyers, who needs what information when, how to access said information, and manage the library collection. All this must be done at and under budget. This is no mean feat.

end of the world

Anyone can type a search term into Google and receive a whole host of results. But few people will know the exact search term needed to be entered, the specific sources to rely on, or where to access the best quality content (often behind the gates of premium paid publishers). Few are able to interpret the results given in a manner efficient enough to fit with the demands of the information consumer. Legal librarians make up these few.

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Yet, despite all this, there is a concerning tendency for the value of law librarians to pass by unacknowledged. There are countless stories of lawyers and legal professionals who utilise the library department appropriately, as indeed one should, and subsequently progress further at work as they are able to quickly and easily access the information they so urgently require.

Why is the library and information service essential?

It is this information that makes one firm stand out over a competitor; knowledge is the most valuable form of capital in our society today. However, law librarians still continue to be hidden away in the foundations of the law firm. One must not forget the importance of solid foundations, for without them the whole building would crumble.

When asked by a AALL study how to best assess the value of the library one interviewee responded, quite simply:

“Send all the library staff home for a day. Lawyers’ dissatisfactions with service do not remain unnoticed for long”

Whilst such an option might be a little extreme it certainly goes a long way to suggest the dependency that lawyers have upon legal librarians, even if they do not know it. To put the value in clearer statistical terms, the Australian Law Library Association found during one research piece that the ROI (return on investment) for information resources and services is $5.43 for every $1 invested. A 500%+ return on investment? That is value right there, clear and simple. Plus, they state that this is a ‘conservative estimate’. Their real contribution could well be exponentially higher.

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Whilst the means by which law librarians work is continuing to evolve, the requirement for the product of that work will continue to exist. In 1930, George S. Godard, writing about “The Past, Present and Future of the Law Library” predicted the development of a form of book that was consumable anywhere at anytime. Today we know this as the ebook. The book still needs to be written, edited and so forth, it is still read but just in a different format.

How will the library role develop?

In line with this, when considering the future role of law librarians we must emphasise the importance of evolving and enhancing one’s value in a new manner. Roles will develop in the same way that books have, and we should work within and around that. Indeed, law librarians are increasingly frequently being asked to analyse competitors, opposing clients and so forth.

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Law librarians will continue to source, create, curate and deliver legal resources. It is simply that the tools there to assist them in doing so will continue to develop. So, would our world end if legal librarians disappeared? Absolutely.