You’re Not Invited

Groups are important for sharing things.  As an individual, there’s a lot I don’t share, a lot that goes unsaid.  But I’m a member of a lot of groups – formal ones, like my family or my professional associations, and informal ones with people with similar interests – that I like to share and gain from others sharing.  Increasingly, I have avoided being a part of in-groups where I could opt out.  So I was frustrated today when I fielded an e-mail from a librarian.

What follows is mostly a rant; this is your only warning.

The e-mail was innocuous.  The sender wasn’t trying to be elitist.  But the request was for an update of information about the subscription law library I lead, to be used for a professional purpose.  And the list was of about 15 other subscription law libraries.

The thing is, there are hundreds of subscription – or membership – law libraries in North America.  This list was an invitational list that I’d seen before, that included select subscription law libraries.  I’ve worked in subscription law libraries in two countries and have been fortunate to work in two of the better funded, better connected, and older libraries.  As a director at each one, I’d been invited to participate in this select group.

This tended to involve meeting in a private room as part of a professional conference and giving other, select subscription law library directors an update on the past year.  This private meeting excluded all the other law librarians at the conference, even other subscription law librarians.  Not because they couldn’t learn from the meeting or share, but because they didn’t belong.

It took me two of these dinners to realize that this group wasn’t for me, and I wasn’t for it.  But it rang a bell in my head, for a conversation I had when I joined the ABA.  I was arriving from academia and joining the world of #legaltech.  Someone who had already cut their teeth doing similar work warned me:  you may feel like you’ve reached the inner circle, but you’ll find that there’s an even inner circle beyond that.  In my mind’s eye, it was like when you look in facing mirrors, and the inner circles telescoped off as far as I could see.  It was useful to know there were secret clubs to which I wasn’t ever going to be invited, but from which I would occasionally see the water ripple.

I was not so surprised when I moved to Canada and was invited to a meeting at a professional conference that was private.  It was limited to select subscription law library directors.  Each one gave a report, an update on what had happened in the last year and the challenges they were facing.

You may have heard me describe that before.  As the Ramones might say, “second verse, same as the first.”

The directors in both meetings – and the people working on legal technology at the ABA and other places – were all facing similar challenges.  Nothing about their law libraries was unique except in the absolute details.  We all had funding challenges, we all thought we had marketing problems, we all needed to figure out how to increase revenue without losing members.  The goal of the meetings was to share with each other what we’d been doing in the past year, to help each other.

So why did we insist on such small groups?

The thing that irritates me most about the list of 15 select law libraries is that I’m personally aware of more than 100 subscription law libraries in the US and it’s probably north of 200.  We have colleagues in a bunch of other Commonwealth countries.  These libraries all face similar challenges, dealing with similar publishers, addressing the same demographic and professional changes that impact our service delivery.  Why would we exclude them or pretend their context is so different as not to list them?

Why would we exclude the other courthouse law libraries who, while not membership dues-based, have identical audiences?  Or the other courthouse law libraries that are public law libraries?  The data alone should be enough of an ends to justify over-inclusion.

I think one reason is that we haven’t figured out a good way to share the stories and information outside a physical gathering.  I know that there are email discussion lists and online communities of practice at professional associations that are filling this gap for some people.  We also haven’t faced up to our fears of expressing our failures, and the challenges that we already know we can’t fix or undo, to our professional colleagues.  Group sharing can quickly devolve into fatalistic discussions, hand wringing, and complaining without action.

But we also like to focus on what makes us special:  oldest library, biggest library, most private library, whatever.  And we exclude those who aren’t quite the same size, or quite as well funded, or whatever.  These distinctions do matter: if I have a collections budget of $1 million, acquisition challenges can be significantly different  for my library from one that has a $25,000 budget.  And that person may benefit from talking to similarly sized libraries.

But there’s no need for exclusion at either end.  One of my most memorable conferences was sitting in on roundtables held by Texas county law libraries at a SWALL conference, who shared their ideas and challenges.  They weren’t things that were portable to my situation, but the kernels were similar and they sparked ideas for me.  Most law librarians wouldn’t have wanted to sit in on those discussions, but I have always appreciated that they didn’t mind if I did.

Everyone wants to be part of the in-crowd.  There’s a conference I stopped going to because it regularly held closed sessions, and I was one of only a handful of people who were invited to the conference but excluded from these meetings.  We’d go out and grab a coffee, coming back in time for the next “open” session.  Fair enough. People want to choose the people they want to choose.

We miss out on opportunities to share, and learn, and combat some of the negative changes that face law libraries when we wall off our inner circles from newcomers, or create an appearance that only the select have important things to say.  To paraphrase Mr. Bennet, we are excluded by others, and exclude them in our turn.  But we don’t have to.

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.