Yes Libraries are Shrinking Now What?

Two weeks ago American Lawyer Media released it’s 2016 library survey with the unfortunate headline “Downsizing continues at  law firm libraries.”  The headline is problematic for two reasons: 1. Shrinking libraries are old news and 2. Information professionals are driving some of the most important new technologies into the practice of law…. and yet this is not worth examining?

I certainly appreciate the effort ALM puts into the survey, but I suggest that it is time to reframe the entire survey so that more meaningful questions can be explored. Defining the survey as a “library survey” seems to have skewed both the lines of inquiry and the analysis. We are more than our books or lack thereof!

1. Old News. Would it surprise you to learn that the first library survey headline in 2002 was “The incredible shrinking library.” The vast majority of headlines for 14 years have focused on the print to digital transformation.

See for yourself  below. Keywords from  14 years of survey headlines: Downsized, digital, bookless, shrinking, less, squeeze, fewer…..

  • Downsizing Continues in Law Libraries. July 2016
  • The Bookless Library; Recent redesigns speak volumes about the changing role of firm libraries and the librarians who oversee them.  July 2015 
  • Beyond Recovery; Firms may soon be forced to throw in the towel on recouping online research costs, our annual librarians survey suggests.  July 2014 
  • Law Librarians Survey: The New Normal; Librarians have gotten accustomed to squeezing more out of their budgets, according to our 12th annual Law Librarian Survey  July 2013 
  • Law Librarian Survey: Read All About It; why are big-firm libraries slow to buy e-books?  July/August 2012 
  • Law Librarian Survey: The transition from print to online is full of glitches, our tenth Law Librarian survey finds.  July 2011 
  • Law Librarian Survey: More Bang for Fewer Bucks; Even as the recession levels off, law librarians challenge vendors’ pricing models. July/August 2010 
  • Law Librarians Survey: No More Sacred Cows  September 2009 
  • Going Digital; Caught Between the Paper and Electronic Worlds. Librarians Try to Speed Service and Corral Costs. AmLaw Tech; A Supplement to The American Lawyer; Library Survey  June 2004 
  • Less is More; Library Survey  June 2003 
  • The Incredible Shrinking Library Library Survey  June 2002 
  • 2. The Real Story of Innovation: The real headline of the 2016 survey was buried in the subtitle: ” Law libraries are phasing out print collections and reinventing themselves as sources of competitive intelligence and analytics.” Librarians and information professionals “own” one of the most critical areas of law practice transformation:knowledge. Innovative information products from the major vendors: Thomson Reuters, Wolters Kluwer, Lexis Nexis and BloombergBNA  as well as a raft of startups (Ravel, Fastcase, Casetext, LitIQ, Intelligize, Manzama and PacerPro — to name a few) are offering lawyers new insights and workflows leveraging augmented intelligence, big data insights, predictive analytics, intelligent documents and linguisitic analysis.

    Time to Change the Name of the Survey to Reflect Knowledge Innovation

    Last year the membership of the American Association of Law Libraries embarked on a controversial re-branding exercise. Members were asked to consider changing the name of the organization to the “Association for Legal Information.” I was a strong advocate for the name change and I believe that the ALM survey illustrates the problem of being identified with “libraries.”  As long as information professionals are seen through the shrinking prism of “libraries” we are defined primarily by our books… or the absence thereof. For some reason the book issue blinds people to the broad and critical roles we play in building knowledge enabled law firms.

    The 2016 “library survey” asked plenty of questions on emerging issues but these positive trends are downplayed and get only cursory treatment at the end of the article. There is an overblown examination of a “micro-trend”  in outsourcing  of library staff who are primarily involved in … you guessed it …book management not knowledge innovation.  By contrast…Between 10 and 20% of the survey respondents are involved in introducing analytics, machine learning, AI, workflow improvement and big data dashboards. Seventy percent are managing the exploding demand for competitive intelligence. These trends are the ‘green shoots” of law practice reengineering. Is not more recognition warranted? 

    Let’s Help ALM Rename the Annual Survey: Please send me your suggestions and I will pass them on to ALM. If we want to be known for what we are building and not for what we are shrinking we need to redefine the landscape of our influence.

    I will throw out my first suggestion: How about … “The Annual Survey of Knowledge Innovation”