CALL/ACBD Plenary Talk

logo-call-abcd-400x166 The following is a transcript of my plenary talk at the 2013 Canadian Association of Law Libraries annual meeting.  The topic I was asked to speak on is “The Future of Law Libraries” and I have two titles: (1) What if They Gave a Revolution and Nobody Came? or (with a nod to Jonathan Zittrain) (2) The Future of Legal Education and How Librarians Can Stop It.   The slides will appear at the end in a slide share embed.

I’m going break the first rule of presentations, and start off by reading two longish quotes off my slides.  I know if you were my 1Ls, you’d flip to facebook by the time I got through the first sentence, but I’m hoping you have slightly more patience than that.

And let it be noted that there is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as the leader in the introduction of changes.  For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new.  – Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince


Punk said that anyone could take part – in fact anyone should take part.  …It is about looking at the world around you and asking “Why are things as fucked up as they are?”  And then it’s about looking inwards at yourself and asking, “Why aren’t I doing anything about this”  – Dan Sinker, Founder, Punk Planet

Now, I watch a lot of HGTV.  On a lot of the home decor shows, they start with an “inspiration”.  They’ll do the redesign of an entire kitchen based on an artichoke or something like that.

And that’s these quotes are.  Our inspiration of what we’re going to think about as the possible future of law librarians.   Understand that innovation and change is hard, and usually wins you more enemies than fans, especially from people who are doing pretty well – which, let’s face it, describes most law school administrators and professors – but combine with that towards a punk attitude of jumping in trying anyway.

One more thing before we really dive in.  In the past year, I bought a house, had a renovation from Hell, illness and major surgery.  As we say back home, “shit got real.”  Mortgage, construction bills, medical bills.  This has huge introduction to reality and responsibility.  I do realize there is a tendency when discussing The Future there can be a mutual antagonism, where the speaker dismisses anyone who doesn’t follow their path as future roadkill and the audience annoyed that the speaker must have been born on mars to think that anyone could actually implement their suggestions.  Being at the forefront of technology and innovation in libraries is awesome, but know what is also awesome?  Keeping a roof over your head and food on your table.  So if you personally, don’t feel like you can make some changes, that’s cool.

I just ask, if nothing else, keep an open mind on the profession.  Librarians are going to be taking on all sorts of job titles and duties in the coming years.  Our strength in our profession as well as in our professional associations will come from embracing the diversity this will bring to the table, as it does with all other types of diversity.

Okay, that’s part one.  What we’re all going to keep in mind for the next part.

If you are ignorant of both your enemy and yourself, then you are a fool and certain to be defeated in battle.  If you know yourself, but not your enemy, for every battle win you will suffer a loss.  If you know your enemy and yourself, you will win every battle.  – Sun Tzu, The Art of War

This quote is a little more aggressive than I mean it to be.  I do have a bad tendency to look at everything through the perspective of a fight to be fought. Our employers really aren’t our enemies, even if they act like it sometimes.  But before we make any moves, we do need to understand the playing field and the players on it.

So, what are the challenges facing law schools and legal education?

Okay, another quasi math problem…

What happens when you multiply The Hindenburg by The Titanic and then divide by a Herd of Cats?  Yes.  That is the state of law schools and legal education.

Now, please note that I did not use a picture of the burning Hindenburg or a sinking Titanic.  They, however, are well on their way to those states. Like the Hindenburg, which used Hydrogen instead of a more stable, less flammable gas like Helium, law schools and legal education have a fundamental design flaw in their current states.  And, like the Titanic, even though there are warnings of possible dangers, many in legal education are steaming full speed ahead.  And they act like a herd of cats,  each law school has to do its own thing, since they are competing against each other for potential students and “reputation points” and even within each law school there are competing forces.

What are these design flaws, bearing in mind that someone could – and has – done a talk concentrating on each one of theses?   Well, the curriculum is terrible – in many ways, in most ways, it has remained unchanged in style for over a hundred years.  The caselaw method and socratic method is far from the best way to teach law. And there is a stubborn refusal in the acadame to teach practical skills.

Law schools, like most of higher education, suffer from extreme adminstrative bloat and an aging faculty with 20 year experience salaries.  This is driving up costs and making the ROI for students unfeasible.

If that were bad enough, we have a whole host of upcoming issues that many in the legal academe are choosing to ignore.  As many of us in libraries know, scholarly publishing is broken.  Both financially speaking in that we cannot afford to keep subsidizing publishers as well as the fact that compared to other scholarly or professional peer reviewed publications, the quality of law reviews is almost embarrassingly bad. Which brings me to the status of law professors as faculty within the university environment – law professors are some of the best compensated, but their course loads and academic output when compared to traditional faculty…well, once law schools cease to the be the university cash cow, change is gonna come.

Meanwhile, students aren’t getting summer jobs, post grad jobs or articling positions.

