Image [cc] matthileo

After a few days of discussing the future of law libraries and law librarianship with members of the AALL Board last week, I came away with an idea of what the future holds for the law library. Many of us, including myself, have preached the ideas of stop thinking of the library as a place and think of it as the services provided, regardless of where that service takes place. While this has had an impact on librarians themselves, the idea of thinking of the library as a service and not as a physical location has been a tough idea for many outside of law librarianship to understand. Then I started thinking of ways we can help those understand that the law library is more than the books, tables and computers found inside the library. It isn’t about the square footage of the law library, but rather it is about the bubbles of services found inside and outside that physical space. The three-foot radius that is the reach of the human arm is a better representation of how we should think about a law library, rather than the linear footage of books found on shelves.

We’ve spent too long trying to hold onto the ideas that people will seek us out, and far too little time pushing out to where are services are best used. Yes, we’ve gathered statistics on how often our catalogs are used, how many reference phone calls we’ve taken, and how many emails we’ve answered, but we have been slow to adopt the idea that many of these services don’t require a specific space for the service to occur. When someone from the library (whether they are librarian, researcher, assistant, techie, etc.) walks around and provides services, the “library” surrounds them. That three-foot radius that encircles them in a six-foot perimeter and 28 square foot area, is now the library. The same holds true for the electronic communications. Email, web pages, newsletters and other forms of information and analysis that comes from those working under the library department, extend the perimeter of the library in temporary, but accessible places such as computers on the desktops, laptops on the beaches, smart phones on the bus, and tablets on airplanes.

Those who use the services of the library have figured this out long ago. No longer do they need to physically go to the library in order to get the information they need. Many of us have found the results of this lack of going to the library has resulted in that “brick-and-mortar” facility shrinking in overall size, and have viewed this as a negative for the profession. I think that it should be viewed more from a positive perspective and that creative librarians, as well as anyone that works in the law library profession, should take this change in structure and start promoting the flexibility and range of services that have resulted in this change from physical library to service library. Perhaps the idea of the Law Library as groups of three-foot radiuses of services should be what we are telling our patrons is the new structure of the law library. (By the way, I looked up the plural of radius, and radii and radiuses are both acceptable.)

Not only are librarians still thinking of the law library as a place, but some are becoming defensive that unless you work in a physical space called a law library, you cannot consider yourself a law librarian. What a silly notion, in my opinion. In a time where we have a wider reach to customers and potential customers through the three-foot radius of library service, why would we want to narrowly define the profession and those that consider themselves a part of the profession? Defining your profession by the physical space you are located, is going to result in failure. Instead, define the profession by the services provided.

We need to be inclusive, not exclusive. We need to expand our ranks by showing those that provide law library services such as competitive intelligence, business development research and analysis, as well as legal research and analysis, that they are a part of the law library community, regardless if they work in a space labeled the “Law Library” or they work in a series of cubicles called a research center, or they are embedded in a practice group. It is not about the space, it is about the service. It is time to expand your thinking about what is a law library – about who can consider themselves a part of the law library – about what the law library includes, and start expanding and marketing the law library in those three-foot radius bubbles of services that we provide.

  • Fantastic post, Greg! Librarians have been challenged to think outside the box for years. It is hardest when we realize that the boxes this time are our own physical libraries. They are more tangible, more grand, and more familiar than the proverbial boxes of the tired cliche, sure. But they are every bit as restrictive and limiting in the face of today's changing (I dare say, innovating) industry. If our physical collections and spaces are shrinking, it is not because we are becoming obsolete as a profession. The rapidly growing digital universe is simply eclipsing what can do with these resources. If people needed us to help them navigate the stacks and terminals of the past, imagine how much more they need us now that the world is literally becoming the "library" iin which they must work! Never before has so much information been collected and made available. Thus never before have we needed skilled, tenacious, professionals to help us filter it, make sense of it, and truly find the very best. Our jobs are getting bigger by the day. If we can just peek beyond the walls and shelves to see the vast and expanding digital frontier, it should be evident to all that WE ARE the new pioneers of the infomation age.

  • Anonymous


    Librarians need to stop holding on to the security blanket of the physical library space.

    I would suggest that Law Librarians read up on the efforts of some Library Directors to embed their librarians/informarion specialists/research analysts into the practice groups where they are integrated into the fabric of the pratice group they are assigned to support.

    This is certainly a way to becoming even more integral to supporting the practice and business of law as a profession.

  • Greg, I think you have hit on a point that seems to get lost as we move from one technological marvel to the next: The personal touch has never been more important. The Librarian (and this definition has certainly broadened over time) is no longer tied to a physical Library and should become personally acquainted with the individuals, practices and departments that they support. But the lack of a physical Library does not diminish the the importance of the Librarian maintaining contact with thier colleagues, both in and out of the firm. The circle should truly be all inclusive.

  • Very well put. Now all we need to make sure to "advertise" this to our own institutions. I already put some of this thought into my library newsletter & will keep pushing it. Thanks for this great post.

  • Al Podboy

    Greg, Now might be "the time" for our professional associations to replace their emphasis from the "library" to the librarian… I like the message of the "American Association of Law Librarians"…. same with the PLL "Private Law Librarians." Librarians and our virtual libraries are everywhere….

  • Al,

    I've bounced that idea around in my head over the past couple of years, and have been hesitant to jump into that fray after the fiasco that SLA had with name changes. Although this wouldn't be the major shift SLA attempted, I worry that members would get too tied up in the details about "what does this mean for the organization/profession" and would start tearing itself apart.
    However, your suggestion does spur some ideas in me… which will probably form itself into a blog post on the topic of "Preaching & Teaching." So, stay tuned!!

  • Al Podboy

    Greg, Count on it! I've felt the same way for a long time… it is the people… not the institution, that now make the "library" important. When I left B&H, I thought that I would miss their resources… not so. Know how, technology and CONTACTS are really today's game…. AALL can provide the know how and contacts…. I think standing still is really the danger…

  • Greg,
    Excellent post and I strongly agree. I am continually mulling over this idea as I think about designing the library within our new building, due later this decade. In law schools we still want to give the students a place to work productively. Unlike faculty and most firm lawyers, they don't necessarily have another location to concentrate on work, despite the ease of connecting to our resources. I primarily think of our future library space as a home for the librarians and a wayside stop for our students.