Internet Newsletter for Lawyers
March/April 2004, by Delia Venables

Theory Meets Real Life in the Legal Library
by Julia Bragg

In June 2003 I graduated with a degree in Information and Library Management. I had been a mature student with some years of unqualified experience in legal libraries. My first job following graduation is as solo law librarian for Mace & Jones (www.maceandjones.com), a broad based regional firm of solicitors with about 100 fee earners. The Head Office is in Liverpool and there is a large office in Manchester and two other branch offices in the North West. My brief is to catalogue the firm's scattered resources collection onto a library management system, to support and develop the use of their electronic/online resources and generally to develop a library service. Having spent the previous few years learning about all the latest Information and Communications Technology (ICT) developments in the library world this seemed like an exciting challenge.

So how has all the theory worked in real life, starting with the fundamental theory of Library Resources Management? The academic study of "collection management" and "enquiry service" gives a useful framework on which to base these tasks. The hardest part of enquiry work in real life is conducting an enquiry interview impersonally by email since it is not easy to pin down precise requirements without a spoken discussion.

"Collection Management" now includes the management of electronic resources, with all the complexities of licensing and VAT. There is, however, little training in negotiating with suppliers on a university course, so I was lucky to have my previous work experience for this part of the job.

Another part of the university experience is the excellent library and departmental Intranet pages which, as a student user, I greatly appreciated, so I have made it a high priority to develop the library on the firm's Intranet. Getting users to visit the site is harder. I can foresee a need for some marketing of the library and more training in its services in the future.

Installing a Library Management System

Buying and installing a library management system is a specific one off project and I have tried to conduct the project in line with the theoretical models of good project management. A library management system computerises the catalogue of a collection, so that wherever a fee earner is sited they can go to the library on the Intranet, search the firm's catalogue and locate a book, electronic resource or piece of knowhow wherever it may be in the firm. In the case of an online resource they can just click on the link. For a librarian a library management system also has many useful housekeeping features such as serials management.

Having already reviewed library management systems in my University course, I was in a strong position to find the most appropriate system for the size of firm in which I am employed. There are some huge systems available, used by a number of the major law firms but well out of the price range of more medium sized firms. However, there are a handful of more affordable systems and deciding which was best for this particular situation needed careful consideration as, although the final decision as to which system to purchase was ultimately taken by the project team, my recommendations carried considerable weight.

Alongside this initial appraisal of different types of system, I was stocktaking, auditing and classifying each department in readiness for loading onto the system. I had to decide upon a classification scheme, devise a location code and identify an appropriate keyword taxonomy. All of these had to be loadable onto a library management system. In mid December we finally took delivery of our chosen system. With hindsight, taking delivery at the peak serials renewals time, and with the long Christmas break approaching, was not ideal. It did, however, fit in with the IT department's work schedules. Close co-operation with IT is crucial with such a project and particularly at the installation stage.

I am now working through the construction phase, learning my way round the system and loading data as quickly as I can. I have found it impossible to stick to my original time scales. As with all library housekeeping tasks, the work has to fit around the first priority of responding to users' needs. A hectic day of responding to enquiries or trouble shooting problems can soon play havoc with the best laid plans. Theoretical models have to compromise in ‘Real Life', though it is helpful to perceive a task within such a model. It gives the task a focus, even if it cannot be rigidly adhered to. The theoretical study of project management also gives a good idea of potential pitfalls so there is more chance of avoiding them or managing them effectively.

Electronic/Online Resources

Keen to ensure currency of information, my employers subscribe to a variety of electronic/online resources, some firm wide and others subject specific. Developing the use of these online resources has required more teaching skills than were taught on a library management course but fortunately my employers have a full time trainer with whom I work closely to deliver training to users. In this sphere of my work I could certainly have done with more in depth theory training, though it is difficult to see how it could be fitted in to an already tightly packed university course. Planning a balanced training programme for different types of users is much more complex than planning a short presentation, which was the extent to which my theory in this area was covered at university. The revolution in the delivery of main works online has left many lawyers struggling to find time to master the new techniques needed to do their research on online databases. Constructing an effective search string to produce a satisfactory result is something they find particularly hard but many online legal resources purport to be for all users and not to need a trained information intermediary.

Going Forward

As you can see, my first six months have been hectic. My university training, with its currency of knowledge in IT and the information world, has proved invaluable. The theory has been very useful in providing an underlying structure on which to base library tasks although compromise to accommodate a variety of situations has been the reality. I hope that in another six months I will have the library management system fully operational, the firm's stock completely under control and fee earners comfortable with all the online resources. In short, every fee earner equipped with the best and most appropriate tools to do their job. Well that's the theory anyway!

Julia Bragg began working at Manchester Law Library in 1993 following a long career break to raise a family. In September 2000 she started studying part time at Manchester Metropolitan University, going full time in 2001. In the summer of 2002 she spent some weeks on work experience in the Library and Information Service at Linklaters. She graduated in the summer of 2003 with a First Class Honours Degree in Information and Library Management and began working for Mace & Jones (www.maceandjones.com) in June 2003.
Email julia.bragg@maceandjones.co.uk.

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