From interface to extinction: law school librarians beyond Thunderdome

On Friday's episode of "Law Librarian Conversations," I'll be on a panel featuring Ed Walters (CEO, Fastcase) and Jason Wilson (Vice President, Jones McClure Publishing) discussing the future of interface design for legal research applications and services. Over the course of the show we'll be discussing several variations of this topic with co-hosts Rich Leiter and Roger Skalbeck. The show's agenda includes:

  • Native App vs. Browser-based tools
  • What interface innovations can we borrow from other applications?
  • Modularity & Interoperability: Will we ever have modular legal research tools?

In preparation for the episode, I wanted to organize my thoughts with regard to a specific aspect of the subject matter. This post may best fit under the broad umbrella of the first topic variation, native apps vs. browser-based tools, but it branches out a bit in a tangential direction. What I want to consider is, what comes after web browsers, and how will law school libraries adapt in a post-browser world?

I don't think it's going to be as simple as browser-based tools replaced by platform-specific native apps. Content and service providers won't simply stop building websites and focus exclusively on their iPhone/iPad/Android/etc. apps. End users won't suddenly stop using a web-browser like Firefox or Google Chrome, and content for those platforms won't cease to exist. HTML or some variation of it will remain a common way for content providers to present information, even information whose organization and backend are powered by other technologies and programming languages. But rather than have users open a web browser manually, the basic user interface for an operating system might be the browser itself. At some point, Google's operating system (be it Android or something else) might just incorporate Chrome as the desktop. Thus, whether you open an app or a location, you always open it within the browser.

Sound far fetched? It's already here. On Monday Google launched Chrome OS and the Chrome Web Store. (They also launched an eBook store and reader, immediately making all public domain Google Books available in eBook format.)

Many apps, and eventually many web locations, may not functionally run within the browser itself, but for end users the integration will be seamless and all look to be part of the same system, regardless of what backend technology a service actually runs on. As solely web-based services increase functionality using tools like jQuery to expand web UIs beyond simple HTML, a user's reliance on a browser's navigation features (in present form) will diminish. The address bar may not need to be visible at all times, and will instead be hidden away in an easily accessible panel, as so many other once-prominent buttons and menu options already are. (Apple's spec for iOS Safari already includes the ability to hide the address bar, albeit in a manner that creates security risks.) Bookmarks will cease to be locked in the browser and will become icons on the OS browser's desktop, with apps and browser-based tools indistinguishable from one another. Everything will be an app and everything will be a web-based tool.

Perhaps law school libraries will integrate seamlessly into this world, providing an app-like experience that both provides useful information to patrons and links to the vendor-based apps/tools patrons actually use to perform research. Or perhaps no matter how hard they try to fit in, they will feel to patrons like unnecessary intermediaries. Or they might feel like nothing.

Imagine a future in which each vendor provides an app or app-like web service for all clientele. When a law student or faculty member wants to access Westlaw, Lexis, Hein Online, JSTOR, ProQuest, etc., he or she simply launches the vendor-provided database icon sitting on that OS/browser desktop. To the patron, there is no visible interaction with the library itself, though the library provides the access itself with a paid subscription. Perhaps the patron has to authenticate through the library the first time they launch the app, but once authenticated, the patron interacts directly with the vendor from then on. (Fastcase and WestlawNext already have iPhone and/or iPad apps. This is just the beginning.)

Imagine further that more and more electronic treatises are available via vendors, rendering a library's print collection into a niche case resource. Thus patrons perform almost all their book-based research electronically from anywhere using direct vendor apps/services.

And imagine still that vendors expand their service offerings to incorporate direct client support for usage of their apps/services. Thus, in a more expensive contract model, when a patron needs help using a vendor application, he or she always gets this tech support from the vendor itself. Maybe this support personnel is in Minnesota or Ohio and consists of attorneys and librarians. Or maybe it consists of cheaper offshore employees who have training not in the subject-matter but the platform.

Maybe vendor service deteriorates in this model. Maybe not. Either way, maybe it's good enough that it's cost-effective, even for the libraries who sign the support contracts and can now reduce the professional staff they employ (i.e., pay), operating successfully on a much lower budget.

Or maybe since vendors are doing everything already, except paying for the school's subscriptions, law school administrators eliminate even the budgetary function of librarians, handling electronic subscription selection directly in the school's budget office.

And maybe patrons won't scream in protest as much as librarians hope they would. Patrons still have access to a wide array of content and, thanks to improved UI design and search algorithms, don't need to call tech support that often anyway.

Law school libraries won't disappear altogether in this scenario. There will still be a need for the print collections, but the demand for them might be low enough that they could operate as closed stacks. The library director becomes more of a curator than librarian, preserving the collection and obtaining limited rare items for storage. Maybe the closed stacks become remote storage. Maybe the remote storage makes more use of robotic technology than human labor. Maybe law schools in the same geographic region combine collections and maintain a single closed-stack, remote-storage facility for the area, meaning only one librarian/curator might be needed to serve four or five law schools.

