March 15, 2010
Carpe Diem Gen X and Y Law Librarians: You, Too, Shall Practice the Art of the Possible One Day
Have the baby boomers who now run law libraries and who "are about to retire" screwed up the law library field and law library associations, too? Well, of course, we have! Do note, we baby boomers thought our predecessors screwed up the profession and those that replace Gen X and Y-ers in the administration of law libraries will think exactly the same thoughts for exactly the same reasons. This is my response to Greg Lambert's This Isn't Your Daddy's Law Library! - Time For a Law Library Revolution!
I recommend Greg's post for two reasons. First, it identifies some of what we old baby boomers accomplished along the way -- IT, KM, and CI innovations -- and it identifies how we screwed things up on our watch, at least in the minds of those who will be replacing us soon. Greg writes:
Whenever the law library gets progressive and starts promoting new ideas, those ideas get spun off into their own departments and the creative law librarians leave the library field to join these departments. Things like Knowledge Management, Competitive Intelligence, and even some Marketing and IT ideas that were created in the library now exist outside the library. So it seems that the general direction the law firm libraries have taken in the past 15-20 years is to get us back to what we were doing in the 1980's.
Hey, young man. the 1980's were a great time to be a young law librarian. I was there. For one, it was the era of a new professionalism schooled in IT. Without that, KM, CI, and IT innovations probably would have happened in law firms but, because of it, they got their push from boomer law librarians either through their own efforts or by encouraging those younger librarians who reported to them to "prove the concept."
I don't know if the general direction of law firm libraries is headed back to the 1980s -- I take Greg's word for that -- but if we boomers screwed up because innovations that started in law libraries has led to the creation of separate departments instead of remaining in law libraries, then what Greg is pointing to is a ages-old matter -- the art of the possible as practiced by each generation of law librarians.
IT was possible because the only staff who known anything about IT were law librarians and when management realized it needed IT more generally, they initially turned to the staff they had on hand, usually some tech services librarian who all of sudden was the institution's first "systems librarian." The same happened to research librarians when management realized that database searching could be used for competitive intelligence. The same can be said for the early days of KM. But nowhere is it written that a good idea put into practice will or should stay in its birthplace once it can walk on its own two feet. Innovation, once institutionalized, takes on a life of its own as all institutional players practice the art of the possible.
Greg Lambert issues a call for his generation:
It is time for those of us in the 'X' and 'Y' generations who are about to take the reigns of the law library field to reevaluate what the law library does. It is time to stop spinning off all of our great accomplishments and letting others take credit for what we've created. It is time to change the way the law library is run and viewed by those with whom we work.
I'm satisfied knowing that many of these accomplishments started in the law library. The fact that they no longer are part of law library administration is substantially less important to me. It's the results that matter. As for credit for those results, if there is one thing I have learned in life, it is that it is an utter waste of time looking for someone to give you the credit you think you might deserve. Forget about it and just move on.
Indeed it is time for Gen X and Y law librarians to prepare for seizing the moment, or at least to try to leave their mark on the profession. Good luck with that -- like the T-shirt slogan says, "Youth and Skill are no Match for Age and Treachery." Some might thing that "age and treachery" refers to us boomer law librarians. It does not. It refers to the reality that law libraries don't have free reign over their own destiny. They exist in a broader institutional setting complete with limited resources, myopic perceptions and mixed motives.
I know Greg is well aware of this situation, so no criticism intended or implied. His post is a follow-up to the news that Morrison Foerster's law library is part of the firm's marketing department now. Certainly a WTF reaction is warranted by law firm librarians. See Greg's post and comment trail. Asinine developments often result in the practice of the art of the possible but I've seen worse; anyone remember when Baker & McKenzie thought they didn't need a law library in their home office?
Do note, if the direction of law firm libraries really was headed back to what law libraries were doing in the 1980s, firm libraries would be independent departments reporting to a partner who chaired a law library committee. In my day, that also meant making damn sure that every partner on the firm's Executive Committee and every practice group chair knew you by the research results you produced for him (sorry, no hers then). Those days appear to be long gone at many, if not most BigLaw firms. But I think one point Greg is trying to make is that law firm libraries should be stand-alone departments or at least should be slotted into a more sensible organizational chart than MoFo's. I certainly agree with that objective. Is it possible?
Some Ides of March Advice. As the Gen X and Y-ers eagerly await us baby boomers vacating the seats of authority, here's three tips:
- The world of opportunity is substantially smaller inside the director's office than in the staff lounge because the director is restricted to practicing the art of the possible based on others' perceptions which are only partially determined by a track record of results the law library has produced.
- Always hire brighter people than you are when you are sitting in the director's chair and listen to them. You will disappoint them repeatedly by many of the decisions you have to make but when the opportunity presents itself to act on one of their ideas, seize the moment. It is rare.
- Recognize that once a good idea is proved, you have no control over where it will lead and the first thing that will be forgotten will be who or where that idea came from.
The art of the possible is defined by moments. The accumulated moments, their consequences and debris, is what one generation of law librarians leaves for the next and each passing generation, including Gen X and Y law librarians, if honest, will say, "yes, we screwed up but you have no idea how bad the situation we inherited was." Get ready to "change the way the library is run and viewed by those with whom we work," as Greg says. Believe it or not, that's what we baby boomers did. But I seriously doubt that when their time comes Gen X and Y-ers' successes will be any greater than ours and their failures won't be any lesser than ours either.
Finally, I hope Gen X and Y-ers do not neglect to appreciate the obvious -- BigLaw is the one institution, based on my varied experience which also includes academic and county law libraries, where one is able to practice law librarianship at the highest possible level of accomplishment. It's certainly not for everyone but if you want to put your professional education and expertise to the test, there is no better place, even today, than a large law firm.
Endnote. It's just a coincidence that this post is published on the Ides of March -- had Greg published his post on March 15th, I would be watching my back -- Et tu, Greg? Just joking -- regular readers of this blog know I have great respect for Greg. I enjoyed the enthusiasm he expressed in his post and look forward to the day his generation takes on the challenges law librarianship will face. Good luck, the future is yours. The present, well, you are just going to have to wait until we baby boomers are finished muddling through it. [JH]
Thanks Joe!! I've always told my staff that when you take a new position in your profession, you can blame your predecessor for anything that is wrong (at least for the first six to twelve months)... and, that whoever just took your old position can make the same claim (so, don't take it personally.)
I'm also a big believer that, as leaders, we should leave our profession in a better position than we inherited it. I'm not 100% convinced that the law firm library field is better situated now than it was 20 years ago. Perhaps that's due to the economic strains of the past 18 months, but I don't think all of the problems can be isolated to the economy.
(Does it count for the Ides of March that this comment is on March 15th??) ;-)
--- Didn't take it personally or generationally, Greg. I think the Big Law firm environment has substantially changed over the last 20 years. (My old firm had about 250 attorneys when I left in 1990; now has some 700 attorneys.) With the massive growth in the size of BigLaw, a massive dose of bureaucratic behavior is probably the most significant change law librarians face now. Joe
Posted by: Greg Lambert SLA-TX Chapter President | Mar 15, 2010 7:27:21 AM