How to Be a Law Librarian

by Paul Gatz

A few weeks ago, I received a thoughtful note from the American Association of Law Libraries congratulating me on five years as a member. During that time, I’ve had the pleasure of working with several law librarians in the three different academic law libraries where I’ve been employed and through participation in AALL, including its SISes and regional chapters, and other, non-AALL associations. I have relished the many opportunities I’ve had to interact with law librarians working in different types of libraries, occupying various roles within their libraries, and taking different approaches to their work.

These interactions, along with other observations of law librarian behavior and expression, have revealed to me four general types of approaches to being a law librarian, each representing different attitudes, goals, and values. Each of these types is valid and valuable; I’ve known excellent law librarians of every type. These types are not exclusive; a single law librarian may adopt multiple, although maybe not all, of these approaches.

To begin with, some law librarians approach their work as a job, putting in the 40-hour week, excelling in the duties of the position, and enjoying the intellectual challenges and relatively low-stress environment of law librarianship. The work itself is the reward.

Others focus on law librarianship as a career, seeking out opportunities to take on new responsibilities, gaining trust and admiration for their leadership, and continually gaining new skills and experiences. The best of this type are devoted to the care and keeping of their library and the people working in it.

Still others look outside the walls of the individual library and conceive of law librarianship as a profession, bound by duty not only to their patrons, but also to law librarianship as a whole, helping to lead its associations and to represent its interests to communities and stakeholders outside the profession. These are the advocates and defenders of law librarianship.

Finally, there are the few law librarians who are called to this work, for whom it is truly a vocation. Their self-conception is so caught up with their role as a law librarian that they are compelled to develop a deep understanding of the law library and law librarianship, to explore the possibilities, and to criticize the status quo. The idea of the law library and the values it embodies are what they strive to protect, to promote, and to advance.

As the year comes to an end, with December itself sandwiched between the time of gratitude and that of resolve, we should be thankful that, as law librarians, we can adopt any or all of these approaches — that law librarianship is truly whatever you wish to make of it. To the extent that you feel trapped by your institution in a role that feels stifling or fails to inspire, you should spend some time considering whether that institution is built upon a conception of being a law librarian that does not match your own.

As a closing note, we should be especially thankful for those law librarians who treat this work as a vocation. Because of their devotion to the values and ideals of the law library, they are willing to express unpopular opinions, critique and challenge powerful interests, and design programs that risk failure. Unpopular opinions, risky ideas, and criticism of the powerful are the fuel that will ensure that law libraries will continue to exist and to thrive well into the future. We should all resolve to support their efforts.

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About Paul Gatz

Paul Gatz is a reference librarian and adjunct professor at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.
This entry was posted in Current Events, Issues in Law Librarianship, RIPS blog and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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