Contemplating a Name Change

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Change:  A Constant Refrain

By Andrea K. Guldalian, Research Librarian at Duane Morris LLP

Over the years, American Association of Law Libraries’ members and presidents have ruminated on the growth and evolution of law librarianship, and on the internal and external forces affecting our profession.  These AALL advocates have called for the association’s members to look forward, to adapt, and to be proactive in addressing the challenges facing the legal information profession.  Law librarians answered that call by shapeshifting into knowledge managers, competitive intelligence professionals, information specialists, and research analysts, among other roles.  However, many of us maintain that, despite new titles and new roles, we are still essentially librarians, putting valuable and timeless librarian skills to good use organizing, finding, and disseminating information, regardless of format.

Have we finally reached the tipping point though?   In the face of all the changes, does the librarian name still properly convey all that we contribute to our organizations, and all the roles that our positions encompass?  Or are the cumulative changes to our profession so great that a new, broader name for our association is warranted?   Well-informed, reasonable minds will differ on this point, and American Association of Law Libraries members will have a chance to vote on a proposed name change beginning tomorrow, January 12, 2016.

As we mull over whether Association for Legal Information appropriately represents our soon-to-be 110-year-old association and its members, we thought it would be worth reviewing some of the myriad reflections on our ever-changing profession and professional environment.

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In 1979, in an impressive “revisionist” history of law libraries, Christine Brock analyzed the development of law librarianship, and questioned whether the profession would help shape the future:

“Will law libraries continue dealing with our vast and complex society on a problem-by-problem, book-by-book, emergency-by-emergency, basis, being led by publishers instead of guiding them; being forced to move by law schools; deans, students, lawyers, and the times instead of moving with or ahead of them? Will they begin to take a hand in structuring a system that can deal with the monumental volume and complexity of our legal-publishing and law-producing machines, both now and in the future? In other words, does the past have to be the future, or will the profession shape the future?”

Brock, Christine A. “Law Libraries and Librarians: A Revisionist History; or More than you ever wanted to know.” Law Library Journal 67 (1974): 325-361, at 326.

It would be interesting to see her take on the last 35 years.

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1987-88 AALL President Albert Brecht warned against complacency, but felt confident that law librarians could meet the new challenges of the 1980s:

“…In fact, I find that law libraries are most often considered integral parts of organizations. I raise all these questions because in these changing times of information and information sources challenges face us almost daily which can affect the role our libraries will play in the organizations.  It is all too easy for some to see the library only in its traditional role and others in the organization as better able, and perhaps even more willing, to meet the new information needs of the organization. I fear it will be disastrous for us if we approach these new challenges in the wrong state of mind. Still, I sleep well at night because I know law librarians are on the forefront of meeting information needs. I don’t think we can allow ourselves to become complacent, however. The challenges are not over; they have only just begun.”

Brecht, Albert. “From the President:  Being Considered An Integral Part of the Whole.”  American Association of Law Libraries Newsletter, Vol. 19(2), October 1987.

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In a 1998 Law Library Journal article, Richard Danner discussed the AALL Special Committee Report on the Renaissance of Law Librarianship in the Information Age and a Special Libraries Association (SLA) report on Competencies for Special Librarians of the 21st Century:

“The report of the AALL Renaissance Committee begins with the premise that the primary activities of law librarians are format- and medium-neutral.  Despite changes in how legal information is published, law librarians will continue to acquire, organize, retrieve, preserve, and disseminate information, and assist users in retrieving and using it.90 To be able to work successfully in a changing information environment, however, law librarians will need to have personal competencies similar to those outlined in the SLA report. Law librarians will need to be versatile, creative, adaptable, flexible, and comfortable with change. They will need to be skilled and articulate instructors, able to work collaboratively within both the library and their larger organization, and able to show equanimity in the face of the frustrations of a rapidly changing work environment.91 Indeed, as the report puts it, the overarching characteristic of the model law librarian in the information age will be “reveling in change.”92

The reports of both professional organizations place their highest emphasis on personal competencies that can be applied in a variety of work settings.  Changes in technology will transform not only the specifics of the librarian’s skill set, but the library work environment. In a changing work environment, the successful and effective professionals will be those with the personal skills to adapt and deal with change.93”

Danner, Richard A. “Redefining A Profession.” Law Library Journal 90 (1998): 315-56, at 334.

Danner felt it necessary to include a footnote re: his use of the term “legal information professional”:

“In this article, I use the term “legal information professional” to include both law librarians and others in professional positions working to serve or support users of legal information. Questions of nomenclature pose tricky and emotional issues for librarians. Library futurists Walt Crawford and Michael Gorman have decried librarians’ adoption of such generic labels as “information specialist,” on grounds that “Every white-collar worker, professional or not, could be called an information specialist,” and that “It is a bland, meaningless term that weakens the position of the people who carry it.” WALT CRAWFORD & MICHAEL GORMAN, FUTURE LIBRARIES: DREAMS, MADNESS & REALITY 105-06 (1995). See also Anne Wordsworth, The Dean’s List: Librarianship: The Hot Profession, LIBR.J .. Oct. 15, 1997, at 42, 42.”

Ibid., p.316

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In 2006, former-AALL President Earl Borgeson (1968-69) emphasized the changes and challenges impacting law librarians, and he showed a marked excitement regarding the new developments:

“ The most important development that has occurred during the course of my involvement is the growth of law librarianship and AALL due to the private librarian. It has meant a rapid transfusion of great vitality, talent, and energy for the benefit of all law librarians. It also presents challenges, for not only must law librarianship remain a dynamic and forward moving force, so must its component parts! Legal information specialists without any library affiliation may have to be courted, thereby adding a further dimension to law librarianship. Oh, what exciting times and discussions are on the horizon!

We must place new and forceful focus upon the nature of the law librarian and the talents they will have to bring to the workplace within a quarter of a century.  AALL should immediately structure a training regimen to produce that level and quantity of personnel. Library school is not enough! We must assume, require, recognize, and utilize a commitment to prepare and perform new skills and attitudes.  Our education must have teachers and administrative environments that will challenge and dare participation and utilization of skills to flesh out the role of the future law librarian. Law schools, library schools, the law book industry, and the technical industries will have to participate by contributing learning facilities, employment, and scholarship support. In all those fields dealing with information handling, those on the outer edge must intentionally include legal information and law library needs for inclusion in their ranks. All law librarians must be supportive of their own need to grow, to survive.”

Houdek, Frank G. “AALL History Through the Eyes of Its Presidents.”  Law Library Journal 98 (2006): 299-348 , at 303.

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Getting closer to present day, in 2010, Stephen Young wrote a thoughtful piece on the law library as place:

“There is little doubt that over the past decade or so academic libraries, including law libraries, have gradually become far more complex, more expansive, and in many ways less recognizable as libraries in the traditional sense. This evolution has not always been well advertised by the libraries to university and law school administrators, and as a result they are still often viewed as one-dimensional warehouses of books. The blame for this falls squarely on the shoulders of the library profession. We as a profession need to do a better job of communicating not just what we do but also what roles we play in our institutions and  in the lives of our students—our customers.”

Young, Stephen. “Looking Beyond the Stacks: The law library as place.AALL Spectrum, July 2010, at 18.

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Obviously, many minds have reflected on how our profession has been defined over the years, and on how we will position ourselves for the future.  Now, at the start of 2016, we continue to grapple with the question!

For further reading, check out “The Essential Law Library Journal”, an annotated list of “essential” readings that Frank G. Houdek selected from the first ninety-nine volumes of the journal.  Frank Houdek also compiled an interesting AALL history in brief.

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