Renaming the Private Law Libraries Special Interest Section (PLL-SIS) of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL)

self-imagepost authored by Michael Ginsborg, Reference Librarian, Arnold & Porter LLP

In the Devil’s Dictionary, Ambroise Bierce (re)defines “lawyer” as “one skilled in circumvention of the law.” If Bierce were our authority in the matter, it would seem that a law firm librarian aids in circumventions of law. But as the Devil’s Dictionary makes clear, certain identifications carry a host of associations, whether or not within standard use. Given changes in our profession, what we call ourselves has become a renewed subject of interest.

In 2009, members of the Special Libraries Association (SLA) considered a change in name to the “ Association for Strategic Knowledge Professionals” (ASKPro). The proposal was the result of extensive research by SLA. Although SLA members did not adopt the change, proponents advanced compelling reasons for it. They found that “libraries” no longer adequately represented the range and variety of their skills and careers, now often pursued without library affiliation. As a result, continued identification with libraries failed to convey their unique “strategic” value to their employers and clients. The SLA Board offered the proposed rebranding to more clearly communicate this value..

Jean O’Grady, PLL-SIS Chair, recently announced that the PLL Board will examine the merits of renaming our PLL-SIS, and the Board discussed the issue in the October 23rd Law Librarian Conversations. Jean advances equally compelling reasons in the context of law firms. First, PLL’s use of the word “libraries” reveals nothing specific about we do. PLL members provide a wide array of services, including “Competitive Intelligence, Business Intelligence, Knowledge Management, records, docket, web development, and other emerging digital roles.” As Jean observes, our roles have radically changed, reflecting “seismic” shifts in the legal industry. “Librarian” and “libraries” fail to convey how our new responsibilities and skills serve the goals of our law firm or corporate employers and clients.

Second, law firms with libraries are rapidly reducing their print collections and “embedding” librarians in practice groups. In fact, at least one AmLaw 100 firm has no print collection, and smaller firms, like this one, have done likewise. Available data – as in this presentation by Bess Reynolds – clearly show an accelerating trend toward digitization. So it can be persuasively argued that changed circumstances warrant a new organizational name without the reductive and outdated connotations of “libraries” and “librarians.” Carol Ottolenghi describes a familiar connotation in her article about naming those we serve as clients. If called “patrons,” some users “initially think of us as ‘clerks who like books.’” Changing PLL’s name could also help reverse such unwelcome perceptions.

The PLL Board has invited us to offer our comments. I find myself rather conflicted over the Board’s proposal, in much the same way that one SLA member said she was over ASKPro. Why? On the one hand, law firm clients and attorneys will continue to misunderstand what we do if we bill our time as librarians – a point that Jean makes in the Law Librarian Conversations program. On the other hand, the symbolism of “libraries” and “librarians” still matters. Indeed, it has assumed greater importance in our era of digital transformation. Among senses in which we still “like the books,” we believe copyrighted works deserve the widest dissemination among our clients. The words “libraries” and “librarian” suggest that we care about sharing resources and expertise, and maintaining a right of access as close to ownership as possible. They suggest that we favor the continuing availability of interlibrary loans and that we oppose digital licensing restrictions impairing access rights. And they suggest that we belong to a collective enterprise that sustains the indispensable benefits of these unique forms of sharing and preservation for future use.

My ambivalence has no ideal remedy. The nearest approximation to a remedy falls consideration short, but I cannot think of a better alternative than to offer a “hybrid” idea for rebranding. For example, the name “Private Law Librarians and Allied Knowledge Professionals” (PLLAKPro) comes perilously close to sounding like a Dickensian Office of Circumlocution. Whatever name emerges, perhaps PLL-SIS can accommodate a hybrid, emphasizing the primacy of librarians, so that we can continue to signal the ideals of librarianship.

8 thoughts on “Renaming the Private Law Libraries Special Interest Section (PLL-SIS) of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL)

  1. Original Post by Jean O’Grady, PLL Chair.

    What’s in a name? “Library” doesn’t say it all. Time to Rename PLL?

    I personally have always wondered why PLL is an organization of libraries rather than an organization of and for librarians and other legal information professionals. Libraries have no strategies, develop no plans, do not innovate, perform no research, teach no classes, do not lead change and are not self-organizing. It is people, information professionals, who lead, plan, strategize, teach, research, organize. The legal industry is undergoing a seismic change which has already begun to impact how many firm’s view administrative support services. We need to acknowledge the possible impact of these changes on our membership.

    Many of our members provide “non-library” services, in Competitive Intelligence, Business Intelligence, Knowledge Management, records, docket, web development and other emerging digital roles. Members are intentionally embedding information professionals in practice groups outside of the library. The word “library” understates and implicitly excludes members from being considered for emerging opportunities outside “the library.”

    Now that libraries are shrinking and indeed at least one Amlaw 100 firm has no physical library, I think it is downright dangerous to remain identified with the word “library.” It is time to reexamine the name of the Private Law Libraries SIS and to consider whether it is time to find a new name that more accurately describes our value in supporting the practice and business of law. During our July Board meeting, the PLL Board was in unanimous agreement, that we should raise this issue with the membership. We want to know if you agree that we should change the name of PLL to a name which more broadly describes the diverse range of our members activities and contributions to their organizations.

    I am sure this will spark a lively discussion. The PLL Board plans to undertake an examination of this issue over the coming months and it is important to get a sense of how our members would view such a change. We look forward to hearing your suggestions and comments.

