image [cc] Alex Proimos

I saw mentioning of The Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Steve Barker, “In the Age of Google, Librarians Get Shelved,” this weekend, but didn’t actually read it until this morning. I found the opinion piece to be a little bit lazy, and playing up the old fear of “everything is on the Internet,” and that “the public library of the future might be a computer center, staffed by IT professionals and few books or librarians.” I usually just roll my eyes and move on about my daily business, but the fact that the WSJ would run this, and that a number of my colleagues within the legal industry would possibly read it, I thought I would chime in with some feedback.

First and foremost, I want to remind my colleagues that a public librarian plays a very different role from what a law librarian does. I’ll let public librarians defend their own, and I’ll start by stating what I see as the number one role of a law librarian, regardless of if that law librarian is in government, academia, or private legal environment:

Law Librarians manage the risk within the organization they serve, ensuring the organization’s mission is met through the acquisition, management, distribution, and analysis of legal information needed for the organization to perform its mission in a timely manner and at an appropriate cost.

Our job isn’t about pointing people to the nearest bathroom, or locating lost keys. It is about positioning lawyers, educators, judges, administrators, and the public, in the best possible position to fulfill their responsibility within the legal framework they represent. If we do help you find the bathroom or your lost keys, we do so because we tend to be nice people and want to help. Don’t view that as a weakness, view it as a strength in that we feel empathy for your current situation, not that we have nothing better to do.

It’s not about knowing how to do a Google search; it is about knowing how to interpret a Google search and the knowledge to know when that is enough, or it is time to dive deeper into specialized tools vetted, obtained, and managed by the law librarians. It’s not about understanding technology; it is about understanding how technology can be applied to increase the availability of resources and the knowledge rejecting technology when the rewards do not outweigh the risk/costs/effectiveness of that technology.

I’ve always heard that any problem can be solved given the unlimited supply of three things:

  1. Time
  2. People
  3. Money

None of us have unlimited time, people, or resources. That’s why the law librarian is such a valuable resource, in that he or she reduces all three of these things by applying our expertise and experience of managing the risks associated with time, people, and money.

If you think that a law library is about Google and books, or even Westlaw and Lexis, then you truly do not understand what’s really going on. Thinking that just anyone can run a law library because they have technology skills is like thinking anyone can drive a Formula 1 car because they can replace the oil in their car.

Law Librarians manage risk.
Law Librarians save you time.
Law Librarians save you money.
Law Librarians reduce your headcount.

We make sure that you have the resources when you need them, and within the needs and budget of the organization. If you confuse technology for knowledge, you’ve just increased your risk substantially. Be prepared to tap into more time, money, and people.