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Why law librarians are so important in a data-driven world

For well over a century, law librarians have been a force in leading research initiatives, preservation, and access to legal information in academia, private firms, and government. While these traditional skills emerged in a predominantly print era, there has been a perceptible expansion and recent acceleration of technological expertise. The profession has progressively become infused with new digital tools, evidenced by librarians leading strategies in competitive intelligence, knowledge management, artificial intelligence, and legal analytics. It has become clear that skills in research, collections, data curation, retrieval, and accessibility have meshed well in an ever-increasing data-driven world.

Nothing better illustrates this dynamic role of law librarians and the increasing immersion in innovation and entrepreneurship than actual examples from the field. One academic law library at the forefront of innovative explorations and applications is the Library Innovation Lab at Harvard Law, which bills itself as, “a forward-looking group of thinkers and doers working at the intersection of libraries, technology, and law.” One of its better known initiatives is Perma.cc, which prevents link rot by archiving and preserving in perpetuity a digital copy of a source. Another is the Caselaw Access Project, which is making all US case law freely accessible online.

Law librarians are going beyond traditional reference and research services, providing support in data analysis, curation, and visualization. Take for example, the data lab at the Goodson Law Library at Duke, which works to create data-driven projects with an emphasis on open access initiatives to benefit researchers. Similarly, the legal data lab at the University of Virginia Law, one of the first in law school libraries, strives to explain “complex legal phenomena with data science tools.”  One of its projects includes a corporate registry on federal organizational prosecutions in the United States.

It is also not unusual for law library directors to oversee IT operations and technology. Law librarians instruct and train faculty, attorneys, and other users in the appropriate application of current tools. They also are taking the lead in preparing students for this new reality, the American Bar Association required ethical duty of technology competence by attorneys. The University of Oklahoma launched the first law school digital initiative program in 2014 by training students in a technologically immersive collaborative learning environment housed in the law library. The training curriculum was designed and implemented by Darin Fox, Director of the Law Library and Kenton Brice, Director of Technology Innovation. In addition, credit-bearing experiential courses in law practice technology, taught by law librarians, are proliferating in law schools. These courses are often taught in collaboration with law firm librarians who can lend expertise in areas such as electronic discovery, knowledge management, and competitive intelligence.

Artificial intelligence tools play an increasingly significant role as well and are being deployed by law librarians in various settings. In 2017, the Law Library of Congress released a chatbot with a clickable interface, employing the template of a reference interview and connecting users to the vast array of primary sources of law, research guides, and foreign law reports. To nurture, develop, and showcase such advances, the American Association of Law Libraries—the only national association of its kind—now hosts an innovation tournament at its annual conference.

In previous tournaments, University of North Texas at Dallas Law Librarian Jennifer Wondracek created a virtual reality lab with public speaking apps simulating real courtroom settings and enabling students to practice trial techniques. Baker Hostetler law firm librarian Katherine Lowry developed a chatbot for attorneys with an interface capable of understanding natural language so attorneys could ask it questions. Todd T. Ito and Scott Vanderlin from the University of Chicago unveiled SuperSeed, a browser extension alerting researchers to amendments in statutory law  and linking to the version of a statute discussed at the time a case was decided. Andre Davison from Blank Rome LLP established seamless digital access to secondary sources, streamlining, and enhancing the researcher’s experience by eliminating multiple clicks, password issues, and client numbers.

Debuting at American Association of Law Libraries  2020 meeting is a space for newer companies in the legal information market to showcase their innovative products and services. This new initiative, called Start-Up Central, recognizes the need for continuous engagement with new technologies and an avenue for librarians to explore opportunities for collaboration.

Looking ahead, the integration of technology in the work of law librarians will only increase. Over 90% of government law library employees say that artificial intelligence or machine learning has already affected their workflow by automating routine tasks. Over a quarter of law firms or corporations now have at least one active artificial intelligence initiative. Of those, more than half involve the library. It is therefore not surprising that the skills law library employees plan to develop in the next two years include artificial intelligence or machine learning, data analytics, and blockchain (in that order).

Featured Image Credit: by AALL 2019 Innovation Tournament

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