What To Do With All That Space: Librarians Without Libraries

LibraryBooks

(photo copyright 2014 National Assembly for Wales)

As we know—and have probably lived—the library industry has been transitioning toward a primarily digital existence: this has profoundly changed the responsibilities of librarians and is starting to change the purpose of the actual, physical library.

Giant buildings holding vast inventories of books have given way to desktops holding computers connected to distant, remote servers; because of this, a profession centered on managing a physical collection has shifted toward managing digital resources. Despite the establishment of this new dynamic, librarianship still has a crisis of perception because it’s a profession—like teachers and schools, doctors and hospitals—tied to the image of its building: what is a librarian without a library? How has the profession evolved in the digital world, where there are no physical libraries? And, what should be done with all that library space?

EMBEDDED LIBRARIANS

Those in the actual profession have become “embedded librarians.” This is admittedly reductive to what the term has grown to mean (a more detailed definition can be had by reading The Embedded Librarian, by David Schumaker, Barbara I. Dewey’s article “The Embedded Librarian”, and Vicenç Feliú and Helen Frazer’s embedded-law-librarian-focused paper Embedded Librarians: Teaching Research as a Lawyering Skill, among other excellent works) but an embedded librarian is a library professional who still performs the duties of a librarian, but does not necessarily work inside a physical library. The librarian is physically “embedded” among their patron-base. A librarian working at a law firm, for example, works in an office right alongside the lawyers, paralegals, and staff who typically submit reference questions to them; other duties, beyond answering reference questions, include managing information resources, negotiating with vendors, conducting presentations on library research resources, etc. Though there may or may not be a physical library, the building is no longer central to the profession.

LIBRARIANS WITHOUT LIBRARIES

How are these concepts impacting law libraries, specifically? Yamri Taddese of Law Times reports on how Canadian district and county law libraries are right at the tipping point of their shift away from a physical-resource based profession and towards digital. The law libraries of Ontario are going to be up for a review for the first time in 15 years, Taddese reports; the goal of this review will be to modernize these libraries. This will usher in a modernization of librarian responsibilities as well, Taddese reports; librarian responsibilities will move toward practice management support, information management, and competitive intelligence—duties that are much more in line with those of an embedded librarian. Rather than being a steward of physical resources, the librarian becomes an expert in electronic information sources. So, after defining the terms of this new librarian, the next question becomes: since the profession has evolved in a manner that makes the library building less essential, what should be done with all that library space?

Taddese’s article states Ontario law libraries are still particularly indispensable to solo practitioners and smaller firms, due to the library’s ability to pool information resources; providing access to Westlaw and Lexis still gets patrons physically in the door. But, the article also suggests converting library space into remote lawyer offices at the courthouse—prime real estate for the practicing trial attorney.

Viewing this from the perspective of the academic law library, Sonal Desai, in an essay written for the University of Washington’s Information School, suggests converting law library space into practice incubators. A practice incubator is really designed for attorneys fresh out of law school and practicing as solos or in small firms, a middle ground, or, as Desai writes, a “a bridge to ease the transition from law school to law practice”. In this model, law school library space would be converted into attorney offices, and law librarians would be enlisted to help in an embedded role by teaching legal research, providing reference and research assistance, coordinating CLE or small/solo firm-specific workshops, determining information sources and vendors, and negotiating with vendors, among other responsibilities. Again, the building becomes re-purposed, but the librarian still remains essential.

AFTERMATH

Law librarians and libraries are trending towards a solely digital existence; this has necessarily changed the responsibilities of the librarian and the role of the library. The importance of a librarian is no longer determined by the existence of a physical library. Librarians are now embedded professionals, working right in the field, alongside their patron-base. Physical libraries are now digital collections, collections that still must be curated and managed, but now from a computer rather than physically. And, we can see this change occurring at all levels of law librarianship: Taddese’s article shows the transition happening at state-and-county law library levels, and Desai’s paper details how this could be incorporated into academic law libraries. As a law firm librarian, I can report that embedded librarianship is the new normal for my colleagues and I, and would assume this is the case for all of those in big-law, multi-remote-office firms.

