Thursday, 1 May 2014

Twenty Years as a Law Librarian - Admin

Remember these?
This is the fourth in this series of Twenty Years in Law Librarianship. Given it has been generated by general high level themes of my Chartership Report, such as technology, communications, and professional bodies, I decided it was time for something more prosaic

The reality is that librarianship entails a lot of admin, and although it's boring and unglamorous it is vital to the smooth running of the library service. Whether you are just starting out or reaching the vigorous middle age of your career, admin is everywhere, so it seems appropriate to salute its ubiquity.

Where do I start?

Library administration meant filing the journals/law reports, dealing with subscription issues/missing parts, shelving, tidying, stock checking, photocopying (lots of photocopying) and cataloguing. As an experienced, solo librarian, not only do I do all that, but I deal with matters arising from management meetings, budgetary and invoice matters too. There is admittedly less copying but this has been replaced by scanning or printing out from online databases.

Reading through the two job descriptions appended to my report reminds me that I used to spend half my time looseleafing. For those readers who don't know what this is, it's the replacement of out of date pages with ones that have been updated. They come in special binders which can be clipped/unclipped, but each publishing company has different designs. I remember that some used to explode at a mere touch, others refused to open without a tussle and, there was one set which used to try to hole punch your fingers as you brought the sharp clips together.

The benefits of getting inexperienced library assistants to do looseleafing are many. Firstly they become familiar with the contents of the books so if asked about a particular topic they know where to go. Secondly some firms get their trainees to do the updating. If librarians hate doing this job, lawyers hate doing it more and it doesn't take much to make these looseleaf books unusable. Putting new pages in is much easier than reconstructing one which has been deliberately sabotaged. Finally, anyone who hasn't read the stories in Kemp and Kemp are missing out on some fascinating tales of human experience.


As you gain experience in legal research, running a library and offering valuable extras, you can make a good business case to your manager about employing a contract looseleafer or library assistant. Looseleafing requires a very specific skill set - familiarity with the books, attention to detail, logical thinking and mountains of patience - and I have to admit that I am lacking the latter.

I was lucky enough in my second post to meet Mr Roberts. Malcolm has been in legal books for over 40 years and remains one of the most enthusiastic workers I've ever met. His favourite job is to take a messed up looseleaf and make it useable again. Watching him looseleaf is awe inspiring; the speed at which he can simultaneously file four updates into Simons Taxes leaves me boggled. For 20-odd years he and his self-employed group of minions have updated looseleafs, and I have been happy to employ him wherever I've worked.

Given we've known each other so long, it was inevitable that he would announce his retirement at some point. Tuesday was his last formal day with me and as he left, there was a lump in my throat as we shook hands. Happily Malcolm's idea of retirement involves working two days a week so we have a date in the diary still.


You might think that Malcolm's (other companies and librarians are available, obviously) days are numbered in the library world, due to the rise in online material. And to a certain extent you would be right. I used to have Malcolm in once every 2-3 weeks and now it is every 6-10 weeks. This is because I have cancelled 80% of my looseleafs as they are on Lexis and Westlaw.

I remember a conversation with him many years ago when we discussed CD-ROMs. I was adamant that his work was going to dry up in favour of books online. Clearly my youthful optimism didn't take into account the cynicism of publishers and the revenue that looseleafs continue to generate.

Ten years later he is still in demand and his company is very much a growing concern. He confirms that many places have reduced their hard copy subscriptions, and as a result they have reduced his hours. However he is still busy for a number of reasons. Some places have laid off library staff so he is going in to do other admin as well as updating. Other government departments, local authorities, law firms and chambers are too small/specialised to have expensive general purpose online legal databases so they are still reliant on looseleaf books.

Until the publishers decide that it isn't cost effective to publish these titles, they will keep issuing updates and law firms will need someone to insert pages.

Admin Forever

There is no doubt that the quantity of paper crossing my desk has reduced in volume. I receive less post because journals/newspapers are online, marketing material is usually emailed (and deleted), and invoices etc are all dealt with electronically. I occasionally get large batches of updates for the few looseleafs that remain but that is generally cyclical.

Therefore people joining the law library profession now probably see less paper. But they probably spend more time looking at stuff online. What's your experience?

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