Helping Ourselves . . . or Not

Activist is not a description anyone would use about me. That’s not to say I do not, or will not, get engaged with issues but, particularly where it comes to libraries, I need to feel aligned with the issue to get behind it. I can’t speak to the success of libraries generally in successfully lobbying for more funding, more stability, more staff, whatever. But I find myself in two minds about participating in library-oriented campaigns that don’t, from my perspective, recognize the need for change that libraries face. It’s not that they’re not well-intentioned, but I feel like we’re tilting at windmills if we overplay the role of libraries, particularly non-public libraries.

Lorcan Dempsey did a great post recently, rounding up a bunch of recent activities related to collection development and the shift that is happening in many libraries.  He quotes another author, Rick Anderson (who has written a number of thoughtful pieces on library collections, like this), on e-books and the line that has stuck with me is:

The extent of the transformation will depend on several factors, of course, including the content and accessibility of the corpus — but librarians’ opinions about the mass-digitization program will have no effect at all.

This is a recurring theme.  It’s not that librarians don’t have opinions or that they are not voiced.  But for any number of reasons, they often fail to have the impact necessary to create the desired change.

When I was in Ohio, the private law association libraries funded by public dollars underwent a significant, and ultimately successful, legislative change.  At one point, the thought was that, if one funding stream was ended, the law libraries might leverage other public library funding.  Not so.  We were quickly opposed by the public libraries who, fair enough, didn’t feel like there was any more room at the lunch counter.  No group hugs, not if they cost money.

During the budget hearings in preparation, though, we found ourselves justifying to legislators why law libraries should be funded.  Like any library, we had good stories to tell about competent researchers, how we were innovating and adapting to new challenges.  But the reality is we were talking about a “nice to have” when volunteer fire departments, mental health clinics, and other resources were undergoing budget cuts.  As with the e-books, it’s not that the librarians weren’t heard.  But there are frankly more effective, even more important, constituents.  We can defend the importance of print collections, of Internet access and retraining Google-only researchers, and the skyrocketing costs we need to maintain the print and electronic access.  Is your print collection more important than fire service?  Bus service?  School lunches?  Saving a solo lawyer $300 a year on their mandatory practice dues, 1% of their annual net income?

I was reading the Annoyed Librarian today and the blog post dealt with distinctions between libraries, and how we don’t have universal challenges.  Librarians (meaning those who work in libraries, not exclusively MLS degree folks) often talk about both “libraries” as a group while also talking about the differences that make their libraries unique.  These unique qualities seem to be limitless.  Law libraries are different from public libraries (mostly).  But academic and firm libraries have special needs.  And big firm and mid-size firms have different needs from public law libraries.  And each public law library is different from each other, and on and on.  We even throw national differences into the mix: looks like it will be focused on vendor relations in the USA – but it is an interesting development nevertheless

Librarians in Canada and the UK see things happening in the US and we may approach it as interesting, but not necessarily something we contribute to even though we share the same high-priced publishers.  To be fair, when I was in the US, I don’t think I looked outside the US much.

It’s not to say there aren’t commonalities – I’m a big believer that law libraries can learn from what public and academic libraries are doing in customer service.  But that doesn’t mean their challenges are my challenges.

Like the Annoyed Librarian, I think there are sufficient differences between libraries that issues don’t necessarily translate.  It means that you can sometimes be protected from a problem – limited renewals for e-books – but you also get different problems – e-books are universal, so the money folks ask why we still collect print legal material (even though law-related e-books are relatively non-existent).

The new site that Sarah Glassmeyer has started – – is an interesting project that I hopes gain traction.  Rather than creating an artificial united library front, it is an opportunity for library staff to share information.  The entire library community can then use that information to the greatest effect in their own environment or in collaboration with similarly situated libraries.  Sarah has other thoughts on boycotts and vendors.  What strikes me about this effort is that it’s doing something:  no committees are created (or struck, as they say in Canada), no membership associations have their bureaucracies kick into gear, nothing organized at all.  If the site is successful, it will be because enough of us put our money where our mouths are and help out.  Otherwise it will fall into that other category of library activism that I feel is our most common, which is the ineffective one.

    David Whelan

    I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.