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§.1.- Foreword

«If folksonomies work for pictures (Flickr), books (Goodreads), questions and answers (Quora), basically everything else (Delicious), why shouldn’t they work for law?» (Serena Manzoli)

In a post on this blog, Serena Manzoli distinguishes three uses of taxonomies in law: (1) for research of legal documents, (2) in teaching to law students, and (3) for its practical application.

In regard to her first point, she notes that (observation #1) to increase the availability of legal resources is compelling change of the whole information architecture, and – correctly, in my opinion – she exposes some objections to the heuristic efficiency of folksonomies: (objection #1) they are too “flat” to constitute something useful for legal research and (objection #2) it is likely that non-expert users could “pollute” the set of tags. Notwithstanding these issues, she states (prediction #1) that folksonomies could be helpful with non-legal users.

On the second point, she notes (observation #2) that folksonomies could be beneficial to study the law, because they could allow one to penetrate easier into its conceptual frameworks; she also formulates the hypothesis (prediction #2) that this teaching method could shape a more flexible mindset in students.

In discussing the third point, she notes (observation #3) that different taxonomies entail different ways of apply the law, and (prediction #3) she formulates the hypothesis that, in a distant perspective in which folksonomies would replace taxonomies, the result would be a whole new way to apply the law.

I appreciated Manzoli's post and accepted with pleasure the invitation of Christine Kirchberger – to whom I am grateful – to share my views with the readers of this prestigious blog. Hereinafter I intend to focus on the theoretical profiles that aroused my curiosity. My position is partly different from that of Serena Manzoli.

 

§.2.- Introduction

In order to detect the issues stemming from folksonomies, I think it is relevant to give some preliminary clarifications.

In collective tagging systems, by tagging we can describe the content of an object – an image, a song or a document – label it using any lexical expression preceded by the “hashtag” (the symbol “#”) and share it with our friends and followers or also recommend it to an audience of strangers.

Folksonomies (blend of the words “taxonomy” and “folk”) are sets of categories resulting from the use of tags in the description of on line resources by the users, allowing a "many to many" connection between tags, users and resources.

Basic pattern of a folksonomy

Basic pattern of a folksonomy

 

Thomas Vander Wal coined the word a decade ago – ten years is really a long time in ICTs – and these technologies, as reported by Serena Manzoli, have now been adopted in most of the social networks and e-commerce systems.

The main feature of folksonomies is that tags aggregate spontaneously in a semantic core; therefore, they are often associated with taxonomies or ontologies, although in these latter cases hierarchies and categories are established before the collection of data, as “a priori”.

Simplifying, I can say that tags may describe three aspects of the resources, using particulars  (i.e. a picture of a flowerpot lit by the sun):

(1) The content of the resources (i.e. #flowers),

(2) The interaction with other specific resources and the environment in general (i.e. #sun or #summer),

(3) The effect that these resources have on users having access to them (i.e. #beautiful).

Since it seems to me that none of these aspects should be disregarded in an overall assessment of folksonomies, I will consider all of them.

Having regard to law, they end to match with these three major issues:

(1) Law as a “content”. Users select legal documents among others available and choose those that seem most relevant. As a real interest is – normally – the driving criterion of the search, and as this typically is given by the need to solve a legal problem, I designate this profile with the expression «Quid juris?».

(2) Law as a “concept”. This problem emerges because the single legal document can not be conceived separately from the context in which it appears, namely the relations it has with the legal system to which it belongs. Consequently becomes inevitable to ask what the law is, as a common feature of all legal documents. Recalling Immanuel Kant in the "Metaphysics of Morals",  here I use the expression «Quid jus?».

(3) Law as a “sentiment”. What emerges in folksonomies is a subjective attitude that regards the meaning to be attributed to the research of resources and that affects the way in which it is performed. To this I intend to refer using the expression «Cur jus?».

 

§.3.- Folksonomies, Law, and «Quid juris?»: legal information management and collective tagging systems

In this respect, I agree definitely with Serena Manzoli. Folksonomies seem to open very interesting perspectives in the field of legal information management; we admit, however, that these technologies still have some limitations. For instance: just because the resources are tagged freely, it is difficult to use them to build taxonomies or ontologies; inexperienced users classify resources less efficiently than the other, diluting all the efforts of more skilled users and “polluting" well-established catalogs; vice versa, even experienced users can make mistakes in the allocation of tags, worsening the quality of information being shared.

