Virtual Law Librarian: Adding Value in a Digital World

[originally published in the Chicago Association of Law Libraries (CALL) Bulletin, Spring 2001, page 16.]

Ask our clients what the virtual law library means and you will get as many answers as you have clients. Invariably, though, these answers will focus on the resources available in that library: “no print,” “Internet,” “CD-ROM.” Expanding the definition to include the human resource is the real challenge for librarians. The value of the librarian – and the library – is diminished if we think of the virtual law library without the administrative, support, and educational services required to maintain it.

The virtual law library is coming, however narrowly defined. The law library world is changing, whether a law firm is going entirely digital or the library is implementing Internet resources, via an online provider or in-house intranet. There are significant benefits to our organizations in this digital shift, especially in cost savings in physical space and support services, and client access. These are the same arguments raised by organizations when considering application service providers for software and other services. Interestingly, though, you have not heard of the imminent demise of the Information Technology Department in your organization. Rather, the outsourcing of these basic tasks leads to changes in expectations from that department. It allows the technology staff to focus on the more challenging, more professional aspects of their customers’ needs as well as managing the relationship with the outside providers. The same should be the case for librarians.

Librarians must embrace the economies and efficiencies possible from virtual resources, critically selected and acquired, and champion the virtual library. The shift in perception will benefit librarians, who will be identified less closely with hunting for missing volumes and more closely with developing innovative tools for delivering information. Skills that distin- guish the professional from the lay researcher in this new environment must be emphasized. The virtual library still requires acquisitions, organization, train- ing and instruction on using resources. Virtual law librarians must negotiate contracts, develop virtual knowledge resources, and perform in-person services for clients. This may involve muscles we have not yet flexed, but in this rapidly evolving world, we will all be constantly learning and using new skills.

We must advocate on our own behalf our expert role in this virtual law library. Each action through which librarians add value – creating an intranet, overseeing clipping services, identifying and acquiring resources from the flood of possibilities, providing expert assistance and virtual reference – must be considered an integral part of any virtual library. It will no longer be sufficient to put the client and the information together. Having put ourselves forward as experts, we must aggressively occupy that role. If the librarian is out of sight, he must not be out of mind.

When selecting a new resource for the library, librar- ians should consider what services should be provided, what training materials can be created, what ancillary resources will be beneficial to clients. Each new resource must be implemented within a wrapper of the services the librarians will provide. In this way, the added value is clear from the outset. If you provide batteries with an electric screwdriver, the difference in using the screwdriver without them is apparent – even if the tool can still, barely, turn a screw.

Today’s resources are not the same as last year’s, although the subscriptions might be. Emphasize thisby teaching clients the latest feature or creating resources to take advantage of new changes. Keep a steady stream of helpful information flowing, proactively, to continue to build on the perception that we are the experts. These activities are not new to librarians, but because of the virtual nature of the emerging library, we must make sure that our services are inseparable from the resources we provide our clients.

The virtual law library offers many opportunities and challenges and we will each see our world changing to take advantage of these. Librarians can cement their roles in the virtual library by ensuring that the clients never forget that the human component is integral to any library, virtual or physical.

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