Universal Topics


Paul J. McLaughlin

Though law librarians have been acknowledged as instrumental in legal education and law practice, questions about the need for law librarians and law librarians’ ability to adapt to new demands of conducting and teaching legal research have been raised.i Law librarianship also faces debates as to whether it should be considered a distinct profession by those who do not see law librarians as having specialized qualifications that set them apart from other librarians.ii This chapter will discuss the need for law librarians to advocate for their professions so they can show how they are needed in legal education and by society and they are distinct from other librarians as legal professionals to ensure that they can effectively advocate for themselves and their patrons on a variety of issues.

Key Concepts
  • Law librarians face challenges being seen as professionals.
  • Law librarians must advocate for their positions and profession.
  • To advocate effectively, law librarians must focus on their strengths.

Law Librarianship’s Qualifications Debate

Challenges to the Standing of the Law Librarian Profession

Law librarianship does not have an authoritative set of standardized training and skill qualifications for academic or firm librarians anywhere in the world.iii Organizations such as the American Association of Law Libraries and the American Library Association have published lists of competencies that librarians should have but have not provided guidance as to what course or degree requirements would show a law librarian having received the training required to meet those competencies.iv Among the competencies that law librarians should have, advocacy skills are considered a key topic in law librarians’ education.v The lack of an established set of core skills and the lack of a standardized aptitude test for law librarians has been used to back arguments that law librarianship does not have a core of specialized knowledge that distinguishes it as a profession by those who do not see law librarianship as a profession unto itself.vi

Law librarians are often treated in the same manner as clinical professors and legal writing instructors and not given full faculty status.vii Because they are not classified as full faculty members, law librarians often receive less pay, may not take part in school governance, and cannot seek to gain tenure. Also, their academic publications are not given the same weight as other legal scholars.viii Their lack of full faculty status leaves many law librarians without an opportunity to contribute their knowledge and help their schools meet modern curriculum requirements or to speak to the importance of law librarian’s and their libraries as schools seek to cut costs by reducing libraries’ budgets and staffing during law school administrative and faculty meetings.ix

The Need for Law Librarianship to be seen as a Profession

Law librarians must be seen as full professionals to help advocate for their patrons and expand access to the court system and legal information.x Law librarians have influenced legislation concerning issues such as open access to government documents, privacy rights, and making legal information available online.xi A central reason for librarians’ success in shaping legislation that affects libraries and society is that legislators tend to view librarians as experts on information and impartial purveyors of knowledge.xii

Law librarians cannot benefit their schools and use their talents to the fullest extent without being seen as professionals and being treated as faculty members.xiii Including law librarians as full members of a school’s faculty can have a variety of benefits for schools.xiv With the American Bar Association’s and hiring attorney’s calls for law schools to instill law students with practical skills, law librarians who are placed in faculty positions that allow them to instruct law students in setting such as legal clinics can have a greater chance to help their schools in meeting their education requirements, prepare students for the practice of law, and help those in need access the legal information and services they need.xv

Beyond serving as instructors, law librarians often write on the subjects of legal bibliography, information, and research, but they are also encouraged to write on other legal matters.xvi Without having full faculty or professional status, the publications of law librarians are not given the same weight that publications of other members of their organizations receive, which not only diminishes law librarian’s contributions to legal scholarship but also does not allow their school to get the full benefits of having a member of their faculty publish.xvii The lack of full recognition for their professional contributions and scholarship also puts law librarians at risk of being seen as expendable, as more pressure is placed on schools to prove their academic impact in various ranking systems.xviii

Law Librarian Advocacy Essentials

Advocacy Fundamentals

Before any advocacy project begins, the goals for the project should be set; research should be done as to who to contact and what the best method of contacting them is; and what professional rules and restrictions apply to the project.xix Defining the central concerns and ideas of an advocacy project so they are understandable to those who are not familiar with the issues being addressed and so they can be presented as discussion points is also needed before starting an advocacy project.xx Beyond having central talking points, an advocacy project should have corresponding statistics and any necessary financial figures that show the need for changes to be made in a clear and easy to understand manner.xxi

After preparing talking points and gathering and organizing relevant data, law librarian advocates will need to do research on who they need to contact to present ideas to, find out what communication methods work best to reach the determined important contacts, and personalize messages sent to them.xxii Building a friendly relationship with an important contact’s supporting staff is also key for any advocacy project since supporting staff can have a powerful influence on how a message is received and regarded by the individual you are seeking help from.xxiii As part of the research on who to contact for help on an issue, law librarians must research the laws and rules that govern the individuals they are reaching out to to avoid missteps that could hinder their advocacy project or cause professional repercussions for the people they are trying to contact.xxiv