Though in some cases these issues can be solved in several ways –  i.e., the use of tags can be guided with the tag's recommendation, hence the distinction between broad and narrow folksonomies – and even if it can reasonably be expected that these tools will work even better in the future, for now we can say that folksonomies are useful just to integrate pre-existing classifications.

I may add, as an example, that an Italian law requires the creation of "user-created taxonomies (folksonomies)," "Guidelines for websites of public administrations" of 29 July 2011, page 20.  These guidelines have been issued pursuant to art. 4 of Directive 26th November 2009 n. 8, of the "Minister for Public Administration and Innovation", according to the Legislative Decree of 7 March 2005, n. 82, "Digital Administration Code" (O.J. n. 112 of 16th May 2005, S.O. n. 93). It may be interesting to point out that in Italian law the innovation in administrative bodies is promoted by a specific institution, the Agency for Digital Italy ("Agenzia per l'Italia Digitale"), which coordinates the actions in this field and sets standards for usability and accessibility. Folksonomies indeed fall into this latter category.

Following this path, a municipality (Turin) has recently set up a system of "social bookmarking" for the benefit of citizens called TaggaTO.

 

§.4.- Folksonomies, Law, and «Quid jus?»: the difference between the “map” and the “territory”

In this regard, my theoretical approach is different from that of Serena Manzoli. Here is the reason our findings are opposite.

Human beings are "tagging animals", since labelling things is a natural habit. We can note it in common life: each of us, indeed, organizes his environment at home (we have jars with “salt” or “pepper” written on the caps) and at work (we use folders with “invoices” or “bank account” printed on the cover). The significance of tags is obvious if we consider using it with other people: it allows us to establish and share a common information framework. For the same reasons of convenience, tags have been included in most of the software applications we use (documents, e-mail, calendars) and, as said above, in many online services. To sum up, labels help us to build a representation of reality: they are tools for our knowledge.

In regard to reality and knowledge, it may be recalled that in the twentieth century there were two philosophical perspectives: the “continental tradition”, focused on the first (reality) and pretty much common in Europe, and the “analytic philosophy”, centered on the second (knowledge and widespread among USA, UK and Scandinavia. More recently, this distinction has lost much of its heuristic value and we have seen rising a different approach, the “philosophy of information”, which proposes, developing some theoretical aspects of cybernetics, a synthesis of reality and knowledge in an unifying vision that originates from a naturalistic notion of “information”.

I will try to simplify, saying that if reality is a kind of “territory”, and if taxonomies (and in general ontologies) can be considered as a sort of representation of knowledge, then they can be considered as “maps”.

In light of these premises, I should explain what to me “sharing resources” and “shared knowledge” mean in folksonomies. Folksonomies are a kind of “map”, indeed, but different than ontologies. In a metaphor: ontologies could be seen as “maps” created by a single geographer overlapping the reliefs of many “territories”, and sold indiscriminately to travelers; folksonomies could be seen as “maps” that inhabitants of different territories help each other to draw by telephone or by texting a message. Both solutions have advantages and disadvantages: the former may be detailed but more difficult to consult, while the latter may be always updated but affected by inaccuracies. In this sense, folksonomies could be said “antifragile” – according to the brilliant metaphor of Nassim Nicholas Taleb – because their value improves with increased use, while ontologies could be seen as "fragile", because of the linearity of the process of production and distribution.

Therefore, as the “map” is not the “territory”, reality does not change depending on the representation. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the “maps” are not helpful to travel to unknown “territories”, or to reach faster the destination even in “territories” that are well known (just like when driving in the car with the aid of GPS).

On the application of folksonomies to the field of law, I shall say that, after all, legal science has always been a kind of “natural folksonomy”. Indeed, it has always been a widespread knowledge, ready to be practiced, open to discussion, and above all perfectly “antifragile”: new legal issues to be solved determine a further use of the systems, thus causing an increase in knowledge and therefore a greater accuracy in the description of the legal domain. In this regard, Serena Manzoli in her post also mentioned the Corpus Juris Civilis, which for centuries has been crucial in the Western legal culture. Scholars went to Italy from all over Europe to study it, at the beginning by noting few elucidations in the margins of the text (glossatores), then commenting on what they had learned (commentatores), and using their legal competences to decide cases that were submitted to them as judges or to argue in trials as lawyers.

