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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The Sneeze

by Christine Anne George

Image via Pixaby

I have been fighting the good fight since late September. I remember the day well. All was bright and shiny until…I heard the first sneeze. Initially I embraced denial. Maybe someone had a quirky ringtone. Maybe someone’s shoes made a weird squeak. Maybe—but no. It happened again. I knew what had to be done. I upped my vitamins. I made plans to get the flu shot. I pulled a fresh container of anti-bacterial wipes from the supply closet. I bought the BIG container of hand sanitizer to fill the smaller containers at both my desk and the reference desk. I would not get sick. There was just too much going on in the semester.

While I fully acknowledge that there is no “safe space” during cold and flu season, being at a service point is pretty much an open invitation to fall ill. There’s no escaping it. I say that as a realist and most definitely not someone who has been sneezed upon while answering a reference question and is now a bit phobic.

So what is a law librarian to do when facing the on-coming plague at the reference desk? The Center for Disease Control and Prevention offers these tips for good health habits to stop the spread of germs:

  • Avoid close contact
  • Stay at home when you are sick
  • Clean your hands
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces or objects

As someone who stopped typing that penultimate point to touch her eye because the suggestion was apparently enough, I have to admit that these are a bit problematic. Depending on your desk set up and frequency of patron ambushes as you move through the library, avoiding contact may not be possible. While it’s entirely possible to control staying home when you are sick, the control over other people doing the same is nonexistent. The closer we get to finals, the more likely it is that students will continue to drag themselves into the library like the walking wounded because missing class or review sessions is not an option. But disinfecting surfaces is entirely within one’s control. Regularly sanitizing the reference desk and other surfaces is something that can be done. It’s something I take to with gusto as one colleague who said I could disinfect her office when she returned from being sick can attest to. I think she’s finally recovered from the fumes.

There doesn’t seem to be a great way to avoid getting sick when everyone else is dropping like flies around you. And if you happen to be the last one standing, it’s as if you continue to move through the library on borrowed time with the Jaws theme following you until the virus finally pulls you under. Some of it comes down to self-care to avoiding getting run down and thus more susceptible, while the rest seems to be luck of the draw. Since working in sanitized bubbles and Lysoling people upon entry to the library are not options (I’ve asked), all one can do is learn to bob and weave around sneezes and bite back that suggestion that maybe, just maybe, it might be nice to sneeze into one’s elbow once and a while.

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I Have A New Job!

by Dean Duane Strojny

I have been in the same position for just over 15 years. My recent review of the Academic Law Library Directors listserv membership list reflects that about 12% of my colleagues have been appointed as long as or longer than me at the same institution. Believe it or not, I do not feel as if I have the same job as I did 15 years ago. Maybe my new job is really what I am currently doing, and I have not realized it is a new job.

My role at the library and law school has evolved quite a bit over the years. I have had the opportunity to build new facilities from the ground up at five locations. I have hired many new aspiring law librarians who today are unbelievable research experts and leaders. More recently, I have taken on the supervision of other departments at the law school. I know many of you and realized that you have travelled similar roads. My goal is to show you how much your library job may have changed just in the past year and give you a stronger sense of appreciation for that change.

Has your job changed without you realizing it? The end of the calendar year is a good time to reassess how your career is going.

Librarians still need to help staff a desk and be able to answer reference questions, but as a group, we are responsible and involved in so many different aspects of law school and law firm work. Did you accomplish something extraordinary this year that was work related? Have you been able to try new tasks or teach in a way you never have before? Here are a few ways that I reached beyond my traditional role this year:

  • Librarians work with accreditation. I was involved with two Higher Learning Commission site visits and neither had much to do with the library. This was a different type of accreditation process with the focus on learning outcomes and assessment way before the ABA thought it was a good idea. We hosted inspectors who were experts in the assessment process from non-law institutions. By the way, both visits had very favorable reports and outcomes. (Higher Learning Commission Criteria of Accreditation)
  • Librarians perform community service. I was a judge for our local Teen Court. As a counselor-guided course for first time offenders, local judges, attorneys, and legal academics serve as judges during a peer review process. It is both rewarding and humbling work and since the local Teen Court staff is housed in our Lansing library, I have wanted to help them for the past three years. Now I can’t wait to help them again. (Teen Court information)
  • Librarians are researchers (not just for others). I filled out an application for an AALL research grant. This takes a little bit of work, but I feel the time has come to research some things librarians are doing as part of their everyday work that was not taught in either law school or library school. By the way, I did not submit the application. My plan is to have my co-researcher help me flesh out a few more details and submit the application in April. The hard work has been done, and I feel that we will be able to turn in a very polished document in the spring. (AALL Research Grant Information)
  • Librarians are always learning new things. I attended a conference on distance education. As the supervisor of some synchronous online graduate programs, I constantly feel the need to learn more about what other educational institutions are doing. The same things we experience, surprisingly, are also what community colleges, state universities, and small colleges experience. There are a few processes and procedures we have in place that are administratively stronger than a number of other schools, and I glad for that fact since it ultimately provides a richer experience for students. (Educational Technology Organization of Michigan information)

