A Beacon for the Future: 21st Century Libraries

When John Palfrey wrote his keynote for this year’s Computer Assisted Legal Instruction’s (CALI) 19th Annual Conference for Law School Computing about the legal education revolution, I doubt he included anything about the technological revolution occurring in Iran. However, Palfrey, Professor of Law and Vice Dean of Library and Information Resources at Harvard Law School, as well as a Faculty Co-Director at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, was obviously excited about what is happening in Iran and very effectively wove this into his presentation about the future of legal education and legal information.

As Dean of the Harvard University’s Law Library, he wants to “listen” to what students are doing. More and more students are acquiring information digitally, and no longer visiting the library’s stacks. They are the “digital natives” he spoke about in “Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives.” He said the role of the library and the librarian will change in the 21st century. The Library will be a place to “reintroduce contemplative spaces for students.” A message repeated from the celebration of the newly renovated and expanded space of Duke University’s J. Michael Goodson Law Library and included in “The 21st Century Law Library: A Conversation,” where Palfrey discusses the future of the library with Richard A. Danner and S. Blair Kauffman. In this conversation, Kaufmann refers to the 21st century law library as a “third place:”

“Interestingly, the born digital students tend to be even more frequent users of libraries. The people who guard the entrance to the Yale Law Library tell me that our current 1Ls are the heaviest library users they’ve seen yet. It’s an interesting situation that during the digital age, students are flocking to libraries. I think it’s because libraries, as Dick has pointed out in previous talks, are what architects call a ‘third place’ – where your home is your first place, an office or a classroom is a second place, and social places, like dining halls and lounges and coffee shops and bookstores and libraries are a third place.”

However, one of Palfrey’s greatest emphasis in his keynote speech was the library’s role in collaboration – in both research and in collecting and storing information. He called it “radical collaboration.” “What can we do together?” he asked. Instead of libraries competing on collection size – he says libraries should collaborate on what each buys and shares – especially during these economic times. This was once again a revisit to the conversation with Kauffman and Danner:

“Palfrey: Let’s say you’ve got an empiricist who is doing work on data sets related to something in the business world or corporate world, and the Yale School of Management has all the materials that they need. Do you buy it at the Yale Law School library, and likewise, do you repeat the things that the Yale School of Management has in skill sets?

Kaufmann: … we duplicate as little as possible, and we coordinate with the other libraries on campus to get those information resources where we can. And we think very carefully about how we expand our services.”

I found the use of new technology to further the revolution in Iran to be an effective beacon and metaphor for the change that needs to occur in the way we think about information collection and storage. Law schools shouldn’t follow the same old path of trying to win by having the most books in their law library. They need to see the light and win by producing the brightest minds that will make a real difference in the world … maybe even in Iran.

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