Modern tradition has refused all of this, imposing a rationalistic and rigorous view of law. This approach – “fragile”, continuing with the paradigm of Nassim Nicholas Taleb – has spread in different directions, which simplifying I can lower to three:

(1) Legal imperativism: law as embodied in the words of the sovereign.

Leviathan (Thomas Hobbes)

Leviathan (Thomas Hobbes)

(2) Legal realism: law as embodied in the words of the judge.

 

Gavel

Gavel

(3) Legal formalism: law as embodied in administrative procedures.

 

The Castle (Franz Kafka)

The Castle (Franz Kafka)

For too long we have been led to pretending to see only the “map” and to ignore the “territory”. In my opinion, the application of folksonomies to law can be very useful to overcome these prejudices emerging from the traditional legal positivism, and to revisit a concept of law that is a step closer to its origin and its nature. I wrote “a step closer”; I'd like to clarify, to emphasize that the “map”, even if obtained through a participatory process, remains a representation of the “territory”, and to suggest that the vision known as the "philosophy of information" seems an attempt to overlay or replace the two terms – hence its “naturalism” – rather than to draw a “map” as similar as possible to the “territory”.

 

§.5- Folksonomies, Law and «Cur jus?»: the user in folksonomies: from “anybody” to “somebody"

This profile does not fall within the topics covered in Manzoli’s post, but I would like to take this opportunity to discuss it because it is the most intriguing to me.

Each of us arranges his resources according to the meaning that he intends to give his world. Think of how each of us arrays the resources containing information that he needs in his work: the books on the desk of a scholar, the files on the bench of a lawyer or a judge, the documents in the archive of a company. We place things around us depending on the problem we have to address: we use the surrounding space to help us find the solution.

With folksonomies, in general, we simply do the same in a context in which the concept of “space” is just a matter of abstraction.

What does it mean? We organize things, then we create “information”. Gregory Bateson in a very famous book, Steps to an Ecology of Mind – in which he wrote on “maps” and “territories”, too – stated that “information” is “the difference that makes the difference”. This definition, brilliant in its simplicity, raises the tremendous problem of the meaning of our existence and the freedom of will. This issue can be explained through an example given by a very interesting app called “Somebody”, recently released by the contemporary artist Miranda July.

The app works as follows: a message addressed to a given person is written and transmitted to another, who delivers it verbally. In other words, the actual recipient receives the message from an individual who is unknown to him. The point that fascinates me is this: someone suddenly comes out to tell that you “make a difference,” that you are not “anybody” because you are “somebody” for “somebody.” Moreover, at the same time this same person, since he is addressing you, becomes “somebody,” because the sender of the message chose him  among others, since he  “meant something” to him.

For me, the meaning of this amazing app can be summed up in this simple equation:

 

“Being somebody” = “Mean something” = “Make a difference”
 

This formula means that each of us believes he is worth something (“being somebody”), that his life has a meaning (“mean something”), that his choices or actions can change something – even if slightly – in this world (“make a difference”).

Returning to Bateson, if it is important to each of us to “make a difference”, if we all want to be “somebody”, then how could we settle down for recognize ourselves as just an “organizing agent”? Self-consciousness is related to semantics and to the freedom of choice: who is not free at all, does not create any “difference” in the world. Poetically, Miranda July makes people talk to each other, giving a meaning to humanity and a purpose to freedom: this is what “making a difference” means for humans.

In applying folksonomies to law, we should consider all this. It is true that folksonomies record the way in which each user arrays available legal documents, but it should be emphasized the purpose for which this activity is carried out. Therefore, it should be clear that an efficient cataloguing of resources depends on several conditions: certainly that the user shall know the law and remember its ontologies, but also that he shall be focused on what he is doing. This means that the user needs to be well-motivated, in order to recognize the value of what he is doing, so that to give meaning to his activity.

 

§.6- Conclusion

I believe that folksonomies can teach us a lot. In them we can find not only an extraordinary technical tool, but also – and most importantly – a reason to overcome the traditional legal positivism – which is “ontological” and therefore “fragile” – and thus rediscover the cooperation not only among experts, but also with non-experts, in the name of an “antifragile” shared legacy of knowledge that is called "law".

All this will work - or at least, it will work better - if we remember that we are human beings.