Ultimately, do not be afraid to try something new. The actions that you take a chance with now are likely to define what a law librarian does in the future compared to five or 10 or even 15 years ago. Hopefully you are enjoying your new job just like I am!

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This post has been removed on the advice of AALL General Counsel.

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O Holy Nightmare: What to do about emotional labor and holiday burnout

by Lora Johns

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The holiday season is upon us. We’re inundated with messages to be thankful, to project an “attitude of gratitude.” It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Except that for many of us, it’s not. In academic law libraries, December brings with it the end-of-semester near panic of student-led journal editors frantically begging for Bluebook help. Student patrons are approaching exam season perpetually on-edge, and it seems every professor has a last-minute urgent pre-holiday request (or five). Add to that the family and personal obligations that fall to us at this time of year, and consider whether an attitude of gratitude is what you’re really feeling.

Especially during stressful periods, it is vital to be aware of the emotional labor we perform. Emotional labor is very much a part of library work. It entails both the knowledge that the workplace has rules for displaying emotions, and the use of emotional regulation strategies to display the “right” emotions to perform our jobs successfully.

A study of librarians conducted in 2013 found that workplace demands to express positive emotions and suppress negative ones — that is, to perform emotional labor — were tied to emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and job dissatisfaction. Losing the autonomy to express one’s authentic emotions takes its toll on library employees.

There is a difference in emotional labor between surface acting and deep acting. In surface acting, people fake emotional displays to bridge the disconnect between their real feelings and the emotions they’re supposed to show. For example, an academic librarian is surface performing when she’s bored of teaching the same legal research concepts ad nauseam but has to portray enthusiasm nonetheless. Unsurprisingly, faking emotions in this way correlates strongly with emotional exhaustion and decreased job satisfaction.

Deep acting requires a person to change their emotional regulation process from the bottom up. Instead of just putting on a happy face, they reframe a situation so that their inner and outer emotions are more in sync. Empirically, deep acting is a mixed bag. Some studies show it has a positive effect on job satisfaction and burnout; others caution that deep acting takes a lot of effort, which over time could lead to burnout. But deep acting was also used most often by the librarians whose jobs involved the highest degree of interpersonal interaction. This suggests that as an emotional regulation tactic, it replenishes or conserves emotional stores better than surface acting.

The biggest takeaway of the 2013 study is that any kind of work-imposed emotional display rules are strongly associated with negative individual well-being. The only systematic way to combat burnout and job dissatisfaction, then, is for libraries to appreciate emotional labor for the hard work that it is and develop practices that help prevent library employees from feeling emotionally drained and indifferent towards their jobs.

In the meantime, we can’t wait for our institutions to hire more staff, banish difficult patrons, receive a coffer-filling donation, or instantly remove any of the other stressors we are expected to bear with a smile. We can, however, choose strategies that help us change how we perceive and react to difficult situations.

Many of us find it difficult to practice self-care, especially around the holidays. But it is critical that we make the effort. Burnout and job dissatisfaction aren’t just bad for our patrons; they’re bad for us. Study after study has shown that our own unhappiness erodes our mental and physical health.

Here are some gifts you can give yourself this holiday season to replenish your emotional stores.

Practice loving-kindness meditation

Loving-kindness meditation has its roots in Buddhist meditation and encourages the participant to think compassionate thoughts about oneself, acquaintances, strangers, and even people the participant dislikes. It has been shown to increase one’s compassion towards oneself and others. Like deep acting, it helps over time to reframe one’s perception of difficult situations (or patrons, or family members), which can help fill up your emotional tank.

Take five minutes and download Headspace or Stop, Breathe & Think to your smartphone and try a guided meditation. While it can be hard at first, practicing mindful compassion just a few minutes every day can create a positive habit to carry you through difficult times.