To seek allies and get their messages out, law librarians can use a variety of traditional means to advocate for themselves and for others, including creating legislation and lobbying, engaging in litigation, and creating educational outreach programs on topics.xxv Law librarians should also seek creative and new means of spreading information, such as online publishing.xxvi Law librarians have embraced using social media platforms, creating advocacy web pages or websites, and setting up blogs to spread their messages. They should continue to look for new platforms and technologies to advocate through.xxvii Law librarians must be aware their social media messages must conform to their jurisdiction’s laws and professional rules so they do not violate their professional ethics obligations or inadvertently publish information that could be held as the unauthorized practice of law.xxviii

While law librarians can advocate for themselves and their patrons on the state and national levels, law librarians can also advocate within their own communities and law schools.xxix Law Librarians should reach out to their school’s adjunct faculty, administrators, clinic directors, full-time faculty, and local legal groups and practitioners to inform them of what their libraries have to offer and how librarians are key to helping them best use their library’s resources.xxx Law librarians should emphasize to local and school leaders how the services they provide serve their communities and schools in a variety of ways, including supporting their school’s legal clinics, assisting with faculty scholarship and teaching efforts, aiding students to learn the skills they will need to succeed in their studies and in practice, and helping community patrons get the legal information they need.xxxi Law library directors, in particular, should be involved in advocating with their school’s administrators, faculty, and local legal community about what law librarians can do for their schools’ educational programs so they can help develop their law school’s curriculum to meet the American Bar Associations’ and potential student employer’s expectations for graduating law students research skills.xxxii When discussing the value of law libraries and librarians, beyond using basic usage, visitor data, records of teaching sessions, and reference statistics, law library directors and librarians should emphasize how their unique qualifications and skills help the law school’s faculty perform their duties more effectively and make valuable connections for their law schools in the academic and professional realms.xxxiii

Engaging in advocacy projects can require a significant investment of time and resources. Still, law librarian advocates have a variety of sources available to them that can provide guidance and materials to make advocacy projects less demanding.xxxiv There are several active librarian and law librarian professional groups around the world, such as the American Association of Law Libraries, that have advocacy project tool kits and resources available online.xxxv Along with providing insights and guides on how to go about an advocacy project, professional groups can allow advocates to contact others seeking to make similar changes so information and experiences can be shared and possibly create unified efforts to affect changes.xxxvi

Key Concepts in Advocating for the Law Librarian Profession

Advocating for the law librarian profession requires librarians to understand and articulate to others the importance of the fundamental skills that librarians possess, their key roles in legal education, how they support the legal profession and benefit society to those who can make changes.xxxvii To advocate for their profession, law librarians must adapt how they reach out to influential leaders and their communities using traditional methods and new educational programming and social media for their community patrons and students.xxxviii Law librarians can also use scholarly information sharing platforms, such as online institutional repositories, to provide legal information to a wider patron base and make connections that can boost their school’s academic standing while demonstrating the value of their libraries and librarians to their schools.xxxix Law librarians can distinguish themselves from other specialty librarians, such as business or medical librarians, and other legal professionals due to the majority of legal librarian positions requiring applicants to possess both a degree in law and a master’s in library science.xl Having training in legal doctrine and the information sciences provides law librarians a specialized knowledge base and a unique set of skills they can use to aid and teach others.xli


Ashley, an academic law librarian, had become a supporter of open access legal scholarship while studying to earn her Master’s in Library and Information Science. Ashley had completed law school and knew the legal sources available to law students, legal professors, and practitioners. While working on one of the required projects that she needed to complete to complete her studies for her Masters, she ran into many obstacles trying to access legal journals and other legal sources due to her university not subscribing to the legal publications that she needed and the sources not being available online.

When she found out that an influential magazine that published law school rankings was going to implement a new ranking system for law schools based on each school’s academic impact, she sought ways that the school’s library could help her school’s faculty publications gain more readership. While looking through a variety of law library journals, newsletters, and blogs, she became convinced that her library could not only support the school’s faculty scholarship and expand their readership but could also support open access to legal materials by creating a free to access online institutional repository of the school’s faculty publications.