 

Federico Costantini

Federico Costantini. Lawyer and Researcher in Philosophy of Law (Legal informatics) in the Department of Legal sciences at the University of Udine (Italy). He holds a L.M.M. in Law and a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Law from the University of Padua (Italy).
His research moves among philosophy, computer science and law, focusing primarily on the struggle between technology and human nature.
He teaches Legal Informatics at the Faculty of Law of the University of Udine. His lectures on cyberlaw (especially in privacy, copyright and social networks) are aimed at bringing out the critical profiles of the "Information Society".

 

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.

The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.
- Henry VI, Pt. 2, Act 4, sc. 2.

This line, delivered by Dick the Butcher (turned revolutionary) in Shakespeare's Henry VI, is often performed tongue-in-cheek by actors to elicit an expected laugh from the audience. The essence of the line, however, is no joke, and relates to destabilizing the rule of law by removing its agents -- those who promote and enforce the law. What no one could predict, including Shakespeare himself, is the horrific precision with which such a deed could be carried out.

The 1994 Genocide in Rwanda showed this horror and more, with upwards of one million killed in the span of three months. The effect on the legal system was particularly devastating, with the targeting of lawyers and the justice sector, resulting in the targeted killing of prosecutors and judges at its outset.

Rwanda's Justice Sector Development
Since 1994, Rwanda has done a remarkable job rebuilding its society, establishing security, curbing corruption, and creating one of the fastest growing economies in sub-Saharan Africa.

Law Library at the Ministry of Justice, Kigali, Rwanda.

Law Library at the Ministry of Justice, Kigali, Rwanda.

One of the biggest areas of development in Rwanda, and in other areas of the world, has been strengthening justice sector institutions and strengthening the rule of law. In transitional states, especially those developing systems of democratic governance, the creation of online, reliable, and accessible legal information systems is a critical component of good governance. Rwanda's efforts and opportunities for development in this area are noted below.

From 2010-2011, I played a very small part of this development when I served as a law clerk and legal advisor to then-Chief Justice Aloysie Cyanzayire of the Supreme Court of Rwanda. Working with a USAID-funded project, I was also able to participate with legal education reform, and the development of an online database of laws, the Rwanda Legal Information Portal (RwandaLIP). In the summer of 2013 I returned to Rwanda, with the support of the American Association of Law Libraries, to visit its law libraries and understand the role of law libraries in legal institutions and overall society. After learning the Rwanda LIP was no longer updated (and now offline entirely), investigating Rwanda's online legal presence became a secondary research goal for the trip. The discovery also highlighted the importance of legal information systems and their role in justice sector reform. Part of this justice sector reform related to changes in Rwanda's legal system. Once a Belgian colony, at independence Rwanda inherited a civil law system, codified much of the Belgian civil code, and today the main body of laws comes from enactments of Parliament. Rwanda's judicial system, rebuilt after the 1994 Genocide, is made up of four levels of courts: District Courts, Provincial Courts, High Courts, and the Supreme Court.
With its civil law roots, courts in Rwanda were largely unconcerned with precedent. As Rwanda became a member of the East African Community in 2007 (and adopted English as an official language), the judiciary started a transition to a hybrid common law system, considering how to assign precedential value to court decisions. With this ongoing transition in Rwanda's legal system, an online legal information system has become a significant need for legal and civil society.

One of four computer labs, called the "digital library" at Kigali Independent University, with more than 400 computer workstations available for student use.

One of four computer labs, called the "digital library" at Kigali Independent University, with more than 400 computer workstations available for student use.

Online Legal Information Systems
In order to establish the rule of law in a democratic system, citizens must have access, at the very minimum, to laws of a government. To make this access meaningful, a searchable database of laws should be created to allow users of legal information to find laws based on their particular information need. For this reason alone it is important for governments in transitional states to make a commitment to developing online legal information systems.

John Palfrey aptly noted: "In most countries, primary legal information is broadly accessible in one format or another, but it is rarely made accessible online in a stable and reliable format." This is basically the case in Rwanda. Every law library, university library, and even the Kigali Public Library have paper copies of the Official Journal -- the official laws of Rwanda. Today, however, the only current place to find laws online is through the Prime Minister's webpage, where PDF copies of the Official Gazette are published. The website Amategeko.net (Kinyarwanda for "law") was frequently used by lawyers and members of the justice sector to search Rwanda's laws, and allowed the general public to not only access laws, but run a full text search for keywords. This site, however, was not updated after 2011, and is now completely offline. The result is no online source to search Rwanda's laws.

