Librarians vs Knowledge Managers?

Mitchell Library, Sydney

A startling blog post entitled reflection on KM and libraries in law firms came over the transom today. In it Morgan Wilson, a law librarian, recounted his experiences of working in a library that was part of a law firm knowledge management department.  These experiences led him to the conclusion that it is not a good idea to put KM in charge of a law firm library:

I’m not writing to criticize KM per se, but to express concern at what happens when KM is left in charge of the library – at least from my own experience. I’ve seen that in this situation, KM ends up cannibalizing the library, creating a two tiered system in which the library is definitely subordinate. The library remains responsible for reference, document delivery and training; time intensive activities which KM doesn’t want to be burdened with. Cataloging remains with the library by default, but it is not appreciated or understood by the KM masters and is marginalized.

KM takes on several higher status activities which the librarians used to be responsible for: liaising and outreach with the users in the practice groups, developing the research section of the intranet, working on new ICT projects and managing the library staff. Because KM is taking on additional work, it needs more people. The trouble is that KM professionals are lawyers and are not cheap. To balance the books, the library is shrunk.

While I’m not ready to endorse or argue with his position, reading his blog post did make me reconsider what I thought I knew about what Morgan Wilson calls “the ideal relationship between the library and KM.”  In thinking through the relationship, I found myself wondering about the following issues:

  • How much of his situation was due to difficult personalities or bad management?
  • Is there something in the law firm “caste system” that makes it challenging for lawyers and non-lawyers to work together?
  • Do librarians respond differently than knowledge managers? If so, is this due to personality type or training?

If you are pondering a merger between the information professionals in your law firm you should canvas widely the experiences of your colleagues in other firms.  Do their experiences match those of Morgan Wilson or did he have the misfortune to be in the wrong department at the wrong time? If you find that his experiences are typical, here’s the next question you should consider:  is this inevitable or is there something you and your firm can do to create a more harmonious and productive relationship between a law firm’s library and knowledge management department?

Finally, here’s another way of looking at these issues:  perhaps the battles (real or perceived) between librarians and knowledge managers are really the death throes of an obsolete system.  Consider that 25 years ago, an information professional was a librarian and during the last 15 years, knowledge managers have become the information professionals du jour.  What will be expected of an information professional in the 21st century?


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[Photo Credit: Christopher Chan]