AALL or AfLI: What’s in a Name?

While I have left law library employment, I was a lawyer librarian and a member of AALL for over 15 years. I’ve been slow to the debate over changing the organization’s name. I still have mixed feelings. But also have perspective as someone who has departed to, at least, the far fringes of the profession.

The American Association of Law Libraries is considering changing its name to the Association for Legal Information. The change has been recommended by the Executive Board and will be voted on by the membership. In 2009, the Special Libraries Association rejected a similar change in name (to the Association for Strategic Knowledge Professionals). My prediction is that the AALL membership will also reject the change. My own feelings are mixed.

I no longer work in a law library. I left a senior role in an academic library for complicated reasons. This was most immediately related to local issues and local dysfunction in a particular organization. But I also had become rather disillusioned with the state of librarianship, or at least of law academic librarianship into which I had personal visibility. Legal professions and academic institutions have, to date, both been very slow to change. But rather than the progressive forces within our parent institutions that, I think, most librarians imagine themselves to be, I had increasingly come to see the library as part of the problem — needlessly conservative about extremely costly collection practices, determined to wait for various outside white knights to fix scholarly and legal communications crises in the response to which we would rightly sit squarely in the center, and with almost nothing but defensiveness to offer in response to the current dilemma of legal education in finding a way to better provide responsible, cost-effective, and sustainable service to our student customers.

Some of the best anti-name-change comments have focused on library values. As Fred Shapiro notes, “these values include service to patrons; the organization of information; the curation of information; and the preservation of information.” The argument that follows, then, is that retaining the name captures the reputational, historical, and traditional meaning of “librarianship” as a profession defined, as much as anything, by attachment to those values. So far, so good.

Ken Hirsch points out that ‘librarian’ may now practically be too narrow a word for this. He lists many titles, used in various organizations, that are held by individuals who also fulfill roles aligned with the core values of librarianship. My own inclination would be to go beyond that claim, and posit that many — perhaps most — of the people advancing access to law (a form of ‘service to patrons’) and putting the most innovative thought into the organization, curation, and preservation of legal information do not identify as librarians. And contrary to the stereotypical image of a gang of callow and shallow spewers of “disruption,” many are software developers or other technologists.

But my bigger concern is that the word “librarian” does not mean, to the wider world, what it means to us. Even nearer-aligned colleagues in law and academia do not see librarians as we see ourselves. Is that a marketing problem? Maybe. Is that a problem that could be addressed by aggressively pushing to educate those with whom we interact about what we “really do”? Maybe. But it hasn’t worked so far. Is that an unfortunate result of problematically gendered stereotypes and the prevalence of women in the profession? Quite likely. But then the question is what stance toward the word, and its stereotypes, best serves not only librarians in general but specifically law librarians and their ability to remain vital contributors of value to their employers and parent organizations. I’m not at all sure that, at least for the core of the profession, it is a problem that a name change addresses. But it seems at least worthy of consideration.

But as someone now working outside of the well-understood “boundaries” of the profession, I think the name can be a hindrance. In libraries, I managed projects and teams. I directed long-term strategic planning. I managed multi-million-dollar budgets. I negotiated large contracts. I worked with University-level stakeholders on huge administrative questions — related to the organizational position and structure of the library, the response of the law school and university to crisis-level cost pressures, and to possible opportunities for new business. I dealt with issues of marketing, technology planning, and infrastructure. But this is all experience that can be, and at least sometimes is, discounted for having happened as a “librarian” in a “library.” Whether that is right or not isn’t the question here. Whether it is a reason for us to seriously consider what the rest of the world thinks we are saying when we call ourselves librarians is the question.

I can imagine continued membership in something called the “Association for Legal Information” seeming more relevant to my future employers and colleagues than something called the “American Association of Law Libraries.” The proposed name simultaneously casts a “broader net” and does a better job of honing in on the real target of our work — the vitality and availability of legal information systems — than (to a non-librarian) does the existing name.

I attended the School of Information at the University of Michigan, at a very fertile time in that school’s development. Recent alumnus Peter Morville wrote and published Information Architecture for the World Wide Web in Ann Arbor at the time. Many of my classmates and colleagues emerged as leaders in what has evolved to be the UX-design community. The climate was wide open to applying library and library-like values to a wide and emergent world of information formats and publication models, and to exploring the very blurry boundaries between the traditional and the “emerging” contexts. A minority of us ended up working in libraries.

But, in the years that followed, I found far less flexibility of thought or imagination in the working world of librarianship. Does a name change respond to that? Does it help? I don’t know.

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One thought on “AALL or AfLI: What’s in a Name?

  1. Tiny Publisher

    Dear Mr. Plumb-Larrick,

    How are legal publishers like Bloomberg so successful with large law firms and academic law libraries?

    Some small publishing companies put out a superior product, yet are not given consideration by law librarians.




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