Across from the Washington Convention Center, there is an old Carnegie library building. It was converted into the Apple Carnegie Library and one of its goals is to help people “[c]ome together and learn how to do more with the products you love ….” As I commented on Twitter, what if law libraries were all about just pushing commercial products? The more I thought about it, the less distinct the difference was between many law libraries and what Apple is doing at its location on Mt. Vernon.

“But wait”, I hear through the ether. Or another word that starts with Bu- and ends in -T.

It all depends on where you are on the law library spectrum. But as we discussed at an AALL roundtable about partnerships, and I’ve flagged here, there is a large part of the legal profession that has no law librarians. From a consumer perspective, an unmediated legal research experience isn’t unusual.

The Legal Publishers Power the Service

The kernel of the law library is delivery of legal research information to the people who need to use it. Since we don’t create any of that information, we buy or license access to it. As we rely increasingly on licensing over ownership, that relationship shifts in favor of the publishers.

Like any reseller, a law library:

  • buys a product from a manufacturer
  • resells it to the product consumer, sometimes with added value, sometimes without

Without the information, law libraries don’t exist. A law library without legal information is called something else. There are independent reference lawyers, providing legal research support directly to legal professionals. But there isn’t a similar model for law libraries, where the professional research support services operate separately from the information delivery. Even non-law firm law libraries that resell legal research support aren’t able to live off that income.

Imagine your law library if the legal publishers put information embargos on our content like the public library ebook vendors now do. What would distinguish your service from a publisher-driven reseller?

It’s actually easier to picture when you swap in Thomson Reuters or RELX for Apple:

  • legal publisher creates products
  • legal publisher uses “library” context to sell products directly to consumers
  • legal publisher provides staff to answer questions, smooth consumer interaction with products
  • legal publisher provides education and other opportunities to attract consumers and improve consumer retention

In legal contexts where there are no law library staff, I think that’s probably a good description of what’s already happening. Small law firms, small municipalities with an unstaffed legal collection, and so on. The more the law librarian or staff is disintermediated from the interaction, the closer it is to being the Apple Carnegie Library model.

Even in larger or better-funded law libraries, the distinction may only be that we resell more than one legal publisher’s product. But that doesn’t seem to change the foundational aspect that we’re really just paying a legal publisher to make information available to our consumers.

Legal publishers provide reference lawyers to help researchers. Like an Apple Genius bar, they can fill in gaps in understanding and help consumers work through software interfaces. They could just as easily deploy these people in the same way law libraries deploy reference librarians. The publisher representatives could also help the consumer into a newer, better iPhone information package.

Differentiation Helps

A legal publisher-driven legal information outpost isn’t a goal so much as it (a) already exists in government locations and law firms without law librarians, and (b) is a possible option for funders who want to keep the information but cut the people. But, like an Apple Carnegie Library, it is not for everyone. And I mean not for every consumer.

There are lots of reasons a person (like me) might not use an Apple product but let’s focus on cost. Cost is an apples-to-apples comparison point. A legal publisher-driven site might offer something for free but it’s commercial orientation will eventually require a financial commitment. I doubt that you can walk into the Apple Carnegie Library and just borrow a phone.

So law libraries can eliminate the friction of cost by hiding it from the consumer. This works so long as the publishers are happy with the reseller law library picking up the tab. I wonder if there is an inflection point, though, where the staffed law library community dwindles – or the funds coming from the law library community do – so that publishers are better off creating relationships directly with their consumers.

But pretty much everything else we do – the reference, the information access both to the licensed content and via content organization in catalogs, the value added guides and professional skills on offer – relies on the continued ability to license the underlying content.

It’s not really a huge leap to see a time when the relationship between legal information publisher and consumer is direct. Law firms outsource their legal research already, and county governments have unstaffed law libraries to meet both legislative mandates and budget realities.

When we talk about law librarian value, it’s a good opportunity to think about how they would adapt to a world where they are disintermediated both from the information-consumer interaction but also from the information-consumer relationship entirely.