There has been much said, written, blogged, tweeted etc. about librarians, law firms, technology, change and all that other good stuff. I won't repeat all that here, except to say one thing: they're all correct. Librarians are indeed facing huge challenges - especially in the legal industry - and the choice that I and my colleagues are facing as librarians is stark: what next?
First some background. I have been a librarian for nearly sixteen years and to quote the Beatles, my career path has been a "long and winding road". I began as an academic librarian, doing everything from training and shelving to reference work and faculty support. That led to a stint as a government librarian, and that in turn led to my transition into the corporate world. It was at my first corporate law firm job that I began to realize that the role of librarians - at least in the corporate context - was changing. What it was changing into, that I couldn't tell you, but the signs were there.
The first sign was the work one of my colleagues was doing. Although she had the title "librarian", and had gone to the same library school I went to, the kind of work she was doing was very different than what I was used to. Whereas I spent a lot of my career doing so-called traditional library work (helping students with research, legislative and parliamentary research, the occasional cataloguing and staffing a reference desk) my colleague was engaged in something more mysterious and exotic: analytics, market analysis, data, numbers, charts and - wait for it - pivot tables in Excel.
As I got to know her better she showed me some of the work she was doing, using databases and methods that were completely alien to me. Not only were her methods something I was not used to, her client base was also unfamiliar to me. Instead of helping articling students and first year associates, her clients were people in marketing, in business development, and in other parts of the firm I didn't even know existed. The fact she has an MBA was definitely a factor in what she was doing, but the larger trend of librarians doing work in a law firm beyond that considered traditional was beginning to dawn on me. And so new words and terms I only heard in passing, such as competitive intelligence (CI), business intelligence (BI), market analysis and SWOTs became part of my vocabulary.
And so as my career progressed and my roles in various firms evolved, CI and BI became more and more a part of my duties. While I continued to perform "traditional" duties such as regular reference work, I began to conduct more and more research on behalf of various departments using some of the same tools and methods that my colleague used at my first corporate firm. And while we still call ourselves "librarians" at various conferences and favourite watering holes, we all knew that our roles were changing. Those changes were, in many cases, something we took on ourselves as we saw what was happening to traditional libraries in law firms and similar companies: cutbacks, outsourcing, non-replacement of departed personnel, and an increased focus on supporting the business of the companies we worked for as opposed to being traditional gatekeepers of an archaic print collection.
Some of us, to be frank, embraced these changes while others were more hesitant. In any case we all knew we would have to constantly upgrade our skills in order to remain relevant in an environment where law firms in general - and legal libraries in particular - are under an enormous amount of pressure to prove their value to their respective firms. And so librarians in that realm need to realize that the very notion of "librarian" (a word I predict will completely disappear from many corporate and other research jobs soon) will vanish. We will still do some of that traditional work, but our roles, our skills, our mandates and our responsibilities will expand to include some of those tasks that looked so mysterious to me years ago, but that are now fundamental to what I do. Working with the drivers of a business - the proposal teams, the business development teams, the marketing teams and even the C-suite - is now a central part of the transition librarians in corporate and legal contexts are facing. There is no choice; this is something librarians in that space must reconcile themselves to if they are to remain relevant. The opportunities are boundless, and I have learned more in the past three years than in the past ten in my career. It is exciting, scary, and exhilarating at the same time, but inevitable.
And so my advice to new librarians - a title I will always be proud to adopt - is to do research into the Competitive Intelligence/Business Intelligence I realm. The skill set matches what we are taught, the only issue is their application, and in an environment of heightened competition and digitization it is a reality that librarians must prepare themselves for.
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