Ashley knew that her idea might face challenges due to the possible costs of starting a repository and finding ways to convince the school’s administration that the repository could be an asset to the school. After gathering several journal articles on the positive impacts of institutional repositories for law schools and access to justice efforts, how-tos on the creation of institutional repositories, and vendor information for possible repository platforms, Ashley went to the dean of her library to present her idea of the library creating an institutional repository for the school.

The law library’s dean, Sam, agreed that an institutional repository could be a boon to the law school but was concerned that its administration and faculty would not support it. Sam worked with Ashley to create an idea pitch for the institutional repository that would be presented during the next faculty meeting. Sam was the only librarian at the school to hold faculty status, so she had to be the one to present Ashley’s idea during the faculty meeting.

After the faculty meeting, Sam met with Ashley and told her that while the idea for the repository would be allowed to face a vote during the next meeting, there had been questions raised as to whether an institutional repository would have the impact on the school’s scholarship that would justify its cost and whether the school’s librarians had the technical knowledge to start and maintain an online repository. Undeterred by the lukewarm reaction of the school’s faculty, Ashley and Sam worked to find ways to advocate for the institutional repository with the school’s administration and faculty.

Ashley reached out to librarians at other law schools who had started their own repository. She gathered the data and insights provided by the other schools’ librarians and materials and data sets on institutional repositories’ positive influence on the author’s academic impact factors from academic law library journals. She compiled them into an easy-to-understand report. Ashley then passed the report to Sam, who used the information to reach out to influential faculty members and the law school’s dean and convey the many possible applications and impacts that the repository could have for the school. Ashley and Sam worked together to contact the faculty advisor and the students involved with the school’s law journal. Using the information Ashley had collected, they demonstrated to the law review’s editors and staff that the repository would not only help the school’s faculty’s publications but would allow the law review a new way to share their work with scholars around the world.

At the next faculty meeting, thanks to Ashley and Sam’s efforts, the faculty voted to support creating an institutional repository. The launch of the school’s repository did have a couple of glitches that the school’s librarians worked through but was an overall success. After enough time had passed, Ashley and Sam drafted a newsletter. They circulated it to the school’s administration and faculty, showing how many downloads each faculty member’s works had received along with information on where in the world and which organization had downloaded the faculty’s works. Using the new data, Ashley and Sam began to reach out to other law schools that did not have repositories with their collected data and experiences to encourage them to consider starting their own repositories to help their own schools and to bolster the law librarian profession’s goal of expanding access to legal materials and scholarship.

Law librarianship requires knowledge of legal information, navigating the specialized way legal information is organized, and bridging the gap between older materials in print format to working with the ever-changing electronic legal information and technology landscape.xlii Law librarians are some of the few legal professionals who receive training on teaching methods as part of their education in library science and have been effective in instructing others.xliii Due to their specialized knowledge and training, law librarians have been asked to teach legal research to law students and legal professionals with a variety of backgrounds in person and through electronic means.xliv

Law librarians’ unique knowledge and skillsets have made them central to many school’s efforts to train law students in the practice-ready skills required by the American Bar Association and hiring practitioners for law school graduates to have.xlv Legal writing instructors are needed to teach certain aspects of legal writing, but they do not have the level of expertise as law librarians in working with the various sources of law and transferring information found in legal sources into legal scholarship or functional practice documents.xlvi Law librarians’ unique skill sets allow them to help students meet the American Bar Association’s academic writing requirements with their legal scholarship and academic writing knowledge.xlvii

Beyond possessing instruction skills, law librarians must have knowledge in management and technological trends, which allows them to prepare their school’s students for the practice of law in a variety of ways.xlviii Law librarians have been called upon to train and supervise student research assistants who not only gain legal research experience but also get introduced to new legal research technologies and specialized techniques in finding materials.xlix By training students in the practical skills and the technologies they will use in practice, law librarians can be central to a school’s efforts to help students transition from academic research and writing to being able to research and problem solve real legal issues.l

To advocate for the law librarian profession, law librarians must understand and be ready to discuss the value of law librarians to those who have influence.li Law libraries and their librarians face many funding and practical challenges as law firms and law schools seek to enhance areas that draw in funds and the American Bar Association relaxes the requirements for law schools to have law library collections of certain sizes and compositions.lii Detractors of law libraries have argued that as the practice of law shifts more towards using electronic materials, law libraries will not need the space they currently occupy and might be done away with entirely.liii Critics of law libraries have also stated the lack of physical collections in libraries will cause law librarians to become obsolete since legal resources would no longer need specialized care keepers and organizers whose technical skills do not meet the demands of contemporary legal practice.liv

