Soapbox: Law Librarians need to exercise their shrinking voice!

The Soapbox is  a new iBraryGuy weekly feature debuting in December 2010.  It will feature a new opinion piece on a topic of interest to law librarians and info pros.  All opinions presented are those of the iBraryGuy team and do not represent the positions of any particular business or industry group.  Recent news reports have led the iBraryGuy team to give our readers a preview of the Soapbox a few weeks early.

Corporate responsibility is a thorny issue in even the very best of times.  The mores that guide how businesses address their stakeholders and shareholders are often as prone to change and unpredictability as the weather.  In darker economic days, corporate behavior and citizenship comes under more scrutiny than ever.  The worst thing that we as shareholders and/or stakeholders can do is sit silently by, watching the drama unfold.  When you see your voice is diminishing, it becomes more imperative than ever to exercise it.

Why the philosophical ponderings this morning?  Because we have been watching the voice of the law librarian shrinking during this ongoing economic downturn.  Key vendors like Thomson Reuters (West), LexisNexis and others have been gutting their librarian relations programs as part of their measures to deal with today’s economic challenges.  While we suspect no malice in these moves and give our vendor-partners the benefit of the doubt that they are making these changes in good faith, the bottom line remains that the greatest stakeholders / shareholders – the law librarians – are taking the biggest hit.

We can argue theories of coporate responsibility all day.  Whether you subscribe to shareholder theory (the business does what it must to maximize the good of its customers, suppliers, employees, and actual shareholders) and/or advocate a stakeholder orientation (the business considers the good of broader industry groups and other affected by its decisions) is irrelevant.  Law librarians are without a doubt both shareholders (as customers) and stakeholders (as part of the legal industry) when it comes to the vendors with whom they work.  Thus vendors need to tread cautiously when acting in ways that directly affect that relationship.  Edward Freeman in his excellent book on strategic management says that these theories of business management assist businesses in determing “who or what really counts.” (1)   When we see librarian relations teams being cut in size while research costs are going up, we cannot help but wonder that very question ourselves.

Just this morning, we learned of more cuts to West’s Librarian Relations group.  The internet has been buzzing about who was laid off and where.  It is clear from the reaction within the industry that law librarians have come to really recognize the importance of having these advocates within the company.  West is not alone.  Other vendors have made similar cuts in recent months.  There may be real economic sense or other practical concerns behind these decisions.  However, these are no poultice to the wounds being felt by the librarians that are watching their trusted partners plucked from the field.  Some of the casualties of these cuts have long been respected within our field and have endeared themselves to us as advocates, colleagues, and friends.  How are we supposed to feel as shareholders and stakeholders when we learn of these things from the internet rumor mill?

All in all, two things need to come from this.  First, our vendors have a lot of explaining to do.  They gave us these allies and now they have taken them away.  They need to let us know how they plan to serve us in these diminished capacities.  What does this mean for us?  Second, we as the stakeholders and shareholders, need to speak for ourselves when those who have often spoken for us are being silenced.  Let your vendors know how you feel about these changes.  Those who fail to use their voice will have neither the right nor the ability to complain once it is gone completely.

Our hats go off to library relations people everywhere.  You are and have been our voice at the corporate table.  You are our first line of defense when we need help and our first front of attack when we are frustrated.  It’s a double-edged sword that we only give to those whom we trust.  You have and continue to do us proud.

1) Freeman, R. Edward (1984). Strategic Management: A stakeholder approach. Boston: Pitman.

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