I get asked every now and then about the future of librarians. I work in an academic environment. I get questions from students, faculty members, the general public, other librarians, you name ‘em. The type of questions I get are contrasted, to some extent, with statements that with everything on the Internet we will be obsolete. I’m sure many librarians, not just law librarians hear that. Those with that attitude tend to think that because they never use a librarian’s services that no one else would need that assistance either.
All of you should know, for example, that Google offers free case law that extends back to approximately 50 years for state cases and 80 years for federal cases. I have found unreported cases and slip opinions in the archive. My point is that Google is hardly a secret to the Internet-going world. At the same time, I get calls from non-law libraries about case law and the librarian or patron at the other end seems to have no idea that this archive exists. They are delighted to know that exists once they find out about it. Public patrons in particular seem happy to know that they don’t have to trudge to downtown Chicago to find accurate case law that isn’t behind a paywall.
I encounter students almost every day who seem not to have a clue as to how to read a result in a catalog search result. They’ll flash their phone or tablet screens at me and ask me what to do to get a copy. Sometimes the answer is as simple as pointing out the location on a paper map. Other times it can be pointing out that there is a link on the record that can give instant access as an e-book.
Let me state categorically that I do not think these circumstances or the people asking them are dumb. They obviously either do not have the knowledge that resources exist or have thought about how get the information on their own. That is where we come in. The public Internet has been around for at least 25 years if not longer. There is so much out there and so many strategies for locating information that may or may not be behind a paywall. There are scams to avoid. I remember a phone call where an individual called and said she was contacted by phone from the IRS demanding a tax payment. I looked up the IRS page and read the statement detailing how the Service contacts individuals. It noted that the Service never contacts people by phone demanding money. For those pondering the “unauthorized practice of law” angle, I read the text verbatim and let her draw her own conclusions.
Information is power. We know how to find it and put it in context. I would never claim to know everything there is to know about content online. At the same time, there are no shortage of people who draw upon that experience and that of my colleagues. For those who claim they don’t need us, fine. But don’t assume that no one needs us. Librarians will be here for a long time to come if my experience is accurate.