Legal Information in Libraries: What’s That All About?

I’ve always enjoyed learning about history, politics, and the US Supreme Court. With that background, you would think I was interested in going the law school and becoming a lawyer. That’s actually not the case. While I love researching and learning about the legal system, standing up in court and arguing a case gives me more dread than I can describe. But, thanks to my MLIS, I found myself on a career path that includes law: legal information.

Before starting my degree at the University of Maryland, I knew that legal information and e-government were 2 of the specializations for students to choose. But since then, UMD has eliminated the requirement to declare a specialization. Instead, students can plan their electives to fit their academic and professional goals with the option to follow the course guide for the former specializations, if desired. With this flexibility, I found myself taking numerous courses in different areas of librarianship, most of which included some readings and modules related to law. Because law can be applied widely to the LIS field, I thought it would be a good idea to bring up some of the classes that contributed to my desire to become a legal information professional:

Information Professionals and the Law

To kick this list off, knowing how information professionals work with the law is critical. Although this was not my first legal information class, it helped me connect my previous research skills and apply them to finding local and state laws. Besides expanding my research experiences, knowledge of FOIA, and trends in librarianship, I also learned how legal information is applied to all types of LIS institutions and the unauthorized practice of law: because law librarians may not be certified by the American Bar Association (ABA) to practice law, they cannot give legal advice to their patrons; this concept is important for all librarians to be aware of. As an introduction to this field of librarianship, I found this course incredibly helpful for leaning about the profession.

Information Policy

To back track, this was the first law-based LIS course I completed. Within this course, we looked at several broad legal topics – accessibility, privacy and security of data, copyright and intellectual property, etc. – and connected them back to information science in order to start solving issues within the field. This class also had us analyze a policy issue related to LIS and draft a public policy proposal. Considering I have little experience working with policies, I thought this class was beneficial for seeing how librarians can apply their research skills to shape policy at the local, state, and federal levels.

Records and Information Management

This is actually one of my classes this semester. So far, we’ve focused on topics related to the records lifecycle (for paper and electronic records), information governance, guidelines for managing records, and legal issues that come with managing or mis-managing records. When connecting these concepts to the records lifecycle, understanding the legal ramifications of record keeping is important for many LIS institutions. This applies not only for library materials, but also for employee and patron information. We will also be learning about scandals in records management and analyzing the consequences of poor records management.

Legal Research Methods

Along with Records and Information Management, I’m currently taking Legal Research Methods. What I really enjoy about this class is applying all of the other law-based LIS classes I’ve taken and expanding on my research skills. My favorite feature of this class is actually learning to use Westlaw and Lexis for my own legal research project. For future law librarians, especially those hoping to work in a law firm or law school, having a solid background in legal databases and understanding how to conduct legal research is critical for aiding patrons.

Metadata

Metadata is everywhere, and with it comes connections to the law and public policy. One of the topics we discussed in class were controversies with the Library of Congress subject headings; Jane’s article provides a great overview of the racist undertones of several subject headings. We also spent time talking about the years-long efforts to change the “illegal aliens” subject heading by students at Dartmouth College. The documentary related to these students – Change the Subject – showed even more ways how LIS, law, and policy interact. To connect back to my Records and Information Management course, metadata management is part of capturing and retaining records for business operations. And, without appropriate metadata, information is less likely to be accessible to those who need it. 

Archives and Digital Curation

Looking back, this is probably the most surprising course to include when it comes to learning about legal information. But, I think this was a critical class for me. I firmly believe that making information accessible is a crucial component of any LIS job, especially when it comes to legal information. For example, while completing my remote internship this past year, I saw first-hand how digitization of historic documents impacts its accessibility, especially as libraries and archives continue with limited in-person activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Law is still found in archives and digital curation, particularly with copyright of physical materials and privacy with electronic materials. 

Are you wondering if a law-based MLIS program, or even just taking a couple of legal information classes, is right for you and your career? Because law is found just about everywhere, I recommend that MLIS students try to fit a law-based class into their program if they can. Knowing legal information can equip librarians in many LIS fields; according to the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), legal information professionals are well-equipped to work in several institutions, including law firms, government agencies, courts, and businesses. From my coursework and experiences, all institutions could benefit from legal information knowledge, such as public libraries and academic libraries; Lauren’s article on understanding copyright provides a great example.

One final note – and one that I’m personally nervous about – is the idea that law librarians must go to law school and earn a Juris Doctor (JD). It’s comforting to know that this isn’t a hard and fast rule: according to the AALL, less than 20% of law librarian jobs require both a law degree and an MLIS. AALL also states that only one-third of law librarians have both degrees. However, a law degree may be needed if you’re hoping to work at a law school library, especially in a leadership or high managerial role. After taking several classes around legal research, I can see how a law degree is beneficial for these positions, especially if you end up working in a law school. But, I’ll probably wait a bit to see if law school is the next degree for me.

That being said: don’t let legal information scare you. I believe that having knowledge of the legal issues in LIS is important for anyone in the profession, regardless of the institution you may be working in. If you find yourself enjoying law or wanting to know more about legal information, follow Catherine’s advice and take the courses that interest you.

Photo by David Veksler on Unsplash

Sarah is in her final semester of the University of Maryland’s MLIS program. In her free time, you can find her binge reading books, job hunting, and devouring coffee.

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