Now that the reality of the profession has changed, one of the present challenges in the industry is marketing and image-related: being a librarian without a library may be normal to us librarians, but, again, this is an industry whose public perception is tied to the image of its building. Is this something librarians should get in front of, by promoting what their new responsibilities are in a library-less world? Or, is this something that will happen gradually, as more and more people become accustomed to the librarian profession not being directly linked to a physical library? Or, is this a conflation of terms, as the word “librarian” fades out in favor of Knowledge Management, Competitive Intelligence, or other titles that bisect librarian responsibilities?

The Implications of Bestlaw

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On September 24th, Joe Mornin, a Berkely Law School student, released Bestlaw to the public-at-large (see the The Lawyerist‘s and The Recorder‘s admirable coverage of this story). In a nutshell, Bestlaw is a browser extension that improves upon the Westlaw Next interface. Remarkably, Joe Mornin designed the browser extension himself, and makes this piece of software freely available to download on his website (http://www.bestlaw.io/). Bestlaw’s website states the software accomplishes the following:

Bestlaw1--listOfFeatures

THE CURRENT VENDOR SYSTEM

Legal research procedures are driven by vendors. At a basic level, getting to be a good researcher involves memorizing two bodies of knowledge: what legal information resources exist out there, and which vendors create those resources. Dovetailing into all of this, access of resources is controlled by the vendors as well; each vendor has their own, unique, separate interface. This environment makes practical sense because legal research is a commercial enterprise. Accordingly, vendors resemble information silos: their information is their capital. Would legal research be more efficient and effective if there was an incorporation of federated searching, which would enable searching across all of the vendor interfaces simultaneously? Of course! But, the current legal research business model necessitates individual, isolated research interfaces, with individual content collections accessible only via one point of access.

This current legal research business model introduces various problems for the user. Two of the more salient problems are: what information is actually unique inside a vendor interface, and how do vendors charge the user for non-unique content. Westlaw and Lexis, for example, charge transactionally, meaning every pull of information comes with a price tag. This is acceptable when a user pulls information that is absolutely unique to these specific vendors. However, users do not always pull unique information; commonly, they incur extra transactional fees by pulling information they could get for free from somewhere else. The issue, really, is the convenience of the interface: users are already inside a vendor’s specific pay environment, and it becomes really easy and convenient to pull resources inside the pay environment, rather than jump out and search for a free (and trusted) copy of the same resource.

PULLING INFORMATION FOR FREE

Bestlaw, remarkably, incorporates the ability to jump out of the Westlaw Next environment in order to get free copies of resources. As stated above, while inside the Westlaw Next interface, a user can pull free documents from free services like CourtListener, Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute, Casetext, and Google Scholar. The convenience factor of being in Westlaw Next’s environment becomes partially moot. Just to step back: Bestlaw adds a toolbar to the Westlaw Next interface, when a user is viewing a document. The toolbar enables the user to pull the exact same document they are currently viewing from one of the above mentioned free resources (so, in my understanding, a user would have already induced a find and view charge, but could circumvent the print charge).

IMPLICATIONS OF BESTLAW

Again, federated searching is the concept of inputting a single search into a single interface, and having that search performed across a multitude of databases. Think of inputting a case law terms and connectors search into an interface, and having that particular search run across Westlaw Next, Lexis Advance, Fastcase, and Bloomberg Law simultaneously. The results could be sortable by some combination of relevancy and cost, meaning the user would get highly relevant results at a lower cost. Rather than be information silos that require users to log into their specific, isolated interfaces, vendors would have to compete in a new technological environment, one where open competition would require the highest relevancy at the lowest cost. The user experience would be improved.

Bestlaw’s ability to jump out and pull from free resources while the user is in the Westlaw Next environment is a step in the direction towards federated searching; Bestlaw is forcing a mash-up of Westlaw Next and a handful of free legal information sources. The user, despite being in the Westlaw Next environment, is no longer restricted to pulling just Westlaw Next content, thus enabling the user the ability to circumvent “print” fees they would typically incur. This is a very intriguing development, and all credit has to go to Joe Mornin for getting the ball rolling.

