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Whither the Law Librarian?

Whither the Law Librarian?

By Fritz Swanson
Photos by Leisa Thompson Photography and Sam Hollenshead Photography.
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 They want people to know that many stereotypes about librarians are outdated, and that they in fact are helping to advance digital research rather than hinder it.

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?"

We're information experts. Really. They just call us

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 resources.

Which makes it all the more maddening when people say to her, "Do they even need librarians anymore? Isn't everything on the Internet?"

Driving Innovation

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 secondary materials.

"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 those products."

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 critical information.

"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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