The Great Shrinking, Expanding Law Library

law libraryIn July 2016, Chicago hosted the 2016 American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) Show and Conference with the theme of “Make It New: Create The Future.” Thus, it comes as no surprise that technology’s role in legal research, analytics, and furthering the legal profession was at the forefront of most talking points of the conference. The law library is no stranger to the same demands as the law profession as a whole. As the delivery of legal services evolves – be part of future law, or be left behind.

Fitting in With Legal Education

Several hot-button issues remain in the forefront of legal education discussions. This is especially true as we enter another academic year with orientations for the incoming 1L classes. The analysis and evaluation of these issues – such as what advancements have been made since the Carnegie Report including practical skills training in law school curricula – must be maintained if legal education is to remain viable in the future law discussion.

While law school debt soars and operational budgets shrink, law school institutions remain challenged to reform, as does the symbiotic entities that are the academic law libraries. To this end, stacks of bound volumes of cases, journals and treatises are replaced by technology-based “legal research centers.” But as labels may change, the wealth and richness of a law library’s collection is found not so much in its quantity of texts, but in the intellectual capital of the law librarians who manage them.

More Than Legal Research

The knowledge and skills provided by law librarians should be marketed to their customers as a “living law library” concept. Collaboration pods, entrepreneur teams, and incubators should (and must?) be an integral part of the law library’s landscape among the many shelves and rows of print volumes. The next generation of lawyers must find a law library with an active role in their legal education beyond a quiet place to study or simply find caselaw. This ensures the law library can remain a key spoke in the legal education wheel as the thought center for legal writing and research.

Emerging legal research technologies and the applications of analytics foster novel methods and efficiencies to providing legal services. Law students are learning to think like a lawyer. Also, they are building their legal identity. As an officer of the court, their legal identity – shaped by competence, integrity and civility – will be responsible for service to their clients and the legal profession. Their ability to access and utilize legal research is an integral part of building that successful legal identity of service.

Same Goal, Different Path

Our technological advances have allowed us to have access to far more information while requiring less space to house it. These benefits are seen not just in seemingly endless data, but in the speed at which a legal practitioner can access and search such a massive amount of legal information.  This is where law libraries and legal librarians have evolved – meeting with the challenges brought by electronic-based research and jettisoning traditional print-based legal research, for the most part.

For example, digital collections may be easily searched using electronic software tools to find that obscure case with very similar facts to build an analogous argument. Or at least in theory. Print-based research of days past required the physical combing through book after book to track down a case. Yet, in modern legal research you’re commonly faced with too many research search results. This is where the law librarian’s role has evolved. The goal for the most relevant, recent, and authoritative information remains the same, it is just a far different journey in the digital world to get there, one often reliant on filtering and sorting through voluminous results using the right keywords in a Boolean search.

As the intermingled print and digital collections of law libraries shrink and expand, respectively, and the tools afforded us to utilize legal research evolve, law libraries and legal librarians will transition their methods in accessing the legal information sought. But their roles really remain constant. Any static role of a library’s past must come to life through its own legal professionals. It is through them that the complex advances in legal research technologies can be delivered to new and seasoned attorneys, keeping the legal profession prepared for the future.

 

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Mark C. Palmer

Mark C. Palmer

As Professionalism Counsel, Mark leads professionalism programming through the statewide mentoring program, collaborating with stakeholders from Galena to Cairo. Mark also supports the development and delivery of educational programming to lawyers and in law schools. When not in the office, you will likely find Mark and his wife busy raising their twin daughters, enjoying his passion of traveling and eating around the world, and training for his next half marathon.
Mark C. Palmer

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