Perla Makes a Point on PACER

filestackFew things have raised such hue and cry in our industry this year as the announcement that PACER was going to be without certain courts’ materials.  The concern expressed by law librarians and legal researchers clogged newsfeeds for weeks and made its way – all the way – into the halls of politics.  Yet while many saw an immediate challenge to the way we work, others saw an opportunity to turn an old model on its head.  Bloomberg BNA president, David Perla, in a recent article for Law Technology News, was among those not only seeing the glass as half-full but also thinking of newer, better ways to make it overflow. Continue reading

Starting in October: Tell us your favorite apps – get featured!

emot-applauseiBraryGuy is excited to announce a new crowdsourced feature starting in October.  Let’s hear your APPlause!

It seems like there is an app for everything these days. Just within the realm of information alone, there are apps for staying updated on the news, conducting research, managing your time, communicating with your team, and even billing for the good work you do. These are just the tip of the technological iceberg! At iBraryGuy, we do our very best to share reviews of some of our latest and greatest app discoveries. Yet we cannot help but wonder what you are using. Continue reading

Screencasting in the Library

The Cool Tools Café program at this year’s AALL Annual Meeting showcased–like it always does–many great presentations concerning implementing technologies to improve library offerings. For those unfamiliar with the format of the Cool Tools Café, the program features a variety of demonstrations set up in different stations inside a large conference room—attendees are given free rein to wander around and scope out the various presentations on technologies. Standing out among these was the presentation conducted by CUNY Library Associate Professor & Emerging Technologies Librarian Alex Berrio Matamoros; Alex’s presentation regarded law librarians using screencasting software as a teaching tool. Continue reading

A Compilation of Secretary of State Sites: Making State of Incorporation Searches Easier

SecretaryOfState-PA

One of the great things about the U.S. is the uniqueness of each individual state. Beyond cultural, political, historical and artistic variances, this truism (fortunately or unfortunately) applies to Secretary of State corporation search interfaces. Each state’s agency handles the design and offerings of their interface their own way—some allow for free corporate status reports, free corporate documents, and free searching, while others find a way to charge for each step in the process of obtaining company information. Continue reading

Will PACER’s records removal motivate use of software alternatives?

PACER-Cross

Earlier this month, PACER announced court documents for closed cases from the last decade in the U.S. Courts of Appeals of the Second, Seventh, Eleventh, and Federal circuits, as well as documents from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California will no longer be electronically available. More details, including the specific date ranges of what cases have been removed, are available here. Will users react to this event by increasing their use of free PACER alternatives currently available on the internet? The immediate reactions to this news have been justifiably critical of PACER’s actions: Continue reading

Vendor Trends: Interactive Data Visualizations

The Exhibit Hall at AALL showcased a clear trend towards vendors offering visualization tools to improve the process of legal researching. From a macro level, legal research has transitioned from being a chiefly print-based medium to a primarily electronic-based medium, and, encouragingly, vendors have developed tools to really exploit this shift. Continue reading

SLA Offers 2014 Contributed Papers

SLA Logo

Original scholarship is an often over-looked part of many annual conferences. It tends to get lost iin the chaotic shuffle between presentations, continuing education, time in the exhibit halls, and, of course, the need for social interaction with colleagues. It often seems that the heroes who work so hard on contributed papers end up having ther praises unsung. Luckily, the Special Libraries Association is belting out a tune of praise for its scholars from this year’s annual conference. Continue reading

Tracking Legislation: GovTrack.us & LegiScan

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As legal information professionals, I am sure you have received requests to track proposed legislation. Changes in statutory law are obviously fundamentally important to the practice of law. The potential for legislative change creates an information need requiring a method of monitoring the status of proposed legislation as it bounces around the legislature. Thankfully, monitoring proposed laws/bills can be done electronically. In fact, there is an abundance of software and services that can accomplish this task. In the past, I have turned to subscription services to set these tracks up. Using a Westlaw, Lexis, or Bloomberg BNA is fine and will do the job of tracking legislation for you, but the drawback to these services is they cost money. Notably, there are alternatives on the web that track legislation, and do so for free. Continue reading