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This post was originally published in October 2018 and verified in September 2023.
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Law librarians have always been a far cry from the traditional imagery that accompanies the word “librarian”— i.e. a stiff, serious sort of person who spends their time perusing dusty bookshelves, “shooshing” children and adjusting a set of bifocals.
And as technological innovation has found a foothold in the legal industry, the modern law librarian doesn’t even come close to evoking any of the stereotypical librarian imagery. The modern law librarian now does so much more than provide reference and research services.
In fact, the role has evolved so much and become so critical to law firms that Harvard Law now has a Library Innovation Lab dedicated to innovative explorations and applications. There is also an entire podcast dedicated to law libraries and their keepers: The Legal Talk Network’s The Modern Law Library.
According to the American Association of Law Librarians (AALL), the definition of a law librarian is “legal information professionals. . . [who] perform tasks such as researching, analyzing and evaluating the quality, accuracy and validity of sources; teaching and training; writing; managing; and procuring and classifying library materials.”
In other words, a law librarian is a legal information professional in charge of managing and teaching various knowledge resources to legal professionals. In the past, this information was contained in physical books and paper memos, and law librarians were responsible for understanding those resources and helping legal professionals find the information they needed. But as technology has expanded our access to information, the role of the law librarian has expanded to the point that “legal technologist” should probably be added to the above definition.
Technology and artificial intelligence (AI) have fundamentally changed how information is collected, categorized, disseminated, retrieved and used. Digital legal research tools, which typically employ AI, are now a no-brainer for every law firm, law school and government branch. As such, modern law librarians, who typically oversee the use of these tools, now wield skills in research, collections, data curation, retrieval and accessibility.
To underscore this point, consider that the AALL now hosts an “innovation tournament” at its annual conference in which law librarians develop AI technologies to further the legal profession.
Law librarians touch a variety of organizational structures, and their roles in organizations can vary. For example, a university law librarian might teach a class on law technology competency, while a law firm librarian might spend a lot of time instructing lawyers how to conduct legal research using new library technology, or advising on which resources are best-suited for researching a specific matter. It’s also fairly common at small and midsize firms for the law librarian to oversee IT and operations.
Regardless of the specific setting and job description, law librarians and their technological expertise are a force in leading research initiatives in a variety of legal settings. As technologies continue to progress and evolve, don’t be surprised if you see the role of the law librarian gaining even greater prominence.