Teaching Students to “Tech Like a Lawyer”: Imagining a Law Library Makerspace

Makerspace by Giulia Forsythe

by Giulia Forsythe, April 29, 2016. (MakerSpaces – #CanConnectEd showcase talk by @zbpipe)

I recently accepted my first full-time position as a legal reference librarian. So far, I’m off to a great start: I’ve settled into my office, I’ve fielded reference questions both mundane and complex, and I’ve managed to keep my caffeine intake at an appropriate level (if such a measurement exists).

While projects and patrons keep me busy, I still have time to roam the library in order to get to know our collection and the space. I’ve noticed that we have a small lab room tucked away in the stacks, complete with two scanners and multiple desktop computers.

Full disclaimer: One of my favorite hobbies is tinkering with the law and coming up with fun ways to engage with law students. At any given moment, I’m juggling an obscene amount of new ideas. It actually gets quite exhausting. I’m well aware that many of my ideas will remain on the cutting room floor. But librarians are allowed to dream, right? It’s free, after all — no budget required (yet).

I’ve become a bit obsessed with our computer lab because I recently learned about “makerspaces”. According to Makerspaces.com, they’re a “collaborative work space inside a school, library or separate public/private facility for making, learning, exploring and sharing”. The beautiful thing about makerspaces is the emphasis on technology and tools. The space exists to foster an entrepreneurial spirit. Patrons are encouraged to use their senses – whether it be touch, sight, hearing, etc. – to create something new or innovative in a low pressure or even playful environment.

Law libraries aren’t exactly low pressure or playful, but I believe there’s room for makerspaces in legal education. Possible equipment in law library makerspaces could include bulk scanners for legal digitization projects, video equipment to film workshops or clinical student diaries, or other tools. Even a regular study room with a laptop, whiteboard, and dry erase markers can be transformed into a makerspace, as long as patrons are collaborating and creating something. That “something” could be an idea for a new legal app, legal services clinic, or student pro bono effort.

I would argue that makerspaces are inevitable to produce practice-ready graduates. Thirty-six states have adopted the American Bar Association’s duty of technological competence for lawyers, which requires attorneys to keep up with all the “benefits and risks associated with relevant technology”. If law schools want to help prepare their students for real world legal practice with cutting-edge tech, we should probably start now.

Remember when law school clinics were considered avant-garde? Now, most law schools have multiple clinical education offerings. There may not be any law library makerspaces around at the moment, but I predict there will be many in the future that teach students how to “tech like a lawyer”.

An early proponent of law library makerspaces is Sharon Bradley, Special Collections Librarian at the University of Georgia School of Law. Bradley wrote a Makerspaces LibGuide including a link to a 2012 CALI presentation on setting up a law library makerspace. In researching this article, I called Bradley and we lamented the uphill battle librarians face when trying to implement makerspaces: there’s safety, security, legal and funding hurdles that could warrant a lengthy, separate article.

Law library makerspaces can be a hard sell, for sure. Since some say I’m a dreamer (and thanks to Bradley, I’m not the only one), I’ll spare the gruesome financial details and pretend I have a limitless budget and infinite space. Here’s a sampling of activities I imagine a law library makerspace could host:

  • Tech Workshops: Computers in a law library makerspace could be set up with audio, video, and web editing software, and librarians could help law students learn how to create websites and other digital materials. Potential software could include Audacity (audio), Final Cut Pro (video), and/or Arduino (coding).
  • GIS Software Training: Geographic Information Systems (GIS) gather, manage, and analyze data using the science of spatial location. It’s being used more and more in environmental, property, criminal, and even public interest law. Introducing GIS software to law students in a library may give them a head start on launching new innovations and visualizing key legal data in maps, patterns, and really cool 3D graphics.
  • Makerspace Library: These would be books or databases typically not found in a law library collection that could still inspire law students. Potential cross-disciplinary topics could include information literacy, career services, coding, digital photography, cultural magazines, fine arts portfolios, computer magazines, and more.
  • Publishing House: Law library makerspaces could house free or paid software that helps patrons learn visual storytelling techniques that could be useful in legal practice, such as the production of cover letters, resumes, web portfolios, brochures, webinars, one-pagers, infographics, toolkits, newsletters, and much more.
  • Business Incubator: Many law students have professional goals of opening their own solo practice or starting a new nonprofit. A law school makerspace could provide them with a scaled-down incubator to begin creating their new business, including free space to work.
  • Self-Help Center: Academic law libraries that allow public patrons could market self-help centers as makerspaces to empower pro se litigants and encourage them to learn hands-on approaches to legal issues.

It’s completely possible that law schools are already hosting these services outside of designated “makerspaces,” but I love the idea of creating a central location that encourages patrons to tinker with the status quo of legal systems and services. A makerspace could provide a place for law students to dissect the legal system and shift their perspectives from frustration and confusion to adaptation and innovation. As law librarians, it would provide us with another way to increase legal information literacy and directly engage with our patrons.


About alynnmatthews

Librarian and communications nerd with a B.A. in journalism from Hampton University, J.D. from University of Miami Law, and M.S.L.I.S. from Catholic University of America.
This entry was posted in Information Literacy, Legal Technology, Library Displays, Inspiration and Design Ideas, Makerspaces, Marketing, Outreach, Patron Services, student services, Teaching (general) and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Teaching Students to “Tech Like a Lawyer”: Imagining a Law Library Makerspace

  1. Pingback: The Geek in Review Ep. 53 - Makerspaces in Law Schools with Ashley Matthews and Sharon Bradley | 3 Geeks and a Law Blog

  2. Pingback: The Geek in Review Ep. 53 – Makerspaces in Law Schools with Ashley Matthews and Sharon Bradley | Legal Tech Monitor

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