From shelf space to cyberspace

Despite the digital revolution, the role of law firm librarian is as important as ever. By Susan Doe

For many years those of us in the legal information profession have faced the question of when books will no longer be relevant. The prevalence of specialist desktop information sources aimed at lawyers (let alone Google) have no doubt affected the library being seen as a purely physical space, but the 900 members of the British and Irish Association of Law Librarians still have jobs, and the membership continues to grow. If the law library has changed, what are the roles asked of us these days, what skills do we need and what are our career prospects? The internet has a huge amount to answer for. It has hastened and massively widened computer use. A certain level of proficiency, even from those who would not have touched a PC even a few years ago, is needed. Publishers aim their electronic products at lawyers, not just legal information professionals. Cases and legislation can be pulled directly and immediately from databases wherever a lawyer is working and books and journals are available online.

Potentially, a law library is a virtual entity. This is not necessarily ideal, as there are still many who prefer print for particular tasks and the cost prohibitions of electronic licensing are very real, but it is possible. In the sad reality of a world where disasters and terrorists strike, this needs close attention for business continuity purposes. More mundanely, lawyers working on the move and away from the office require portable 24/7 services in order to do their job. Librarians are arranging the subscriptions; negotiating increasingly complicated electronic licensing contracts; advising on suitable databases for particular types of information (there are still many products on the market with different strengths and weaknesses, and the concentration of major publishers causes it own issues that the librarian must take account of); and they are steering people away from internet sites of doubtful origin (even if it does seem to have that piece of legislation you were looking for) in favour of trusted and authoritative sources.

Librarians are working on the information architecture that means you can reach all these different sources easily. You do not want to have to use different passwords, so we make that seamless. They are training lawyers to use the different sources and working on intranets and portals, so that information sources can be linked together with your desktop applications. They are working on know-how databases to capture and share internal intelligence and link it to external sources so, for example, your documents that mention a piece of legislation can lead you straight to that legislation. They are using their traditional indexing skills to make your documents retrievable and accessible. All this while trying to make it as easy as Google to search, but much less frightening on the amount of results.

Librarians are collaborating with professional support lawyers to add value to your current awareness and are using their organisational skills to manage internal information for risk management. Sarbanes Oxley and similar UK legislation have shown the value of records management to reach compliance standards.

In a profession that is rapidly changing, how we do our jobs will change. What we do essentially will not. Librarians will still be filtering, organising and delivering information in a format that suits the lawyers they work for. Every law firm is different, and any law librarian who is good at their job knows that each way of working needs to be catered for. The key objective has always been to make lawyers’ jobs easier.

Susan Doe is information and research manager at Sidley Austin Brown & Wood