One might call me a Cassandra for painting such a far-fetched scenario of doom. But for whom does this scenario spell doom other than librarians? Assuming (and yes, this is a big, but hardly impossible, assumption) the end-users-formerly-known-as-patrons are satisfied with the content to which they have easy access, does the direct vendor/patron world look all that bad to them? Or to law school administrators looking to streamline budgets? Or to the vendors who are the only ones developing legal research UIs for the future right now?

This isn't to say there isn't valuable expertise lost in this scenario. Surely librarians are better at legal research resource selection than accountants, and maybe that will save some librarian jobs. Or maybe the accountants won't know this until after they eliminate librarian positions, at which point the accountants will just try to get better at that part of their job. They might never be as good at it as a librarian, but the cost savings might be worth it to the administration.

Patrons might be satisfied with the vendor support they receive when using a database, but who will help them figure out which database to use? So maybe law schools retain one librarian to handle those kinds of questions, or to handle the more demanding faculty research requests. But as I sit staring at a virginal reference statistics sheet for today, unblemished by even a single tally mark, I already know demand for reference desk help is on the decline, and has been for years. Maybe the one librarian retained for reference support is the same library director/curator who's already managing the closed stacks. Or maybe reference service is outsourced to some other offsite professional, one who provides the same service to many libraries simultaneously.

Maybe not. I don't know. This post is intended more as a stream of consciousness exercise than a reliable prediction of the future for libraries. But I do think there is a benefit to acknowledging and verbalizing the worst case scenario, one where law school librarians are gone and no one misses them. If that professional nightmare isn't put to words, how can librarians avoid it—or better yet adapt to it.

There are ways, even in this scenario, to survive. Maybe law school libraries need to look at what available data they can provide to the world and become content providers themselves. Then a law school, relying on the labor of the library, can offer an app or web service to sit alongside the vendors' on that OS/browser desktop. Maybe this means open access law reviews. Maybe it means legal education primary materials and datasets. Maybe law school librarians should take on the responsibility of maintaining primary law collections for the state in which they reside. Most state court systems don't have the budget to maintain decent repositories of appellate court decisions, but if law school librarians take on the effort, such repositories can improve drastically.

Another way to survive might make many librarians feel sick: work for a vendor. WestlawNext, love it or hate it, was a long-term project headed by a corporate vice-president who happens to be a law librarian. (The company insists on calling Mike Dahn a "former" law librarian, which baffles me since he spent the last five or six years spearheading the creation of a massive digital law library, albeit one designed for profit.) Perhaps this may not be an option. After all, Thomson-Reuters is currently downsizing its most visible librarian department. But if vendors provide direct support to legal research patrons, maybe librarians still belong there in some fashion. ("Librarian Relations" is hardly the only role a librarian can play in vendor culture.)

The worst way to survive? Brainstorming ways to artificially insert the library into the research workflow. The fancy word to describe the removal of librarians from the research process, coupled with direct interaction between patrons and vendors, is "disintermediation." Worst case scenarios aside, there may be plenty of librarian functions that will survive for decades to come within law schools. But disintermediation is already happening in subtle ways (or not so subtle in schools with heavy West/Lexis rep presence, not to mention yearly hiring of student reps by these companies).

Travel agents probably aren't thrilled by the disintermediation that occurred when airlines, hotels and car rental companies placed travel reservation functionality on the web. Travelers, however, were thrilled. Disintermediation isn't necessarily a bad thing—unless you are the intermediary.

I'm not claiming to be good at the long-term vision game. In 1999 I told a lot of people I wanted to work for a company like RealNetworks because their RealPlayer product looked more like the future of home video and music than the models embraced by companies like Blockbuster and Tower Records. Nearly twelve years later, however, I don't have RealPlayer installed on a single one of my computers.

But Tower Records is gone. Blockbuster is bankrupt. And every time I watch streaming internet video from Hulu, Netflix Instant or Amazon VOD on my television, I can't help but feel I wasn't too far off the mark.

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A caveat: As an academic law librarian, in writing this article I strove to limit my pessimistic vision to law school libraries. I know very little as to what makes firm, court and public law libraries tick, so I'm making no predictions for them, even far-fetched ones. I'll leave that to librarians in those respective institutions.

And a tangent: As I wrote about possible future integration of operating systems and web browsers, I couldn't help but chuckle about the fact that this is one of things Microsoft got into so much trouble for back in the 1990s. So maybe if a Google OS uses Chrome as its UI down the road, antitrust accusations will fly fast and hard. Or maybe no one will bat an eye. Or even remember.

Hat tip to Ed Walters for inspiring the title of this post. On reading a draft, he said, "It’s kind of like 'Mad Max' or 'Escape from New York' for academic law librarians."