Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Twenty Years as a Law Librarian - Technology

Not a computer pic
It’s not just the internet that has been around for ages. Turns out I have too. I have been mining my LA/CILIP Professional Development Report (1999) for insight into what has changed (or not) in the information profession. In this first piece I focus on technology, but I will be reviewing communication methods, taking a look at changing training requirements, and comparing the state of the profession - then and now.

It was 1998. I’d just come off the standalone Lexis terminal after finding a case for a lawyer. He’d been grateful for my speedy search technique not because he needed it quickly, but because spending longer than 10 seconds on there meant a hefty fee. I was pleased that I’d found an unreported case and it had made me think about doing my job without a networked computer.

I asked the experienced library manager I worked with, 'what was librarianship like when you first qualified?’ Her response was ‘cards, cards and more catalogue cards'. She had been in the profession since the late 1970s and the changes she’d seen fascinated me. I am now in the same position as she was. I have been in (law) librarianship full time since 1995, and chartered in 1999. It is now 2014 and the past twenty years have seen incredible developments.

The basics have not changed. We are still employed to find the right information, at the right time, and at the right price. Our libraries and the way our users access information have changed beyond technological recognition. We may have different job titles and work in areas which may not previously have come under ‘library and information’ but the areas I am looking at remain constant, even if the details change. Technology is all encompassing in our role so I have picked out a few naïve gems from my report.

I opened the section on Information Technology by saying how dry and complicated I'd found it during my library degree. Coming to my senses in 1999, I blamed my lack of engagement on how the subject was taught, and remarked, 'I find myself using computers or teaching others to use computers in a way that would have been unthinkable before'. For me this was an astonishing leap. At this time I was running courses on 'how to surf the net', 'using the net for legal information' and 'which search engine should I use (AltaVista)?' Trainees would receive a day's library induction to cover all the new electronic stuff, as well as hard copy research skills. I don't do such long sessions now as universities teach this as part of law degrees. I offer 1-2-1 advanced searching refreshers, specialised training on social media, and web developments generally.

In 1999 electronic services were becoming the norm amongst lawyers. But how did we choose which ones to take? I first saw Lawtel in 1996 and Justis, PLC, Westlaw UK, LexisNexisButterworthsTolley, various CD services, all came thick and fast from 1998 onwards. This posed many challenges for information staff, not least because databases could not be reviewed for purchase like a book. A book sat on a desk until it was reviewed, and returned to the library for purchase or rejection. An online service relies on someone learning how to use it, then reviewing the content. Not only that but cost was - and remains - a massive issue and library budgets underwent vicious scrutiny as publishers realised how much they could charge for these new/improving online services. My budgets are still reviewed carefully but there is slightly more understanding as to why there are so many zeros.

Catalogues featured heavily in my report because both of my first professional roles included assisting in the implementation of Library Management Systems. The first one was a laughably basic home grown affair, and the second was extremely complicated. Given that my roles since then have been predominantly solo, I have opted for Bailey Solutions products in each place - value for money, easy to implement and a pleasure to deal with. As systems become more complicated, so much can go wrong - experience shows that lawyers require you to speak with confidence about systems and are reassured when you have worked with the same suppliers in a previous role.

Technology has enabled us to make positive changes to working practices. However there are minor downsides. For instance, in my first job external email was forbidden to support staff unless they had Partner dispensation. Until I was given the go ahead (thank you James) in 1996, using the telephone for queries was the norm. You would pick up the phone and speak to the courts, government bodies, banks, other libraries, etc., and have a conversation. Passing the time of day with the Companies Registry in the Channel Islands was a treat and I got to know the individuals there well, and perhaps as a result of that, the service we received from them was exemplary!

No article on legal technology would be complete without a reference to Richard Susskind and indeed, I quoted him in 1999. At that time he said it was only in the past couple of years that the political and legal worlds had woken up to the potential of IT (Times 14/4/1998). In 2008 he predicted the end of certain types of lawyers and foresaw a change in the way the law is practiced. The legal landscape is undergoing seismic upheaval and the traditional, medium-sized law firms' days are seriously numbered. I predict that over the next few years, there will be mass mergers and a further concentration of 'boutique' firms. Further I believe that lawyers will be required to become 'sector/industry legal experts' so that they can offer maximum benefit to their clients.

Where does this leave law librarians? I want to examine our future in a future blog post. However I want to conclude this first piece by emphasising how much we need to stay on top of technological developments. We need to learn how it works, break it/fix it, discuss it with peers, liaise with legal publishers, go to conferences, write about it...

Oh, and I really need to stop laughing at the naivety of reports written in 1999 because in 20 years time Blogger will probably be obsolete and I'll wish I had this on paper.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting find. It will be interesting to see how ediscovery software evolves because of such advancements.