Danner: Taming Multiplicity in a Post-Print Era

Prof. Richard Danner of Duke Law School is giving a truly inspiring lecture today at Harvard about libraries and legal information.  He has grounded his talk in a lecture by Morris Cohen, a former Harvard Law School library director and professor (later, he had both jobs at Yale as well), about the “multiplicity” of legal sources at the end of the 19th century.  His talk is a fascinating tour of the intellectual history related to legal information and law librarianship, picking up on the words of thinkers from Joseph Story (a legal giant of the 19th century, credited with a key “founding” role for the Harvard Law School) to Robert Berring, Ethan Katsh, James Donovan, and Michael Carroll of the present day.

Danner makes a fresh argument.  In the 1980s, legal information became widely accessible in digital formats for students, faculty, and practitioners.  In the 1990s, the Internet made the same digital sources available broadly to the public.  There’s a new multiplicity of sources, Danner argues, many of which fall outside of the usual vetting and publishing process.  Berring began, as of 2000, to call for a new Blackstone, someone to reconceptualize the structure of legal information.  Danner recalls a report that calls for law librarians to work to provide legal information not just to our students and faculty and practitioners we directly serve, but more broadly, to the public.  Computer scientists and law librarians should work together to solve the problems of getting legal information to these joint.

One of the key jobs of those who think about legal information is to determine the core function (or the source of legitimacy) of law libraries.  The core function is service to a community, not so much collection development, Danner argues.  But at the same time, it’s important to think again, Danner argues, about the nature of the services that law libraries provide.  There’s no reason to be complacent about the role of librarians in the future.  Digital information is somewhat different than printed information, and the differences matter, Danner contends.  These differences can help to understand the job of the law librarian on behalf of the communities they serve.  Librarians provide significant value, but libraries are no longer gateways.

Digital scholarship is by nature collaborative, Danner argues (citing Stanley Katz).  Collaborative and interdisciplinary scholarship is growing in law as it is in other fields.  Law professors might begin to think of law librarians as collaborators, much as they collaborate with fellow law professors.  We are, Danner argues, a service profession, and faculty members think of librarians as service professionals — not so much as collaborators.  Interdisciplinary research might provide a way forward for librarians to function more like collaborators (listed as a co-author) than like service providers (thanked in a footnote).  Law librarians themselves have an area of study, just like Constitutional law or intellectual property are areas of study in the law, Danner argues.  So what is our discipline, Danner wonders?  Information science can provide the theoretical base for the practice of law librarianship, giving rise to a discipline of legal information sciences.

Librarians should not be passive disseminators of legal information.  We should be tool-builders, and to add value to the information that we protect and to which we provide access.  We need to be partners in new fields like empirical legal research.  We need deep, technical proficiency ourselves, and need to use it to build our own role in this new information environment, Danner argues.

And open access is a key part of the recreating of a legal information environment, Danner contends, especially for secondary sources of law.  The primary sources of law, too, are increasingly available through the free access to law movement — and, we hope, through Carl Malamud’s law.gov efforts; Tom Bruce’s LII at Cornell; and so forth.  A commitment to open access should be a responsibility of those of us involved in legal scholarship, Danner argues.  Open access repositories expose scholarship to broader audiences — worldwide audiences — and expanding the communities that we serve.  Through open access, we encourage a freer flow of information beyond the wealthy and privileged cloisters of academia in the US and other rich countries in important ways, and vice-versa.  Berring envisioned a complex information environment, in which users have more support to make their way through it; Danner’s view is that libraries can meet this need.  Librarians need to write more code, to collaborate with those in related fields, to make legal information –both primary and secondary sources — more broadly accessible and useful, to make connections between primary and secondary sources using social media and otherwise, and to do so with a global perspective.  (Bravo!)

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