React or Die: Librarians Must Innovate to Survive
By Alvin Podboy
Law librarians. How do you define a profession that is based on change? Three recent events triggered an exploration of the parameters of our profession.
The first was the "Pioneer" award received by all librarians at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference, an annual event that brings together programmers, activists and government officials. Ellen Ullman, writing in Salon.com, says she was stunned by the accolade: "Can we be hearing correctly? Did they say librarians and not libertarians? But it's true: librarians. It is an unprecedented award, the first to a group that can't be associated with at least a few specific individuals." This is recognition that librarians are at the forefront of the technology revolution, Ullman observed.
The Pioneer award reinforces the fact that librarians are both the collectors and the conservators of knowledge as well as the protectors of free access to information. It also recognizes that librarianship is not a profession of books, but a profession of information.
The second event was a recent two-week discussion of the "core competencies of law librarianship" that occurred this Spring on the listserv of the American Association of Law Librarians, in an attempt to define law librarianship. The conclusion: The definition includes everything but the kitchen sink: Service orientation; communications skills; leadership; team orientation; knowledge of the legal system and profession; and information/library theory. General competencies support specialized skills in library management research services; information technology; collection care; and teaching. These skills are, at best, the heart of law librarianship.
The third trigger was the AALL annual meeting program guide, headlined "Gateways to Leadership." It, too, displays the diversity of skills required of a modern law librarian. Just look at some of the panel titles: "Developing Effective Relationships in Today's Law Office;" "Managing the Dynamics of Change in a Law Library;" "Electronic Book Readers: Law Libraries Need a New Role;" and "Multidisciplinary Practices: A Wave of the Future?"
As I look at the profession, I see four defining characteristics.
1. Ubiquitous: The first characteristic is that law librarians are ubiquitous. We are and must be everywhere at the same time. We must be skilled in a variety of formats, hard copy or electronic. We must be available 24/7 for a worldwide user base. This means that if we are not personally available, our tools must be readily accessible to our users any time, anywhere. This is defined by our electronic catalogs as well as our use of providing access via Internets, Intranets or Extranets.
The modern law library is not confined by time or space. This does not minimize the value of the traditional hard copy collection. It simply enhances it; it expands the resources. It also requires that skilled librarians be comfortable and knowledgeable in both worlds.
2. Innovators: Today's law librarians must be innovators. Innovation is defined as "the introduction of something new or something that derives from established doctrine or practice." This, too, is the essence of law librarianship. We must and do look at practices that have been rooted in tradition and see how we can change them to meet today's needs. Librarians must look at today's technology and determine how it will be used tomorrow.
Innovation is simply looking at something that exists in a new way. Librarians do this every time they encourage vendors to develop a new product or pricing mechanism. They do it when they improve their catalogs and networks.
3. Conundrum: The third characteristic of the modern law librarian is that we are a conundrum -- "a question or problem to which only a conjectural answer can be made."
For many people we are a question or a problem. We are a profession that a sister profession needs but often does not understand. Librarianship is rooted in conserving material and using traditional tools as well as being on the cutting edge of technology.
Law librarians must know both the new and the old. We use a variety of resources but must continually eliminate unnecessary resources. We are the ying and the yang of information. We have one foot in the world of the old and one foot in the world of the new. It is a difficult place for the information professional, but it is also difficult for our users to understand.
We are a riddle. We are the familiar, yet unfamiliar. Everyone knows what a librarian does, but not really. We are highly skilled, yet rarely highly paid.
4. Cameleon: Finally, the modern law librarian is chameleon-like. A chameleon is defined as "a fickle person: a person given to expedient or facile change and ideas of character."
At first glance this definition does not appear to be complimentary. Yet it is the definition of a survivor in today's economy. To be fickle or expedient does not mean to be shallow or thoughtless. It means that one is decisive. It is the characteristic of a skilled gambler, but a gamble based on knowledge.
In today's world of instantaneous electronic change, change and speed equal opportunity. If a profession cannot change, and change quickly, it (or the communities it serves) cannot take advantage of opportunities. Law librarianship today requires librarians to change direction at the speed of light. Librarians, as well as attorneys and other information professionals, cannot be afraid of sudden change. To react slowly means to die.
The new world requires that the profession be both reactive and proactive. Librarians must not be paralyzed by perfection. They must accept risks and mistakes. Today's librarian must be willing to make a possible error and accept the responsibility for that error. To be frozen in one position means the likelihood of larger errors in the future.
Today's librarians are worthy of awards and recognition. We are ubiquitous. We are innovators looking at the tools of our trade and making them work in today's economy. Each of us is a complex riddle beyond the casual understanding of the user, and change is at the heart of the profession.
Alvin Podboy is law librarian for Baker & Hostetler, based in Cleveland, and is a member of the LTN Editorial Advisory Board.