I would like to thank Information Today for providing me with an advanced review copy of “The Accidental Law Librarian” by Anthony Aycock, available June 10th. I received my copy nine days after my last day as a community college librarian, and eleven days before beginning my new position as a librarian at a large public university. I mention this because it changed the way I approached the book, especially knowing that the likelihood of getting legal reference questions will greatly increase in my future.
I had trouble getting started due to a tacky opening sequence in which the author describes his encounter with a patron at a small branch library. I was slightly offended by the way the author described his feelings about and assumptions of this patron, and that put me off a bit at first. I’m glad I stuck with it (and suffered through several other overwrought narratives) because the rest of the information in the book is incredibly useful. The first chapter lays the foundation for the book. The discussion of primary vs. secondary sources makes it clear that legal publishing is far outside the norm of traditional academic and popular publishing. The first chapter provides a historical overview that is very relevant to the material in the book and worth reading.
The subsequent chapters discuss various aspects of law librarianship including details on publication types, publishers, how to answer legal reference questions, free and subscription-based online sources, the various stakeholders involved in legal libraries, education and resources for law librarians, and a closing on the future of law libraries. The appendix should not be overlooked either. It contains an extensive list of real legal reference questions with accompanying answers, and a sample library business case.
Each chapter uses a well-chosen blend of content to enhance the discussion. The text is a mix of explanation, discussion, charts, lists, practical tips, strategies, philosophical discussion, and screen shots. Many of the topics are confusing due to the majority of important publications falling outside the traditional scope of academia and popular publishing avenues; however, the author handles these in a way that is manageable and succinct. I mentioned that I received this title in a transitory phase, and I’m glad I had it available on my phone during my first week as a university librarian! I was able to hold a discussion with my new supervisor about Shepardizing, a concept I was clueless about before reading this book. I also pulled out the text while I was shadowing at the reference desk to find a website that the author referenced for a student struggling to understand a case he was researching.
The text is written more for librarians in legal or public libraries, but it is still extremely useful for librarians in any library because of its excellent treatment of legal publishing. The book also contains information useful to librarians doing business reference and other general information inquiries. Beyond the technical details, Aycock devotes a lot of space to discussing practical issues such as workplace culture, marketing the library, and forming partnerships. These sections draw on his own experience and he cites examples from other librarians to provide an unbiased view on these issues. He also isn’t afraid to talk about costs and the bottom line, which is becoming an increasingly important issue for all libraries.
This book served a dual purpose for me. First, it was a good introduction to law librarianship, and would be priceless for the novice or occasional law librarian. Second, reading discussions on marketing, branding, and philosophies of librarianship while making a transition between jobs has helped me to re-energize my own thoughts on these issues and focus on how I can apply them in my new position. My favorite passage in the book came in the final chapter where the author is discussing his view of information. He writes “To me, information is the universal human right, not knowledge. Information is cloth; knowledge is clothing. One becomes the other through desire and hard work, which are not mandates. To make knowledge is to make meaning, and there is nothing universal about that: Each person’s meaning is sui generis. The materials, the information, are and should be free, but how many of us can make meaning from them? We pay others to assemble all sorts of consumer goods, so I don’t see the antidemocracy of paying others to organize information” (197). This is an excellent answer to the question of why librarians will be relevant in the increasingly digital world. This book should be added to the collection of any library that might have to provide legal reference, and is invaluable to librarians who aren’t intimately familiar with law librarianship.