Let go of the need to control everything

It’s stressful enough to regulate emotional expression at work, let alone at home. Most people have had the experience of a stressful holiday dinner with relatives who drink one too many and start antagonistic conversations on hot-button issues. While I can’t advocate for yelling at grandma over a holiday ham, I will campaign for not surface-acting at home, if you can help it. Express yourself authentically in the moment, vent to a friend later, and if all else fails, find an escape in a good book. But let go of the idea that you need to act joyful and grateful all the time. I hereby give you permission to be grumpy and frustrated without guilt.

Be an ally to your colleagues

Now that you know the cost of emotional labor, and you’ve practiced your compassion-building meditation, bring it back to work with you. If you’re a manager, find ways to let your supervisees express and manage their emotions in ways that don’t lead to burnout. Be nonjudgmental and empathetic to your colleagues who are experiencing difficult feelings. By creating a culture of supporting each other’s emotions — both positive and negative — we can make our whole workplace stronger. And that is something worth being grateful for.

Further reading:


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When It Clicks for the Pro Se Patron

by Bret Christensen

Meme created by Author

I am, for want of a better description, an amateur do-it-yourselfer. I do my own yard work, plant my own garden, fix thing around the house. The other day I bought a new pruning attachment for my gas-powered pruner. The new attachment came with about a dozen bolts to fit a number of different configurations. The problem was, none of the bolts fit my system.  Right-tighty, lefty-loosey, right? Yeah, over and over I tried with every available bolt with no luck.  Then I pulled out my storage of spare bolts that I have on the shelf to see if I could get one of those to fit. Again, no such luck.

So, I’m thinking, maybe they included the wrong sized bolts? Off I head to the local do-it-yourself shop and look for a bolt that worked. Again, no dice. Then I went to the guy at the register and asked him what he thought. He said, “oh, that’s a left handed bolt.” Wait, what?! What in blazes is a left-handed bolt??! Turns out because the pruner spins at such fast revolutions, if I were to use a right-handed bolt, the attachment would just spin off. With a left-handed bolt, the attachment stays on (and actually tightens as the pruner does it’s thing and spins like no tomorrow cutting down brush).

So, sometimes, it’s not righty-tighty, lefty-loosey; it’s righty-loosey, lefy-tighty. Yeah, try to get your head around that one! Anyway, back to the house I went, and instead of inserting the bolt like I would normally do (by screwing it in clock-wise), I had to reverse my thinking and screw it in counter-clockwise – and it worked. Who knew?!?

This was a powerful revelation to me. I mean, I had heard it before but I guess it didn’t sink in. Heck, I’m still saying it (righty-loosey, lefty-tighty) and it makes my head spin. What a rush. I guess it’s the same for people who don’t know how to do legal research when they walk in my law library the first time. They see all those books and think what in the world have I gotten myself into?! They lose all sight of their problem and freak out about the fact that they’re in a law library among a bunch of books that are really scary and they don’t know what to do, where to turn, or who to talk to.

Such was the case the other day whilst I was working with a woman who was a bit long in the tooth. Seems the woman had a cat. Not just any cat, mind you. The woman’s cat was purported to be a Kurilian Bobtail.  According to

The character of the Kurilian Bobtail is independent, highly intelligent, clever, inquisitive, sociable, playful, trainable, absent of aggression and very gentle. They are devoted to their humans and when allowed are either on the lap of or sleeping in bed with their owners. They adapt well to other cats, children, dogs and other household pets. They are excellent jumpers and are inclined to survey their domain from the highest point available to them. Highly intelligent, they need to be shown or told only once what they are allowed or what is forbidden, but it is up to the individual cat to carry out their own will according to their mood.  The true phenomenon of the Kurilian Bobtail is the pom-pom appearance of their tail. Every Kurilian Bobtail has a unique tail structure giving each its own unique signature. It is impossible to find two identical tails on the Kurilian Bobtail and such a diversity of tails gives even more charm to the breed.

Sounds like a great cat, huh?  You’d think the woman would be absolutely thrilled to have a cat with a distinctive tail. Apparently, though, the woman’s cat was not what it was purported to be. Over time, it turned out that her cat was not all that clever (unless brute force is quantified as smart), or inquisitive (unless food was involved), or sociable, or playful (unless you define playful to mean repeatedly tearing up the couch with its 10-inch talons), was full of aggression, and was not gentle at all.

After the woman realized that she had received something other than what she paid for,  she confronted the sellers to try and get a refund of the devil cat. As you can expect, the sellers were not in a take-it-back kind of mood and told her no.

