August 31, 2011
Contemplating “RIP AALL” Ahead of Boston 2012: Muster of the Minutemen (and Minutewomen)
As an organization of institutional buyers, AALL is on the verge of becoming irrelevant. Just follow the money. Look at where our major "legal professional service vendors" are spending their ad and meeting sponsorship dollars for marketing their wares. It ain't on "us" anymore. 2011 was the year this became obvious for all to see. Our major vendors are spending proportionally higher amounts of their limited marketing budgets to sponsor and advertise to the Law Tech market. TR Legal is leading the pack to sell "solutions" to this market, some which offer, some which don't offer online search as a component. Good luck with that since the Company has some way to go to catch up with Lexis Legal & Professional which began focusing on software years before TR Legal did. Wait a minute – perhaps, that is why TR Legal has refocused so much of its marketing dollars -- playing catch-up with Lexis?
The writing is on the wall. While law librarians are deeply involved in legal tech, many are not sufficiently exposed to these solutions. We certainly address matters of online legal search, particularly with the rise of new WEXIS platforms but we haven't extended our professional expertise to a critical analysis of software products that have been and are coming to market, at least not in AALL literature, forums, or programs at the national level.
Isn't it time to do so? Isn't it time to evaluate what they actual do and what they cost against a backdrop of vendor advertising claims about them? Of course, one can't blame law librarians if they choose not to address this issue. If we can't make "anti-competitive" comments in AALL communication mediums, what’s the point!
AALL already has one foot in the grave. Why? Because our vendors are spending their marketing dollars for their Next Big Think, "solutions," elsewhere while our association's "gag order" to its institutional members is leading AALL's second foot right into the grave of irrelevance. There is, in my opinion, no way to evaluate the services already in the market and services coming to market which will eventually transform, have already transformed "legal publishing" into law-based "solutions," without such critical assessments echoing in consumer advocacy.
Even if AALL is nothing more than a vehicle for professional education and development, problematic in my mind unless it changes its name, American Association of Law Libraries Librarians, I attended one Philly program where law librarian panelists made statements that could have been characterized as "anti-competitive" by AALL standards. Had AALL assigned a censors to the session, would the podium mics have been turned off? (Anyone old enough to remember when Mayor Daley cut the sound for the podium during the 1968 Democratic Party convention because the speaker was denouncing the Chicago Police Department's tactics outside the convention hall as protesting turned into rioting?) I also attended another session where the panelists were vendor and jobber reps discussing product development and licensing. Had the same words been spoken by law librarians, I think AALL would have had to unleash its riot police.
I'm thinking AALL really has only two choices left. AALL either
- retains a law firm that does not have a bend-over stance. One brave soul posed that as a question during the Executive Board Meeting's members forum. You can check the minutes for AALL official response; or
- increases member dues to pay to medicate our royal family and their courtiers for antitrutism anxiety attacks because the traditional passive-aggressive behavior displayed by many law librarians is being replaced by direct, full, and frank confrontation of the issues publicly.
The hue and cry will just get louder. In medieval times in Jolly Old England, the hue and cry was a sanctioned method for folks who percieved wrong-doing to call on others to help capture those bandits and take them to the local sheriff for their day of judgment because that's how criminal activity was dealt with. In our own Wild West frontier days, our 19th century interpretation of the "hue and cry" was the local sheriff who deputized ordinary citizens for a posse to do the same, although sometimes the niceties of criminal procedure were ignored by hanging the outlaw immediately upon capture. While no one is suggesting hanging any members of AALL's officialdom from the nearest tree, it is clear that some insitutional buyer representatives have and will continue to "tar and feather" our association royalists for their failings.
I'm seeing and hearing this particularly among my cohorts, the Boomer-gen law librarians (who likely remember my reference to the 1968 Chicago convention). Many have decided (1) they have nothing to lose since they are already in positions of institutional authority; (2) they don't want our generation's legacy to remain the status quo; (3) they have long-term memory recall of dealing with AALL, vendors and the way too cozy relationship between them and (4) their past efforts to do something within AALL have been stymied -- some were lone voices calling for change when they were the black sheep of the royal family; others never made it up that far in the royal pecking order.
I might add (5) to the above list. We Boomer-gen law librarians were the legal tech generation of our times but we recognize the expertise of today's legal tech resides in the GenX-GenY law librarians who are coming up the ranks to leadership positions in our institutions. At the moment, if our younger colleagues don't want to squander their expertise, they might as well join some other professional association. I'm thinking legal administrator associations in the private and public sectors might welcome law librarians as special interest groups. Then there is also the ABA which already has a section.
It's time for AALL to justify its institutional existence. It is damn near impossible to separate consumer advocacy from products and services institutional members use, evaluate and communicate their opinions about. While my focus is on WEXIS, this is equally true in the tech services arena. Of course, this assumes that AALL royals really want to catch up to the membership on the issue of consumer advocacy. That's one helluva assumption.
