Catalog Content Not People

Today's Librarian Wordle

The spirited response to my last two posts (Librarians vs Knowledge Managers and Content Catalysts) regarding the relationship between librarians and knowledge managers drove home to me the importance of not getting too stuck on labels and stereotypes. To be honest, I did use for the purpose of argument a rather stereotypical (and as Nina Platt pointed out) old-fashioned view of a librarian and an equally stereotypical view of knowledge managers. While this approach might have some limited utility in that it creates straw men that everyone can knock down, I now want to shift gears to think more about functions than labels.

If we look at the range of activities in which information professionals engage, we’d include research (targeting both internal and external resources); analysis; content selection, collection and management; creating and deploying systems for use in sharing information; archiving; risk management; and compliance.  There are librarians that do this work and there are knowledge managers that do this work.  In fact, in many law firms, there are practicing lawyers who do this work.

At the end of the day, it’s critical to know what work needs to be done and then assign the right people to the task based on their talent, experience, temperament and inclination.  That is a far better approach than to match people to tasks on the basis of labels or stereotypes.  In other words, we should catalog content, not people.

Here endeth the sermon!

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Additional Resources:

For an interesting view of Librarians as Knowledge Managers, take a look at the following slides from a presentation by the inimitable Dave Pollard to the Special Libraries Association:

Librarians as Knowledge Managers

View more presentations from Dave Pollard.
[Photo Credit:  theunquietlibrarian]
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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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Additional Resources:

[Photo Credit: Christopher Chan]

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