Now, standing in front of me, the woman was not happy with their decision. There was the cat thing, but another reason the woman was freaked out was because she was scared out of her mind having never been inside of a law library before. I took her by the proverbial hand and suggested she take a look at some resources we had in our collection that might help her solve her problems, such as:

And off the woman went to plot her revenge, er… develop her case against the sellers of the devil cat. What was fun to watch was that in all of about 30 minutes, she had  transformed from a scared rabbit to a rabid dog when it came to researching in a law library. It was awesome to behold.

Funny how it is that whether we’re dealing with a newly minted attorney or a pro se litigant, most everyone starts being freaked out when they first walk into a law library and they wind up being on top of the world by the time they leave. Regardless of who or where you are in the litigation process, all you need to know is that your local county law librarians are pulling for you. We are here to help you get a leg up on your competition. So come on in and check us out. Oh, and we’ll leave the light on for you.

Posted in Humor, Legal Research, Patron Services | Tagged | Leave a comment

Virtual Chat Reference Services

by Brandon Wright Adler

As the evening reference librarian in my law library, I often wonder how I can make myself more available to the students that are studying during my time at the reference desk. Like many academic law libraries, we have peak moments where it is guaranteed that I will receive reference questions because 1Ls have assignments to complete, and they have no idea what they are doing or where to look.

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Beyond the excitement of the fall semester when the new students are no longer new, I would like to double the amount of questions I typically receive in a week. As I pondered ways to increase reference questions, I asked myself: If our library had a virtual chat service linked to our website, would our reference librarians receive more questions?

Ultimately, I think I can answer that question with a “yes,” as  students are probably more likely to ask questions via a chat box than they are to ask them in person, especially since they can ask them from anywhere. Also, for the people who do not ask questions because they are terrified they are asking a stupid question, this takes away the intimidation factor of asking questions. Because a chat service will add extra money to our budget, I decided to research a few different services and present them here before I make my case to the holders of the purse strings.


LibraryH3lp was probably the chat service that I saw come up in my research most often, and for good reason. This chat service integrates with Facebook, Ebsco, Summon, ProQuest, and many more. The company also collaborates with Altarama which is used heavily by law firms (in case you’re a firm librarian looking for a better way to reach out). Your library can assign which librarians will take questions at certain times or leave it open to the librarian who is available to answer. LibraryH3lp chat service is customizable and you can embed the chat into any web page, let it float over the page, or have it pop up in its own window. Your library can also customize FAQs that LibraryH3lp can embed into any webpage. LibraryH3lp is completely compatible with mobile and you can even receive and answer questions via text message. It also provides secured SSL encryption for security and privacy. They also offer at a minimum 90-day free trial, and their costs start as low as $225 per year. There are several more features to explore by following the provided link.


QuestionPoint provides a complete virtual reference management system. It integrates chat, e-mail, and other tools to give your library a comprehensive view of reference activity. Notably, QuestionPoint allows its subscribers access to local and global reference knowledge bases. These knowledge bases help to identify and answer common FAQs in particular libraries. Your library may choose to create its own local knowledge base or join a group and contribute to a global knowledge base; it is customizable to your library needs. Due to this global cooperative, QuestionPoint can run as a 24/7 chat service. Meaning, when your library closes for the day the reference assistance does not have to stop. I noticed that when law libraries employ the use of this service after hours, there was always a disclaimer that stated if questions came in after regular working hours then the librarian answering the question may not be a librarian from that particular university system. Curious potential subscribers can request a demo, but I could not find specific numbers as far as pricing goes, so you will have to get in contact with one of their sales representatives if interested.


We are all familiar with Springshare, as the majority of us use LibGuides in some form or another. Well, Springshare also offers a platform called LibAnswers. LibAnswers allows your library to fully integrate LibChat (and several other features) into all aspects of your websites and social media pages. Your library can answer reference questions via the LibChat box itself, or through text messages, e-mail, twitter, Facebook Messenger, and the possibilities go on. Your library is able to add LibChat or “Ask Us!” widgets to any webpage, and similar to LibraryH3lp, you can completely customize your chat widget to be integrated into the page, display as a pop-up window, or float on top of the page. Further, LibAnswers allows your library to participate in one space when responding to emails that may have been received over night. So, you have the ability to “ticket” emailed questions so they can be assigned accordingly in the LibAnswers platform. In addition, this platform also provides your library with a FAQ builder so that when your librarians have gone home for the day, patrons can search the FAQ entries to see if their answer may be provided to them there. Springshare does offer a free trial of this service, but as far as pricing, you should contact a sales representative for more information.

There are several more impressive features that come with all of the aforementioned chat services; unfortunately, I cannot cover them all here. If someone is using a different service than any of the few that I mentioned here, please comment and let me know what you use and why you think it’s great!


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