ASKED & ANSWERED: Heather Simmons on the future of law libraries

By Steve Thorpe

Legal News

Law librarians have been in the front lines as the information revolution moves more and more content from the printed page to digital formats. Law schools, law firms and the courts have had to change the way they store, access and view documents and reference materials. Heather Simmons is an assistant professor of library service at the University of Illinois College of Law. She has worked at the General Motors Library and Wayne State University Law Library. Simmons is currently serving her third term on the State Bar of Michigan's Libraries, Legal Research, and Legal Publications Committee. She is also active in the American Association of Law Libraries and served on its executive board from 1997 to 2000.

Thorpe: It has been said that a library is no longer a place, it's a service. Agree?

Simmons: Yes, but I would say rather that a library is not so much a place as a person. A library without a librarian is just a stack of books. Two organizations have considered removing the word "Library" from their names, saying that it no longer describes what their members do. The Special Libraries Association is now known only by its initials SLA, when a vote on a name change to the "Association for Strategic Knowledge Professionals" (AskPRO) was defeated. Private Law Libraries, the law firm librarian section of the American Association of Law Libraries, is currently looking at options for a name change that would not include the word "libraries."

The work we do used to be simpler, when we only had to manage published information, which behaved in predictable ways. Today law firm librarians are expanding into many new areas: knowledge management, competitive intelligence, marketing and conflicts management. Academic librarians are taking on expanded roles as educators. We are bringing technology into the classroom. But a law student's number one requirement for a law library will always be a quiet place to study.

Thorpe: What are some of the new digital tools law librarians are employing?

Simmons: Librarians used to wait for people to come to the library and ask questions. Today, we are looking to become more proactive. The digital tool I am working with right now is Camtasia, a screen recording and video editing program. It's great for active learning. I can record a five-minute video on the latest feature of digital searching and my students can watch it whenever it's convenient for them. Digital information has a whole new set of challenges. Only one person can use a book at a time, but you own that book, and when you go back to the shelf next year it will still be there in exactly the same form. Leasing digital information from a vendor is much more complex, as there are many restrictions on how you can use it.

More free legal information is being posted by courts and other government entities all the time, but how do we know it's official, and can we rely on it to be there in the future? It would help if Michigan were to adopt the Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act (UELMA) which establishes authenticity and permanence standards for legal information in digital formats. (More information on the UELMA can be found at www.uniformlaws.org/Act.aspx?title=Electronic%20Legal%20Material%20Act)

Thorpe: How much resistance to change is there from managers like law school deans, law firm partners and judges? How do you persuade them to embrace the changes?

Simmons: This is a battle law librarians wage every day, and so far we are mostly losing. The problem isn't persuading deans, partners and judges to implement new technology. They see the value of new tools and are already implementing them. The problem is that lawyers think their time is too valuable to stop working long enough to go to training. Without immersive training, the best technology can't be used effectively.

Thorpe: Is there a generational divide? Does a law librarian need to interact differently with a freshly-minted lawyer and a grizzled veteran jurist?

Simmons: Not as much as you might think. There's a fundamental misunderstanding about "digital natives." Just because people have grown up playing video games doesn't mean they know anything about using a computer to do their work.

Casey Flaherty, corporate counsel at Kia Motors America, Inc., developed a "technology audit" that he administered to his outside counsel, asking them to give it to their youngest, most technology-literate associate. To a firm, they failed. And it wasn't designed to be difficult. It tested basic skills on formatting Word documents and sorting Excel files.

In academic law libraries we are scrambling to figure out how to fit formal technology training into the curriculum, so that our freshly-minted lawyers can effectively use the tools they need to be successful.

Thorpe: One of the most important roles for a librarian has always been finding materials. How have digital search methods changed that function?

Simmons: All but the oldest attorneys were exposed to Lexis and Westlaw in law school, so digital searching is not a completely foreign concept. And the fundamental issues have not changed even though the format is different. I'm bi-lingual, but I still think in print, and then translate to the online format. What concerns me about recent developments in digital search methods is that everyone wants to be Google. Lexis Advance, Westlaw Next and BloombergLaw all have a Google-like search box prominently featured on their opening screen. Type in a couple of keywords and a list of relevant documents magically appears. You don't even have to specify what source to look in. The proprietary search algorithms combine natural language searching, relevancy ranking, citation analysis and who knows what else.

In the early days of boolean and proximity searching (also called Terms and Connectors) I could explain exactly how my results were generated; I knew exactly what I was getting, and what I was missing. Today, I have no idea where my results are coming from. The computer is giving me what it thinks I need, rather than me telling it what I want.

Thorpe: Give us a brief thumbnail of the future of law libraries and law librarians?

Simmons: The one thing I can say for sure is that it will be significantly different. British attorney and legal futurist Richard Susskind was vilified in 1996 for predicting that lawyers would do their work via email, and look where we are now.

In the future there will be more information, more platforms, and more complexity. Law librarians will be needed more than ever. I got a call last week from an attorney who had spent over an hour trying to locate an old state administrative regulation online. I can find it in ten minutes, but if you don't ask me, I can't help you. It's a problem of communicating our value. We have two skill critical skills: evaluating resources to determine how best to spend money for information, and knowing how to use those resources to locate the best information quickly. As author Neil Gaiman says, "Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one."

Published: Fri, Mar 14, 2014