What’s in a name?

by Janelle Beitz

… That which we call a roseWasn't really with it at the beginning of my shift, apparently. #SundayLibrarian
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So reference librarians would, were they not so call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which they owe
Without that title.

I don’t know if I’m getting contemplative because it’s finals time or if it’s the change and disruption going on in my office recently (and legal academia in general), but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what I do and how it varies from what I thought I was going to do when I was in library school and I wanted to be an academic reference librarian.

One of my library school professors asked me to guest lecture in her Intro to Librarianship class last month. You know, tell the MLIS students about law librarianship, the resources we use, the lay of the land and such. I was more than happy to do it, but it again made me stop and think about what I do and how my job title is (or is not) descriptive of my activities. What does my title mean? Does it adequately reflect what I do? Does that matter?

And then I read Sarah Glassmeyer’s piece in Slaw and just plain got ticked off. What people think I do certainly does matter if professors and law bloggers are positing that law libraries are “obsolete” or that their budgets should be “slashed” because they are only potentially “useful study hall[s] for the students.”

So this is a post where I, at Ms. Glassmeyer’s suggestion, toot my own horn and that of my fellow reference librarians, whatsoever we may be called. It’s also for would-be law librarians who wonder what a job at an academic law library might be like.

The research and instructional (used to be reference) librarians where I work:

  • teach one-off research classes on a variety of legal topics, at the request of the faculty;
  • teach their own, semester-long classes on an assortment of different legal research topics using not only traditional methods, but also hybrid and flipped formats;
  • help coordinate and promote faculty publishing through SSRN and a school repository, through keeping on top of articles with various alerts and publicizing them, and through assisting professors’ research for their articles;
  • coordinate copyright requests and issues;
  • design backwards-engineered doctrinal courses with faculty;
  • research federal and state board of education compliance issues;
  • promote the law school’s interests at conferences and in associations;
  • assist with simple IT support;
  • help manage the LMS for faculty and students, both in training and support;
  • create and maintain online communities;
  • operate the library’s social media presence;
  • perform research projects for professors;
  • give “brown bag” presentations for students on a wide variety of topics;
  • create and maintain research guides;
  • teach students how to better use and manipulate software and technology they will encounter in the wild;
  • teach faculty how to better use classroom technology; and, oh yeah,
  • answer research and citation questions at the reference desk—questions not just from students, faculty, and staff, but also from librarians, attorneys, paralegals and paralegal students, pro se patrons, and the public in general.*

Many of these duties came about because one of us was interested in the topic, took initiative with it, and then became somewhat of a local expert on the topic. Some of these responsibilities came about because nobody else could do them and it was clear the tasks needed to be done. There is no question that some of this expertise was developed out of a desire for self-preservation, or a desire on the part of the administration to do more with less. And for some tasks, I have no idea how they landed under the law librarian purview.

So, how can aspiring law librarians prepare for my job? Frankly, I’m not sure that they can—if they did, they should be prepared for the duties to change in the next few years. And I would guess that reference librarians (whatever they might be called) at other institutions might not do all of these things but would have other duties to add. It’s mostly a question, as I advised the MLIS students, of being flexible, curious, open-minded, and willing to try new things.

*I once had a public patron ask me, “What is that blueish book with the parrot on it?” And I knew the answer (Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution—just go ahead and try to Google image search that). Public librarians get this stuff all the time, of course, but I was sitting at the reference desk of a law school, and we do not carry that title.

About jkbeitz

Academic law librarian. Amateur photographer and beaded jewelry-maker. Mom to a kiddo. Loves a good timesuck.
This entry was posted in Career, employment & reference librarians, Issues in Law Librarianship and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What’s in a name?

  1. Mauldin, Sarah K.C. says:

    This is also applicable to law firm librarians. Our jobs and general functions are largely misunderstood or even ignored by other law firm employees, especially by other managers and their staffs. Once people figure out just what it is we do they generally love us but this can only happen if we go out and tell people about the best job in the whole firm and remind everyone that every single employee, from the managing partner to the newest guy in the mail room is our client and that we will provide assistance as needed to all comers. We are truly jacks of all trades and can seem like utter super heroes to associates, paralegals, and legal administrative staff, even if that’s not the picture other admin departments or partners always have of our role.

    Go and toot as much as you can. Take every opportunity to explain what you do. Develop that elevator speech. Learn something new and wow folks with your tech skills. Make someone’s day a little easier by knowing the right tool for the job. Every moment is a potential marketing opportunity so don’t be afraid to show your stuff.

    That goes for public sector librarians, too, although your bag of tricks and issues faced can seem totally unrelated to what happens in a law form or law school.

    No matter where you are and what you do, be the rock star you know you are.

    Sarah K.C. Mauldin | Director of Library Services

    404-815-3538 phone
    404-685-6838 fax

    Promenade, Suite 3100
    1230 Peachtree Street, N.E.
    Atlanta, Georgia 30309-3592

    [cid:imageec5520.JPG@3a54d8ef.4d8d81b6] Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP

  2. Ken Hirsh says:

    I might add, successful librarians know that their default answer to the question, “Can you do …” is “Yes.”

  3. Most, if not all, of our great points (including my own; please see http://bit.ly/1dPCgd3) are being made in venues largely unfrequented by those we’re trying to persuade. The idea has been presented that librarians should somehow take their message directly to clients, who would then demand our services as a result. Has anyone – public or private sector – done this successfully?

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