Image [CC] by Mr. Ush

You’ve probably heard the saying that “Youth is wasted on the young.” After seeing the list of participants in the program, “The Future of Law Libraries: The Future Is Now?” put on by Harvard Law School’s John Palfrey on June 16th, the thought of “Idea generation and future planning of law libraries is wasted on the Academics,” crossed my mind. Now, before Academics get their noses bent out of shape, bear with me for a minute because I’m going to take the law firm librarians out behind the woodshed as well.

Take a look at the participants for this collaboration who were there to “discuss and critique blueprints for the next iterations of our future.”

  • Academic librarians: 107
  • Gov’t/Court libraries: 13 
  • Vendors/Stakeholders: 10
  • Firm Librarians: 7
  • Corporate Librarians: 1
These were the participants. When it came to Firm Librarians actually sitting on panels or presenting at the meeting, that number drops to zero. That is a serious shortcoming of the meeting, and causes the end results of such a meeting to be unfairly skewed away from an important subset of the profession.
As someone that has worked in the Academic setting (twice), the state court and county system, and at an AmLaw 100 firm, here’s my take on what each of these subsets of the law librarian field brings to the party:
  • Courts – “Where the story begins”
  • Academics – “Where the ideas roam”
  • Private Law Firms – “Where the money is”
Each piece is important, but as many of us know, it is the Academics that really are designed to think about the process of law librarianship and develop theories about how to improve processes and procedures so that the profession continues to thrive and be relevant over a long period of time. The academics are truly those that like to toss out ideas, develop theories, and predict the future, and debate all of these among each other to see which of them hold water as judged by their peers. The only problem is that they are predicting the future using a formula that is missing a significant variable … the Private Law Firm Librarian’s perspective.

It is not totally the Academics’ fault for this missing variable, however. At least half (probably more than half) of the blame rests on the shoulders of the law firm librarians. Here the Private Law Librarians have a chance to really participate and leverage the strengths of their Academic brethren, yet without fail, I usually hear one or more of the following excuses on why they won’t participate in these types of future planning meetings:
  1. My firm won’t pay for it, therefore I can’t attend
  2. I’m too busy billing work and can’t afford to take time off
  3. The ideas that come out of these meetings don’t work in my specific situation
The first two excuses I can somewhat forgive… that last one really pisses me off when I hear it. And I hear it a lot! One of the biggest problems I’ve run across in the Private Law Librarian field is that there are those that believe that when they go to a conference or meeting that they have to come away with a specific answer to a specific problem that addresses their specific need. If they don’t get that specific answer, then they gripe about what a waste of time and money it is and how it “failed” them by not giving them the answer they need to take back to their boss. I think I’ve written this before… what these people are wanting is a consultant, not a conversation. These types of meetings/conferences are set up to bounce ideas off of one another and to debate the validity of the ideas within the three major subsets of the law librarian profession. If you don’t participate, then you’re causing the results to shift toward the subsets of the profession that do participate.

Now, back to the Harvard meeting.
These types of meetings need to continue, but they need to be better balanced when it comes to the subsets that make up the law library profession. Academics talking to Academics is not the way to define the future of the profession. I’m going to challenge John Palfrey that when he sets up 2012 edition of  “The Future of Law Libraries” that one in five (20%) of the speakers be from law firms. I’m also going to challenge the Private Law Firm Librarians, especially those in Chief or Director levels of large and mid-sized firms, to answer the call when Palfrey asks you to participate. If you really care about the profession, then find a way to contribute to meetings like this so that Private Law Firm Librarians aren’t left out of the equation.