A few weeks ago, I posted It's Time We Reconsidered Our Relationship (With Vendors) in response to a number of issues relating to law resource vendors. My original draft was quite lengthy and I cut it down considerably. However, there is more to be said on the issue. In particular, I liked the responses of two law librarians in particular. Tom Boone and Meg Kribble both responded in ways that went beyond mere anger at West' recent antics and instead looked at where our profession is headed and what we can do about it.
Tom Boone jumped into the fray looking at the situation from a different angle than most.
You want to be angry at West for that ad? Be indignant at the suggestion that their online systems are comprehensive enough or designed intuitively enough to eliminate the need for librarian (or West's own customer support) assistance. Be outraged that they charge so much for their services that, no matter how well designed, our library budgets are the only thing that makes it possible for researchers to use them.
But never forget that if West, Lexis or some other legal database vendor ever fixed these problems, the need for our expertise, at least in its current form, would be reduced dramatically.
He further states that although this is unlikely, he doesn't relish the idea of "relying on someone else's incompetence to stay relevant," and goes on to suggest that we, as law librarians, should put our efforts into designing, implementing, redesigning the systems to make them better, to focus on the systems and not expecting that the old reference model will last forever. This will probably upset the hardcore public services crowd that hates anything to do with technical services, but the truth has always been that the better the systems the technical services people use and the better they do their job, the easier it is for the public services people to do our jobs. He is, I think, suggesting that maybe some of that public services work is going to disappear, merged into the work the researcher/patron is doing on his own, but that maybe librarians, not vendors, are the best candidates to build these systems. Not that public services will go away, but the models are changing and we can embrace that and our part to influence the changes or we can stand helplessly and watch as it is done for us.
It is this change that Meg Kribble takes up:
Yes, I agree. It's insulting and offensive. But beyond the outrage, I'd love to see it lead to more discussion of the positive things we as law librarians are going to do to change things so that next time a major legal publisher makes such a blunder, we all just laugh it off. And more important than discussion, action. What do we, the legal information experts, do to take more control of legal information back from vendors?
She suggests a number of places we could focus our efforts, and asks do we start here? My answer is yes, we start here and in all other worthwhile projects we can find.
We need to explore options and contribute to open-source ILS projects like Evergreen, Koha and OPALS. Or open-source OPACs like VuFind, Blacklight, oss4lib, Rapi and more.
We need to develop more free services like Cornell's Legal Information Institute and find better ways to organize and use online government and court information.
We need to encourage our organizations to realize the importance of technical services, to realize that our online presence and our technology needs are too important to be left to the IT department. Law Libraries need web developers, network administrators and programmers. Our future is in online services and we can't expect the average overworked university IT department to have the time or the expertise to design and implement these systems. Neither can we continue to rely on vendors to administer these for us.
Some (more forward thinking?) academic law libraries have an in-house IT department. However, I would hazard a guess that the model at my own school is more common. That being one or two people who can do just enough UNIX administration to keep an ILS running and who have some web development skill. There is a resistance in such places to implementing anything that can't be purchased with support because only one person will know how to administer it. If that person leaves, no one else will be able to do it. My argument is that the next person should be able to do it. Organizations evolve, job responsibilities evolve and we should not be using job descriptions from ten or twenty years ago when he bring in new people.
We should continue on from there by looking into the future and not predicting where we will end up, but deciding where we want to end up and how we want to get there. We can sit back and do what we've always done or we can shape the dialog and the future.