Sunday, 7 August 2011

'The Magical Law Library Staff' - is it true that law librarians are often underrated?

Abracadabra, your research is done...

So I came across this Linex Systems blog post titled The Magical Law Library Staff on another favourite blog of mine, The Running Librarian. It looks like it has struck a chord with a lot of us law librarians out there, which is why I felt I had to mention it myself!

In every law library I have worked in, it has been a long standing joke (although sometimes uttered with more bitterness than at other times, depending on what we have just been asked!) that the fee-earners have no concept of the amount of behind-the-scenes work undertaken by us on their behalf, to make their working lives easier. Journals that appear like clockwork every week on the lawyer's desk can often be the result of a several week-long battle with a particular supplier, trying in vain to understand why, if they have our correspondence details correct on their system as they claim, the journal has been sent to our old address 2 miles up the road for the last 3 months. That beautifully formatted, clear and concise current awareness bulletin is the result of onerous trawls through reams of news bulletins and other online/paper publications. And that neatly laid out and fully referenced answer to a horrible legal research question involved at the very least, a crash course in a very obscure point of law!

Now while some of you might say, well, what do you expect - that's what you're employed to do; that's your job to ensure all of the above and more happens as it should happen. And yes, that is true, of course it's our job - if we weren't actually making a difference to the fee-earners' lives then our existence wouldn't exactly be justified. So it's not so much that I need to be profusely thanked every single time I do something at work - far from it. No, what my own personal bugbear is that without exception, in every law firm I have worked in, there is still a core of people who simply have no clue that we are the ones managing the online databases on which they are so dependent; or that we are the ones constantly keeping abreast of the fee-earning work being done across the firm, and providing a tailored current awareness service as a result. Sadly it seems like there will always be some people who think that 'all' we do is tidy a few shelves every day.

In some ways though, the law firm library is its own worst enemy, as it often seems to me that librarians/information specialists or whatever job title we use, are not by nature the kind of people who blow their own trumpets. We tend to remain very much in the background, not seeking glory for what we do at all. Don't get me wrong - I wouldn't want to be part of a team that did project an image of superiority, because I don't think that makes for great working relations with other departments! No, I just think that sometimes, the law firm library is highly underrated, which is a great shame. And even those general administrative tasks are still important - who wants to come into a library where there is a huge big messy pile of books and journals waiting to be shelved? If we didn't attend to tasks like that, as well as all the other things we do, then people would certainly notice us - and not in a good way. But when these things are all being done without fuss or faddle, you do sometimes wonder if people even stop to think about how much time we spend, making sure the library is a pleasant place to visit, and moreover, a useful stop for research.

I think another part of the problem is that the information profession in general is underrated. In fact, to some people, even calling it a profession is something they would question, because an astonishing number of people have no idea at all that, for example, in order to move up the ladder in law firm libraries, 9 times out of 10 you need to have attained at the very least, a post graduate diploma in information science/library studies etc, although the majority of my colleagues actually have the Masters qualification, or they studied the subject at undergraduate level. But on the rare occasion I have had cause to mention this fact to one of my fee-earners, without fail they react with genuine surprise. Sadly even in this day and age, librarianship is not like, say, accountancy, where it's  pretty well-known fact that you have to sit many exams before you fully qualify. People tend to know about teachers, doctors, nurses - but not many people know how we qualify!

One thing that also makes me laugh (or want to cry!) is the fact that a lot of fee-earners really do seem to think we are in fact magicians. No really, they do. You see,here's an example: fee-earners in my experience tend not to like spending money, and so when they come across an abstract of an article that is apparently exactly what they're looking for, they often find it very difficult to accept that, in some cases, the only way to access it will be for us to pay for it. I think they believe we have access to a magical, cost-free repository of data, which contains everything from that 2003 copy of the Journal of Fracking (yes that is a made up title, although believe it or not I was looking to 'fracking' last week!) to unreported cases from the 19th century! While it is certainly very flattering - perhaps we are just so good at our jobs that the fee-earners simply cannot believe there are things we can't obtain for them without incurring a cost - at the same time it can be frustrating after you have explained for the 3500th time to a new trainee that no, just because when you're at uni you have free access to every journal under the sun, doesn't mean it's the same here - particularly when we're in the cost-cutting climate that we are right now...

The Linex Systems blog post states that:

"The librarians are the ones who take the vague query they’re given, work out the core of it, learn the legal issues around it, collate relevant materials, and pass back a useful and relevant answer…even if sometimes the answer is “there’s no answer”, because nobody’s covered that point before (which happens a LOT more often than is fun for us – it’s not our fault no material exists on certain points!). We know our users, and which ones will expect not only the requested material, but also for you to have read it, and be able to have discussions about the content of that material."

I definitely empathise with this one as well! Sadly, we very often find in our job that what we are trying to prove as much as we can is that there is no answer to a query - and again, that's not something any lawyer likes to hear. While it is a lovely feeling when you discover a passage in a textbook or in a case or journal article that appears to all intents and purposes to be the very answer you're trying to ascertain, sadly this doesn't always happen, and so you end up simply trying to show that nothing appears to have been written about that particular issue yet, and/or that there is just no caselaw debating it.

The blog writer also mentions that:
"...And maintaining a master list of their passwords, because they NEVER do as they’re told, and keep the email with the information on it in a safe place."

Ah, the delightful forgotten password scenario. If I had £1 for every time a fee-earner forgets their login details...well, put it this way, I wouldn't be sat here writing about it! At our firm we are quite fortunate in that the most frequently used resources are now all IP-authenticated, meaning that login is automatic because the database recognises IP address from our office, and I can't tell you the amount of time that is saved in terms of forgotten password queries. That having been said, there are still several specialist databases that require passwords, and so when I set up access to these, I specifically ask if the details can be sent to me first, and then I can send them onto the new user myself, meaning that I can make a note of them on our passwords list and that way it doesn't matter if that new user loses their details down the line. Obviously it is a problem if they change the password they are given and don't tell us, but to be honest, I have only come across a handful of lawyers who ever actually have the time to do that! The other problem is that there are sometimes data protection issues that prevent some database administrators from sending a user's login to someone else, which means that I have to contact that fee-earner, pre-warn them that they will be receiving an email directly and so NOT to delete it assuming it's junk, AND kindly request that they forward it onto me so that I can maintain the password record. And if you're wondering how many people actually do as I ask, then you've probably guessed correctly - not many! AAAAAGGGGHHHH!!!

So I guess the big question is: are law librarians really underrated? In my opinion, I think unfortunately there are some fee-earners who will never see us (if they see us at all) as anything more than book shelf stackers, but before this post puts you off ever contemplating a career in a law firm library, let me reassure you by saying that for every non-appreciative fee-earner, in every firm I have worked in I have had just as many very grateful fee-earners, who truly do seem to appreciate the hours we spend on ensuring that they have access to the most relevant and up-to-date information and resources, and having their research requests answered efficiently and promptly.

Ah, the sweet life of the City law librarian....

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