The over all result of all of these, is that students are choosing to not go to law school.  Which is meaning declining budgets.  And what’s one of the first targets when it’s budget cutting time?  That’s right…libraries.  Eventually there will be more and more faculty buy outs and even some closing law schools.

Of course, law schools and law libraries do not exist in a isolated bubble.  It’s just a part of a whole world undergoing riotous change and filled with terrible problems.  There’s a huge justice gap, where 80% of people who need legal representation are unable to afford it.  That’s why we’re seeing things like Legal Zoom and other disruptive forces where technology or outsourcing is replacing some of the standard duties of attorneys.  There’s the possibility of the non-lawyers being able to own law firms.  And the rise of Free Law and Open Law allowing for more innovations than we can really dream of.

It’s a crazy time.  And that’s all a little scary.

So instead of being passive victims to it all, let’s think about some of things we can do.  What are some strengths that librarians have?

Well, for one thing, in many cases, we fly under the radar. Our legal research and writing courses aren’t “real courses” and therefore no one really cares what we do.  Which is a good thing, because that means we can get away with a lot and try new things.  Secondly, we are some of the few people that have always ALWAYS taught practical, real world practice skills.   Along with that, we, unlike the teaching faculty, have many real world practice connections and work professionally with them.

Librarians are very lucky because we have skills and knowledge in areas the rest of world are suddenly discovering are important – knowledge management, metadata, information literacy.  I mean, this is the information age and we are a profession that specializes in information organization and access.   And these skills can be transferred.

Time to bring it on home.

So, let’s put it together.  We’re going to take a punk rock and jump into the fray and do something attitude and our librarian strengths, and apply them to the problems facing legal education, bearing in mind that law schools and law professors are like a herd of cats and if you are able to get enough momentum to change something, you likely will piss a bunch of people off.

That sounds bad.  But it’s a positive situation, if you make it one.

When I was asked to do this talk, I was asked to come up with stats or a study about different career changes and options for academic law librarians.  And the more I looked around at job titles and people were slowly stepping out of the box, I realized that stats were sort of meaningless.  There are people like me who have left academia and gone into publishing, but how many jobs like that are possible?  And for all the jobs of “emerging technology librarian”, some of those are meant to run social media accounts, some of those run institutional repositories, some are doing historical digitization.  It’s really all a case by case basis.  What works in Toronto is not going to work in Halifax is not going to work in Thunder Bay.  And what works for one person is not going to work for another.

So, big changes, small changes, find what works for your individual situation and go for it.

Think about your strengths. And what deficits you see in your world, at your library, in your school.

And then look for opportunities.  Either for yourself personally or for your library.  Maybe you partner with a law firm librarian to teach a real world boot camp.  Or you get into doctrinal classes to teach a specialized research component.  Or see a job opening like the one CanLII posted earlier this year for a content developer and get into publishing.  Or you partner with a local legal aid or pro bono group to do research workshops for the public.

In some ways, you are only limited by your imagination.  There is a such a wide range of opportunities out there for librarians to take advantage of, no matter how restrictive your budget is or how understaffed you are. I can’t promise that any change is going to make the administration all of a sudden look up and say, “oh my God, the library is the most important part of this school! Why haven’t I realized that earlier?? Double it’s budget and give everyone raises!”

I gave an alternate title to this presentation “The Future of Legal Education and How Librarians Can Stop It.”  Now, are librarians going to be able to stop the bubble crash that’s coming? No.  We are in for tough times ahead. Even if you can only do one brownbag lunch a year on extra research skills that students could use in the real world, then you’ll have made even the slightest bit of difference in the life of a student.  And doing something is always better than nothing.

Thank you.


  3 comments for “CALL/ACBD Plenary Talk

  1. Debbie Ginsberg
    May 7, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    If any librarians looking for an easy, practical (literal) step you can take right now: get out of your office and walk around.

    Go to faculty offices and see what ideas they have that they aren’t sure how to implement. In my experience, faculty suddenly remember quite a few resource or tech issues that have been bugging them for months. Check in with student organizations and see if they’d like their own custom legal research presentations. Stop by the clinic and see if they have any Westlaw or Lexis questions. Talk to IT and ask if they need any testers for new products. You’d be amazed at how much business you can drum up and how it leads to great projects and relationships down the line. Maybe you’ll get nothing for the first few walk arounds, but eventually someone will say “I’ve been meaning to ask you…” and you’re off.

    The best thing about this step is it requires no planning. If people are around, great. If not, they’ll be there another day. And you’ll learn more about what your users really want from their library.

  2. Emily Barney
    May 7, 2013 at 4:40 pm

    A week or two ago Kim & I were joking around about working in the same place, doing the same thing a hundred years from now in our Library Tech Group office at Chicago-Kent.

    But we came to the conclusion that 1. That would be really, really boring and 2. We would be completely useless because our job is to always keep adapting to the needs of the school.

    (Besides, any school trying to keep doing the same thing for another 100 years would probably go out of business pretty soon, as you point out.)

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