Category Archives: Librarianship

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.

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Uelma and Unintended Consequences

Uelma should be enacted by the states. But while its concept of verifiable authenticity is useful, compliance with that prong of the law should not lead to excessive reliance on PDF files to share legal resources in only very limited, maximally “print-like,” and insufficiently machine-readable and bulk-processable formats. Open legal resources should also allow commercial, non-profit, community, and library entities to consume relatively “raw” government resources and add the value that makes them efficient and effective tools for an informed public.

Uelma is the Uniform Electronic Legal Materials Act. Promulgated by the Uniform Law Commission, UELMA covers online state legal materials that are deemed “official” (while requiring that covered legal publications produced only electronically be considered official) and requires that they be produced in a way that is capable of being authenticated, that is preserved, and that is made permanently available to the public.

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Why is so much law in PDF files?

In January, I came across Margaret Hagan’s “short manifesto,” Law’s PDF Problem, on the blog of her Open Law Lab project. She argues that too many public-facing legal resources — her examples include several explanatory and instructional charts or tools for the lay public — are locked away within PDF files, often as small parts of much longer PDFs. She argues that the lack of responsiveness of PDF files to different device sizes and screen formats, along with other obstacles to easy end-user interaction with small parts of larger PDFs, are a usability obstacle to general public access to law. As it happens, I’ve also been thinking a lot about legal publishing and the PDF, from a somewhat different angle.
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Law Library Autonomy: Are Law Libraries Really Different?

Academic law libraries in the United States are almost all administratively independent from their central university library systems. They are part of the law schools that they serve, rather than reporting through a wider university-level library system. This autonomy is somewhat unusual. Individual academic departments (almost?) never have libraries that operate with any level of structural autonomy. Even at the school or college level independent libraries are far less common than they are in law. Other professional schools, such as business or medical schools, are less likely to have autonomous libraries. Only around half of medical school libraries, for example, are independent of their university library systems. Among law libraries only about eight schools (around 4% of all law schools) have libraries that are administratively part of university library systems. And even in several of these cases, there is still a very great deal of day-to-day practical “autonomy” in the way that the law schools and their libraries operate.
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The Web vs. Apps, Librarians, and Information Freedom

Beyond choosing “app” or “web” mobile strategies for short-term tactical reasons, libraries have a critical stake in preserving the vitality of an open, standards-based, web. While developer-oriented platform debates between the application web and app-store frameworks can seem far removed from our stake in an open Internet, they deserve more attention from the library community and its allies.

I wrote the other day about the fairly narrow question of whether libraries should develop native apps for mobile platforms like tablets and smartphones, or rely on the web for delivery of their content and services. At least for most libraries, I came down on the side of the web. While acknowledging that needs might differ for some libraries with both very loyal (or very captive) users and a need for very tight integration with already-“appified” vended-content platforms, most libraries should devote their resources to websites while making those sites as mobile-friendly as possible. For most libraries—and certainly those I know best—it is hard to see an “app” strategy as an effective tactical use of resources.

Web Remains More Open

But my real concern goes deeper. There is a vital ongoing discussion about the ecosystem of the device-agnostic web versus the various app ecosystems. But libraries and librarians have mostly not been active enough as part of that debate. And libraries (and, for academic librarians, the scholarly institutions they serve) are parties with a real interest in a thriving, open, Web. As a profession far too often still mired in residual “print vs. online” debates, it is important that we don’t allow significant parts of the web ecosystem to decay just as we are, finally, coming to terms with our role in that ecosystem.
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Apps vs. Web: Should Libraries have Native Mobile Apps?

Libraries can easily outsource the creation of native mobile apps for their libraries. With one, potential, exception related to tighter and “better” integration with vendor apps, I have trouble seeing benefits compared to a thoughtful website strategy.

Not long ago, I received a marketing solicitation from Boopsie, a company that builds native mobile apps for libraries. I have no reason to doubt that their product is good: they have a large portfolio of very reputable libraries ranging from public to general academic to special libraries. Indeed, one of my Law Librarianship in the Digital Age co-authors wrote about his library’s effective use of a Boopsie-built mobile app.

But my strong gut reaction is still deep skepticism that there is any reason for a library to have a native app, as opposed to a responsive or otherwise mobile-friendly website. Or, I should say, with one major exception — itself somewhat troubling to me — I see few compelling advantages for native apps over mobile-friendly websites in library applications.

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Print vs. Online: What (really) is the Difference?

Discussion, whether in terms of collection building or of research instruction, of print “versus” online resources is outdated and fruitless if that discussion doesn’t seek to clarify and resolve the relative existing and potential qualities of each format in terms of permanence, stability, and “structured” vs. “random” accessibility.

The classic visual impression of a library is an image of books and periodical volumes printed in ink on paper, bound together, and arranged on ranks of shelving. Depending, perhaps, on attitude of the one crafting that image, these imagined shelves might well be either an image of picturesque rows of beautifully bound classics or a vision of of dusty, dark, and utterly impenetrable frustration. But of course all libraries, and particularly academic research libraries, are also deeply engaged with non-tangible resources. Not “books,” but instead the mass of content that we variously refer to as “digital,” “electronic,” or “online” resources. Stuff that is provided to end users, usually via the Internet, out of networked computerized storage.
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Headings, Lists, and Typography in Library-related posts and pages

I began this post as a WordPress “private post” to test header and list formatting and fonts as I resuscitated my previously-moribund personal blog. I had used a similar “reference” post at Case Western’s law library as an “exhibit,” along with an in-house style guide used by our authoring librarians, to harmonize the ways that we used limited HTML within the content we wrote, and to demonstrate the output authors could expect from the website’s CSS style sheet.

But I modified the original “heading test” private post that I started, to add some comments on the use of structure internal to content units (like blog posts or research guides) commonly written by librarians, and am publishing this post. I’ve also reflected on the possible differences in approaching page structure in HTML5 contexts versus “legacy” HTML page structures. This is a WordPress site, as is the comprehensive law library website that I have developed (lawlibrary.case.edu). But nothing here, except perhaps for occasional “post” or “page” nomenclature, would be limited to WordPress-based sites.
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