To date, it looks to me that AALL asks our legal counsel, "How do we avoid this issue?" The appropriate issue to present to legal counsel now is "give us ways and means to serve our membership by assisting their consumer advocacy efforts with sufficient legal muscularity so we won't be the laughing stock at Boston 2012: Muster of the Minutemen (and Minutewomen), like we were at Philly 2011: Cream Cheese, Cheesesteak or Karaoke." If AALL is not dependent on vendor dollars for essential services, as was stated during the 2011 Executive Board meeting, then AALL better be prepared for declining vendor-source revenue. All one has to do is look at TR Legal presence at Philly this year to see the future. I doubt I am the only one thinking that TR Legal may be setting an example. One has to wonder how many other major vendors went back to HQs to talk about downsizing their financial commitments to AALL because TR Legal did.
IMHO, the only way to stem this trend is for AALL to reverse its institutional course by allowing all members to apply their professional expertise to all issues that concern their employers for all products and services before shovels tap down the ground on the gravesite of AALL. It's too soon to say "RIP AALL" but it is not too soon to contemplate it's irrelevance.
Just imagine what AALL will look like 20 years from now if our professional organization continues to proceed down the path it has been on for the last 20 years. Well, we’ll just have to wait ‘n see. How many months away is Boston 2012: Muster of the Minutemen (and Minutewomen)? [JH]
I am a leadership member of a total service delivery consulting practice with a legal research and library practice. While my core background of expertise has been in technology, process and value economics, I've enjoyed learning about the practice of library research and applying these principals to improving its complete service delivery.
What I've come to understand in my time working in this area, limited as it may be compared to those more experienced legal librarians, is that what previously distinguished legal research and librarians as different and separate from other areas of the legal world has begun to converge into a common standard of service delivery with differentiated expertise applied to create the specific outcomes that their customers need. The question is how much will those in this space fight to maintain that separateness whether in associations, technology and/or practices versus embracing the evolution of what is and driving it forward to what it could be.
I appreciate Mr. Hodnicki's post because while focused on just one aspect of this debate, it is very indicative of the elements in all institutionalized cultures that hold on to the old ways out of custom and prevent new ways for their customers. I am not an out with the old and in with the new believer and agree as a Gen somethinger that much of what's important in the foundation of quality research is being neglected by the progressive beat of the drum, but I think this is in fact what is so great about the point of the post. As an association of professionals, I would expect leadership into the brave new world melding the best of the past and the present to create a greater future for the group as a whole. Not the dogmatic stifling of progress to protect the status and legitimacy of agency that is meant to serve the discretion of its constituencies.
Posted by: Greg Kaple | Sep 1, 2011 9:36:51 AM
I think librarianship means many different things, but I think AALL fails most of those meanings with a few narrow exceptions. I probably don't have the right to say much against them as I am not a member, but I used to be and I used to attend conferences, but I gave up my membership several years ago and haven't bothered with their conferences in even longer. Each year I look at the conference schedule (and I'm still on many mailing lists), and every year it looks as bad if not worse than the year before (and SLA is going much the same way if you ask me, although they don't seem to gag their members quite so much). They aren't keeping up with the realities of what it means to be a librarian today, in terms of technology or basic research skills. And I agree with much of what is said in this posting, though I don't think every librarian needs to be involved in every area of technology, but it is always good to know where your company or group is headed and be available to help them get there, whether that is with research, review, or technology skills. All are important to the librarian today, but AALL no longer represents that unfortunately. It's too bad as I would love to participate in an effective, relevent law librarian community, but AALL just isn't that anymore.
Posted by: Laura | Aug 31, 2011 5:46:04 PM
Mr. Hodnicki mentions nary a word about law librarianship, i.e. what it means to be a skilled law librarian who serves patrons, not wicked corporate taskmasters. Much librarianship still involves teaching, reading, the use of paper resources, and basic practical research skills that have not dated with the advent of the internet and the evil WEXIS empire. I wonder if we are presented with a false dilemma: that there are no alternatives to the tech domination of librarianship and we should all forget the ‘L’ in SLIS and focus all our energies on the ‘I’. If this is so then perhaps librarians should just pack it up since the majority of their skills and duties are so unnecessary in this Brave New World.
As a non-dues-paying member of that dubious sociological category ‘Gen X’ I take issue with the idea that all of us are uncritical technocrats who accept the common cliche that librarianship simply must ‘change with the times or be left behind.’ This is usually asserted without evidence and can therefore be dismissed without argument but for the fact that it is so common an assumption among Mr. Hodnicki’s generation and very little attention is paid to any dissenting voice. And any comparison with vendor monopolies among the rarefied and well-to-do world of law librarianship with Chicago ’68 or The Minutemen is, to put it mildly, a historical travesty.
Posted by: Christopher McNeely | Aug 31, 2011 8:09:18 AM