I recently read yet another article about public libraries reinventing themselves by offering new services. This particular one is by Larra Clark and appeared in The Guardian: “How US libraries are becoming community problem solvers.” The article mentions that public libraries are moving to become “community hubs and problem-solving partners.” Search your favorite Internet search engine and you’ll find articles that discuss how a local public library has started loaning wrenches to ill-equipped do-it-yourselfers or hosting video game tournaments for teenagers. Ms. Clark’s article started me wondering if there isn’t something in this for law firm libraries.
We certainly have to deal with questions that have nothing at all to do with legal research. I recently received a call from a person who needed help with a software issue. At my law firm, the library provides support for some software and websites (for example, we get the call when someone can’t log in to Westlaw or Lexis), but we don’t support everything, thank goodness. If you’re having trouble with a macro in the word processor or the printer is out of toner, there is another number to call. But the delineation of what is owned by the library and what is owned by some other department can be fuzzy. More than once we’ve had calls that start with, “I wasn’t sure who to call, so I called you.”
I asked several friends if this happens at their libraries, and everyone said it does. One librarian reported that as her firm has grown in size and complexity it has created a support desk, not for technology, but for the firm itself. Unsure who to call with questions about the retirement plan? Call the firm support desk, who will figure out the person responsible for your job classification and geographic region.
Law libraries of all stripes are in the middle of a transition from “warehouse for books” to something else, perhaps “on ramp to the legal information superhighway.” But this transition has mainly been a shift of format, not of role in the community. Just as music once came on records, then on CD, and now comes through a wire, libraries have had a similar transition from paper books to electronic resources. But is this transition an opportunity to change the role of library in the law firm or in the university?
Knowledge management is still a thing, and many law firms treat is as an extension of the library. Some librarians actively pursue this role. But I think KM is a logical extension of the librarian’s traditional role, not a reinvention of the institution.
I’ve read articles like Clark’s before and thought they were interesting, but I never looked to them for advice. I don’t work in a public library, and I tend to think that what we do in my organization is fundamentally different from what goes on in public libraries. Trends there don’t necessarily reflect changes here. But in thinking about the increasing volume of technical support phone calls I’m dealing with, and reading Clark’s article, I’ve realized this is short-sighted on my part.
In my own firm, we sometimes joke that if we end our subscription to any more books, we’ll have room to open a coffee shop. And there are a few attorneys I wouldn’t mind playing Call of Duty with, if only for the opportunity to vent my frustrations. But those different kinds of services are just the outward signs of the shift to community hub, and maybe there’s an opportunity for the law library to make that same kind of leap.