  2. I’ve thought about this for a long time. There is a desire to move on and accept the realities of a profession that has transitioned away from the building that used to house us and on to the types of actions that connect us. That being said, just like with many organizations that change a common name that has connected the group for so long, there will be backlash. People are connected to their titles, and to the history of the profession, assocation, and the special interest section. The PLL leaders need to determine if the change is successful, there will be members that will forever be angry, or will simply leave in protest. That being said, if the results three years from now create a stronger, broader group that represent a new view of the profession, then that may make the change (and struggle) worth it.

  3. Reading the American Bar Association’s list of sections, committees and forums, I note that they’re all named after a subject matter or area of interest. It’s very easy to know the focus of each group, and the group names are fairly timeless. I note that almost all AALL SISs already do this, e.g., Computing Services SIS; only the Academic, PLL and State, County and Court SISs are named for their work settings. They are also the only SISs with the word “libraries” in their names. I doubt anyone is confused by the omission of that word from the other groups’ names.

    It’s time to name our section similarly: PLL could become “Law Firm and Corporate Practice” or “Law Firm and Corporate Services” (or something like that). Let’s have a name that tells the reason for the group’s existence; let’s eliminate “libraries” and “librarians” (after all, we’re part of AALL, so we don’t need that); and, please, please, let’s avoid the use of trendy adjectives (“strategic”).

    • I’m with you on this, and even agree that “strategic” is trendy and not particularly helpful, but… I find that the words Library and Librarian are developing more and more negative connotations, no matter what we do. See last night’s episode of Supernatural (“Librarians!”) No one likes or respects all those shelves and shelves of books. What they do respect is the knowledge contained in those books, and that is where our power still lies. We may not control the territory we inhabit – if the administrator or executive committee wants your space, they are going to take it, one way or another, but we control the quality and quantity of information that come in. Seventy-five percent of the people in my firm will ignore an email with the subject “Important information from the Library” even if they know that it may actually be important, and they may suffer later for not reading it, but if heading it “Important Information from the Centre for Strategic Knowledge” will get their attention, I’m all for it.

      As for the name of the Group, I have no real problem with PLL – I don’t think anyone in my firm, other than the person in accounting who sees my renewal form every year, even knows the letters PLL are part of my membership.

  4. Anonymous Post by a Library Director

    I have no objection to changing the name of the SIS, although I am hard pressed to think of one that is not a mouthful. I realize that there are people in the Section who are responsible for more than I am so I will keep an open mind.

    As I thought about it, I remembered that Lexis and Westlaw use the word libraries to describe the larger collections of content in their systems, don’t they? Apologies if I am wrong. Law firms, or my firm anyway, uses the word “libraries’ to describe document files. Maybe the word library, instead of being devalued, is changing with us to include digital libraries and access to the same. Why else would IT people use that term to describe knowledge repositories? And the stereotype of what our profession stands for and how we are sometimes depicted in the media, what else is new? How we are viewed by co-workers and management really lies in large part with us.

    I changed the name of my department several years ago. I also changed my title and the titles of our branch office Library Managers. I eliminated the word Library or Librarian from both. We call Research Librarians “Researchers” for short. I wanted to achieve what is suggested in the posting, a disassociation from an old-fashioned, negative connotation. Yet today, when I introduce myself to new Attorneys at the firm, I use my long title followed by “aka, The Library Director” People chuckle and no one thinks less of me. It helps clarify what I am responsible for. When I introduce myself to strangers I meet socially, I tell them I am a Librarian.

    Nevertheless, if someone comes up with a great new name for PLL that says it all for all members, like Library Director does for me, I’ll be happy to vote for the change. I can’t help but thinking, though, that we can also work on identifying what drives the stereotype, on changing it and on pointing out that libraries can be and are both print and digital, and we are responsible for managing access to both.

  5. I like the concept of a library as a center of collected knowledge. I think that is a strength and not to be dismissed in favor of a more “modern” name. Public libraries are evolving and offering more services to meet the needs of their constituents. I haven’t heard of any trend toward changing their names? . Whatever you call your services, you still have to explain what you can do for your constituents. You have to explain the definition in the context of your organization. Personally, I would like to start from the strength of the word “library” and work on enlarging the concept/definition of that word for my organization.

    R Shea

    • Agreed, it’s better to try to change the meaning of library and librarian. These words are basic vocabulary in the first year of any foreign language. People are familiar with them. “Library” is printed on my degree, so there’s some vested interest that many of us share.

      Lots of words change over time. “Calculator” used to be a person who did math, and now it’s a device to carry in a pocket. (Although, maybe that’s ominous for a discussion of “librarian”. I might be replaced by a WestLaw app!) It seems to me to be a fast track to being viewed as obsolescent, if you gravitate toward alternative titles that have 8 syllables, no common definition or consensus on what the title means, and no one has heard the term before. Better to stick with something people can remember and pronounce.

      When I used to work at an academic “Research Center”, mail addressed to that would go where ever it happened to go, then someone would look me up and phone me to come gather it. Even the mail sorting center 40 feet from the “research center” (ie. library) door had no idea what “Law Research Center” was, years after the name change. Mail addressed to the “law library” arrived, despite absence of “library” in the sign on the door. People still used it, but the patrons called it “library”. Students called it “library”; faculty called it “library”. It was a department where when you say the name, no one outside the department knows what it is.

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