The developing skill-employment disconnect in law libraries and what to do about it

By Sarah Sutherland, McMillan LLP, Vancouver, Canada

The press has been reporting skills shortages coupled with growth in unemployment. This situation comes from a transition toward new highly skilled jobs and away from legacy lower skilled jobs (you can read about this further here, here, and here). This is already happening in the greater library industry with a shift from some traditional roles, which are often very repetitive, towards roles that require more management and technological skills.

This situation can occur in law libraries as well as in the greater economy, and as law libraries’ roles change over time, this has the potential to become more pronounced. Law library staff have been somewhat sheltered from the pressures experienced by those in other library sectors and the wider economy because of conditions particular to legal publishing and research; however, these conditions are starting to change.

How easy it is to recruit staff depends a great deal on the geographic location of the position, the complexity of the role to be filled, and the number of people in that field already. This is a commonplace observation, but it becomes quite important when additional skill sets are required in a field like law libraries that has always been small and requires a specialized skill set.

It is generally not difficult to recruit for a position like a junior legal librarian in a major centre, but when management skills are required or the position is located in a smaller centre it becomes more difficult. When additional competencies, such as advanced competitive intelligence, patent searching expertise, knowledge management skills covering all facets from database design and search technologies to facilitating the integration of all members of an organization into a community, are part of the required skill set, it becomes unlikely that an organization will be able to fill a position at currently budgeted salaries, as qualified candidates may have to be poached from other organizations.

Legal libraries have not been as fast as other types of libraries to adopt some technological developments in recent years. There are a number of reasons for this, but in my opinion one of the most overlooked is the fact that print resources so perfectly fit the structure of legal materials that there has been less incentive to change. In contrast, scientific research was not as well served by the print environment and for this reason people were much more willing to adopt technological advancements for research.

Many of the changes that have happened in legal research have been conversions of case law, legislation, and commentary to electronic formats without a great deal of change to their organization. The lack of impetus to adopt new technologies and a specialized skill set that blocked access to those outside law libraries combined to shelter law libraries and staff from having to examine their competencies, services, and roles to the same extent some other libraries have.

The development of a divide between the skills required for future jobs and the skills of existing staff has implications for both staff who wish to continue to be employable and library managers who wish to develop their libraries. With compromises and willingness on both sides, the best solution is to invest in existing staff in anticipation of developing needs, so that libraries will be able to develop while enjoying the strengths that come with long term staff.

When hiring is necessary, it will be good practice to hire based on potential rather than existing skills. While this approach runs the risk of losing staff members to retirement or other organizations after the investment is made in training, it is no more risky or expensive than being in the situation of having to try to repeatedly headhunt individuals from other organizations.

Part of the solution to this problem is for library managers and organizations to be open to the idea of training staff on the job and being open to providing more funding for professional development. Library staff should also take responsibility to develop this paradigm. Staff members can take the initiative and approach their employers with proposals to develop skills in anticipation of coming needs and changes.  This will enable them to remain relevant and take advantage of some of the benefits of employment that are of most value to them in the form of professional development time and funding.

Institutions housing libraries, library management, and library staff need to develop a shared understanding of the role that continuing professional education and the development of internal capacity will play in meeting their users’ needs. Anticipating future needs and developing plans means that law libraries and staff will be able to meet the requirements of the organization in the future.

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