To counter dismissive views of law libraries’ and law librarians’ contributions to the practice of law, law librarians must be able to point out that law libraries have successfully adapted to the new demands of the legal profession in a variety of ways and now not only help patrons and find the information they need but also help them learn how to use online legal research platforms.lv Law librarians can also give examples of how law libraries have adapted to allow space previously taken by print sources to be turned into student study areas, by allowing their librarians more opportunities to become involved in the teaching of law students, and by creating online repositories that allow their law schools’ faculty to have their scholarship published on platforms that afford them a wider readership base.lvi

Beyond using traditional advocacy methods, librarians can use various new platforms to reach out to potential advocacy contacts. Law librarians have used various online tools, including blogs, online guides, podcasts, social media, and wiki pages to provide information about their library’s collections and services and promote their activities and outreach programs.lvii These same tools can be used to advocate for the law librarian profession by allowing law librarians to reach a larger number of people and present information and issues in ways, such as online videos and audio feeds that traditional advocacy channels do not allow for.lviii However, there are issues that law librarians must be aware of and plan for when using interactive and online platforms for advocacy activities. When using platforms that allow patrons to respond to posted information, law librarians must put procedures in place to ensure that their patrons’ privacy is protected and follow the rules and laws of their jurisdiction that prohibit the unauthorized practice of law.lix


Law librarianship has not been seen as a profession by many critics. Those who do not see law librarianship as a profession with its own skillset often point that law librarians do not have a defined set of educational qualifications they must possess nor a standardized skill assessment, such as a bar exam, that allows them to distinguish themselves from other librarians. Law librarians have been treated as less than full members of their law schools and are often not provided the same tenure opportunities or have their scholarship be given the same weight as full faculty members.      Without being seen as professionals in their own right, law librarians cannot expect to receive the same pay and benefits that those who are recognized as legal professionals do, and their efforts to help their patrons and their schools will continue to be devalued. Without having professional status, law librarians will also face a variety of challenges, such as not being able to participate in their school’s governance and ensure that their libraries receive the resources needed to support their communities and patrons fully.

To bolster their reputation in the legal profession and be in the best position to advocate for themselves and the needs of their patrons inside and outside of their libraries, law librarians must advocate for law librarianship to be seen as its own profession with a specialized skill set and educational requirements. To advocate effectively, law librarians must research which influential people they need to contact, what ethical and organizational rules govern their advocacy activities, and what laws or rules control their contact’s positions, so there are no legal or professional repercussions from any advocacy activities. Law librarians must be able to discuss the issues they face in a clear, effective manner and, when possible, provide data that makes their position meaningful to those they are contacting.

To advocate for the law librarian profession, advocates must know, understand, and be able to articulate the flexibility and strengths of the skill sets that law librarians possess. Advocates for the profession must also know the challenges that the law librarian profession is facing and be able to discuss how they and their libraries are preparing to face such challenges and, when able, show how they and their libraries plan to use the opportunity for change to expand what the library can do for its patrons. Law librarians must also use a combination of traditional and contemporary communication methods to reach out to their community base and potential advocacy partners while following the ethical and legal guidelines of their profession.


If you would like more information about advocating for the law library profession, the following sources are great resources:

  • Paul T. Jaeger et al., “Waking Up to Advocacy in a New Political Reality for Libraries,” Library Quarterly 87, no. 4 (2017).
  • Joelie Cook, “Advocacy AALL Style: Inspiration for Application in Australia,” Australian Law Librarian 22, no. 3 (2014).
  • Stacy Etheredge, Peggy Roebuck Jarrett, and Karen Westwood, “The Ins and Outs of Advocacy,” AALL Spectrum 22, no. 4 (March/April 2018).
  • Stephanie Burke, “Took Your Own Horn- Law Librarians Should Communicate the Value of Their Profession out of Its Ranks,” AALL Spectrum 8, no. 5 (March 2004).
  • Gerald Fowke, “Librarians Before Congress: Advocacy and Identity,” Legal Reference Services Quarterly 37, no. 3-4 (2018).


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Introduction to Law Librarianship Copyright © 2021 by Paul J. McLaughlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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