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The Value of Curators: the Next Step for Law Librarians

I wanted to be a museum curator as a kid.


A fascination with dinosaurs and Egyptology, thanks to a steady diet of Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones, made eight year old me think there was no better job than a museum curator. Not being a firefighter, or shortstop for the Yankees. I wanted to be a museum curator.


Fast forward to adulthood, and my degrees are in music education and law. But here I am, in the time of digitization of print sources, writing about the value of curation.


I say this as that digitization takes a new step. This month, Harvard Law has digitized and released over 6.5 million court decisions online for free through its Caselaw Access Project. The news broke around the same time as I saw the Eleventh Circuit ruled for Fastcase in its copyright case with Casemaker over publishing Georgia administrative regulations. The Circuit Court ruled for Fastcase on procedural issues and remanded its suit against Casemaker to the district court. Meanwhile, there is motion in Congress to remove the federal paywall on its PACER system, making federal judicial records theoretically freely and digitally available for all without charge. These three developments reflect an overarching trend to digitize legal sources and make them more widely available with fewer paywalls.


As a Thomson Reuters employee, I know this can veer easily into sponsored content. I’ll save the sales pitch for someone else to make. There are also freemium risks that have hit our colleagues in the journalism industry, from the New York Daily News layoffs to the exodus stemming from media conglomerate Gannett’s acquisition of metro dailies like the Memphis Commercial Appeal. I’ll save that for a future post as well. I will note that while the instances above focus on access to sources, there is little focus yet on curating these resources. The Caselaw Access Project is working on this, but admits anything useful for a lawyer over a programmer is years away. Even Westlaw, with its annals of cases, statues, secondary sources, and other types of useful data, requires curation.


And that’s where librarians come in.


This summer, I was in Buffalo visiting firms to discuss the technology strategies their law firms are implementing. At my first meeting of the morning with a law firm librarian, she was discussing her transformation of what was a sprawling physical library to a vast online archive of primary law, secondary sources, news, and firm documents. I heard hints of the same message from a librarian at a midsized firm in Portland, ME, from librarians at firms in downtown Boston, and from knowledge management teams in New York City. I had read studies and reports of librarians fearing the digital revolution, feeling like they would go the way of the milkman. And yet, here I was, listening to a librarian extol the value of curation.


Librarians have always played a pivotal role in law. I’m grateful to the law school librarians who helped me in the overnight find critical sources relevant to a brief I was drafting for 1L Legal Research and Writing, and to the firm librarians who helped navigate me through a maze of New York business laws during a particularly intense internship. We know librarians know more than where books are shelved; they knew how sources relate to each other substantively, how law is categorized and prioritized, and how to glean the standards needed researching among the stacks. I’ve written about firms deferring associate-level research tasks entirely to their libraries, and given the deep understanding librarians have about the law, the use case is not without justification.


So as technology allows for law firms to have an embarrassment of riches in the resources available for research, librarians are becoming curators. How? They’re partnering with IT or outside vendors to build custom research portals on firm intranets that streamline research and quick link most used resources. They’re partnering with, or promoted to, knowledge management executives leveraging a firm’s internal work product and in-house knowledge with the typical library resources, allowing for comprehensive research of firm experience and the typical Westlaw-listed source databases. They’re collaborating with data scientists and programmers on developing AI that itself becomes assistive in curating the hordes of content and deep data now available at the other end of a search query. And as lawyers start asking for more sources to be available in easier means of access, librarians can become the connective tissue between the law, the tech, and the lawyer.


Of course, this is not today’s reality for every librarian at every firm. Librarians know this. Firm leadership knows this. Some lawyers still prefer the closed universe of a book, and keep their library shelves full. Some firms are moving toward a different operating scheme, and librarians don’t always fit in those models. All the more reason for librarians to morph and get ahead of the increasing availability of content and the technological capabilities to maximize the resource availability. With resources no longer scarce due to shelf space or subscription price concerns, it becomes paramount to know how to curate all this content. I may not ever become a museum curator, but savvy librarians are evolving their career into my eight year old dream job. And if I was still researching for a brief, I’d need that curation now more than ever.

© 2018 Peter Colin, Jr.