post 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So it can be persuasively argued that changed circumstances warrant a new organizational name without the reductive and outdated connotations of “libraries” and “librarians.”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.