By Fritz Swanson
Photos by Leisa Thompson Photography and Sam Hollenshead
Photo illustrations by Tish Holbrook.
In fact, the Digital Age Makes Law Librarians More Necessary than Ever
A 2008 story in Forbes magazine estimated that Google handled 235 million searches a day. If a machine can do that, where does that leave the librarian?
I spoke to four of the 12 librarians at the University of
Michigan Law Library to get an answer. In addition to
being credentialed librarians, all four are also
lawyers. They want people to know that many
stereotypes about librarians are outdated, and that they
in fact are helping to advance digital research rather than
The Image of the Librarian
One popular image of the librarian, a quiet but strict book-shelver
who occasionally glares sternly, seems a poor match against this
digital behemoth. How does the law librarian fit into the digital age?
Quite well, thank you, according to Michigan Law's librarians.
Barbara Garavaglia, '80, notes: "I've never experienced in my entire
career any problem whatsoever in embracing technology. ... For me
it has always been: What is the most efficient and effective way to
get this work done?"
The Law School launched an educational campaign last year to
illustrate the many ways librarians can assist students, and to
remind people that technology hasn't supplanted the need for
librarians. "We're information experts. Really. They just call us
librarians," states one of the posters from the campaign.
Shaking up that old image is a welcome change, notes Jocelyn
Kennedy, until recently the head of the circulation services unit and
a reference librarian at Michigan Law. She believes many people
hold a misperception that stems from their childhood interactions
with librarians. "Their memory of a librarian, right, is their elementary
school librarian, who helped them choose Curious George."
Kennedy, who now is associate director at the library at the
University of Connecticut School of Law, has never once helped a
student find a copy of Curious George. Rather, she spends a lot of
her time assisting students with finding information through digital
Which makes it all the more maddening when people say to her, "Do
they even need librarians anymore? Isn't everything on the Internet?"
Garavaglia points out that, throughout time, librarians have
managed information in many formats, including "oral history,
stone tablets, papyrus, acidic paper that deteriorates," and now
digital information. In response to these changes, librarians
changed how they did the work, but the "nature of the work"
didn't change. When you are a librarian, "you are a specialist in
how to find and use information."
She offers as an example the digital database Westlaw, with
which she has been working for the last 30 years. The online
legal research service collects primary legal materials, court
opinions, laws, regulations, books about the law, journals, and
"When I first started using Westlaw, it was very unsophisticated.
I was on the phone with them every day saying, 'This is
really annoying.' And [Westlaw's] development took place
over many years, and those developers responded to the needs
of the librarians.
"Programmers were putting this software out for people to
use, but they didn't know about the underlying resources they
were making searchable. The knowledge of the materials and
the research strategies, which came from librarian users, was
critical to making those products what they are today. And that
continues to this day. Now they hire librarians to help develop
The Limits of Technology
For students of today, who all but came out of the womb doing
Google searches, it may seem unlikely that much of the information
they need isn't retrievable using a Google search, even if the
material is available free on the web. A variety of factors prevent
a Google search from retrieving everything, including the structure
of a website or its search interface, the need for a password, a
resource's use of a controlled vocabulary, the absence of the
material from the Internet, or a bad search. Because of that,
researchers who rely solely on Google run the risk of missing
"But even for what is on the Internet," notes Kennedy, "when you
do a Google search and you get 10 million hits … you would never
be able to view more than 10,000 things. That's just their limit. And
you're only going to look at the first 10 or 20 hits and think that you
have found the information you need."
Librarian Kincaid Brown, '96, notes that people want information
in the fastest way possible. "Back when books were what was
available, that was the fastest way to do it, but now, sometimes
Google may be the fastest way to get to something. Where we
librarians come in is, sometimes the book is faster. And we often
know ahead of time which way will be faster. The book is right
there on the shelf; you can get it right there instead of trying to
figure out how to sort your 10,000 Google hits."
It's no accident that the reference librarians at the Michigan Law
Library are all required to both have a master's degree in library
science and a J.D., and to have passed the bar exam.
"To move through this collection," notes librarian Jennifer Selby,
"you need to think like a librarian, and you need to think like a
lawyer. When I was at a law firm, the people who remained at the
law firm were the people who could get the information the
fastest. I saw people waste thousands of dollars sitting on
Westlaw trying to find their information and not knowing what
they were doing. So, there is a real liability issue here when
people don't understand how this information is structured, and
how best to get at it."
The Mind of a Librarian
Changes in technology have given many people the impression
that the "problem" of research has been solved. In some ways,
though, technology has flooded researchers with so much
information that, now more than ever, they need a guide to help
them navigate the chaos.
Returning to the question at the beginning of this article, where
does the digital age leave the librarian?
The answer: Even when a tool has been built to search this data,
whether the tool was a card catalogue, the Dewey Decimal
system, or a search tool like Google or Westlaw, you have always
needed the expertise of a librarian to teach you and help you to
use that tool effectively.
These search skills can't be encoded fully into a tool. These skills,
instead, are programmed into the librarians who oversee a
collection. They come from the years of training and experience
a librarian has moving through the very specialized knowledge of
a law library. They come from the mind of a librarian.
Editor's Note: After 38 years at the Law School, Law Library Director Margaret
Leary will retire in July. Her book, Giving It All Away: The Story of William W.
Cook & His Michigan Law Quadrangle, is scheduled to be published later this
year. Leary will remain in an academic environment after her retirement; she
has been accepted to the M.A. program in creative writing at Eastern Michigan
University. Look for more about Leary in the fall issue of the Law Quadrangle.
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