Law Library at the Parliament of the Republic of Rwanda in Kigali.

Law Library at the Parliament of the Republic of Rwanda in Kigali.

Rwanda is using its growing information infrastructure, however, to create other online quasi-legal information databases. For instance, the Rwanda Development Board created an online portal for businesses to access information on "investment related procedures" in Rwanda. The government is also allowing online registration of businesses, streamlining the processes and making it more accessible. These developments make sense with Rwanda's reforms in the area of economic development, and its recent ranking in the top 30% globally for ease of doing business, and 3rd best in sub-Saharan Africa. While economic reform has driven these changes, justice sector reform has not yet yielded the same results for online legal information systems.

Service counter at the University Library at Kigali Independent University in Rwanda.  Students aren't allowed to browse the library stacks.

Service counter at the University Library at Kigali Independent University in Rwanda. Students aren't allowed to browse the library stacks.

Rwanda's Legal Information Culture Despite the limited online access to laws, there is a high value placed on legal information in Rwanda. Every legal institution has a law library and a dedicated library staff member (although most don't have formal education in librarianship or information management). Moreover, members of the justice sector, from staff members to Permanent Secretaries and Ministers, believe libraries and access to legal information is of critical importance. A common theme in Rwanda's law libraries, however, is the lack of funding. Some libraries have not invested in library materials in years, and have solely relied on donations to add items to their collections. It is not altogether surprising, then, that the Rwanda LIP remained un-funded, and is now completely defunct as an online legal information system. One source close to the Rwanda LIP project indicated that funding has been sought at Parliament, but as of today has yet to be successful.

The failure of the Rwanda LIP is perhaps a victim of how it came to be; that is, through donor-funded development. Creating sustainable online databases requires a government commitment of financial support. Just as Amategeko.net before it, the Rwanda LIP was created through a donor-funded initiative, and at its conclusion the LIP's source of funding also ended. For any donor-funded development initiative, sustainability is a key concern, and significant government collaboration is necessary for initiatives to remain after donor-funded projects end. This concept is especially true with legal information systems, and is perhaps the cause for the Rwanda LIP's demise. While created in partnership with the Government of Rwanda, it failed to adequately secure a commitment for continued funding at its outset. Sustainability issues are not unique to Rwanda's experience with online legal information systems. The availability of financial resources is one of the key challenges to creating a sustainable online database of laws. Working with developing countries in Africa, SAFLII found that sustainability issues come from "shortages of resources, skills and technical services." While donor-funded projects have serious limitations, others experiencing the sustainability challenge have suggested databases supported by private enterprise, "offering free content as well as value-added services for sale." One thing for certain is that long-term sustainability remains one of the biggest challenges for online legal information systems.

View of the Kigali Public Library in Kigali, Rwanda.

View of the Kigali Public Library in Kigali, Rwanda.

Print to Digital Transition and Overcoming the Digital Divide In addition to sustainability, transition from print to digital poses its own complications, and has emerged as a major issue in law libraries, from even the most established institutions. This challenge is especially unique in the context of developing and transitional states, where access to the internet can pose a significant challenge. This problem, known as the "digital divide," has been described as something that "disproportionately disenfranchises certain segments of society and runs counter to the notion that inclusiveness and opportunity build strong communities and countries." This is an even larger problem in developing and transitional states, where there is far less wealth and technological infrastructure for internet connectivity, and a greater disparity in access between and among communities.

Of all countries in the process of developing online legal information systems, however, Rwanda is perhaps the best suited to succeed. With high-speed fibre-optic internet cables recently installed throughout the small East African country, Rwanda has one of the best internet penetration rates in the developing world. So, while Rwanda's law libraries (and other libraries) throughout the country have print copies of laws, there may be a legitimate opportunity to give a large number of citizens online access. For example, the Kigali Public Library, the flagship institution of the Rwanda Library Services, houses print copies of the laws of Rwanda but also has an internet cafe giving free access to online resources. Kigali Independent University has an "Internet Library" with more than 500 computers for student use. Rwanda's law libraries are also open and accessible to the public, some of which have computers for use by the public as well. Other libraries, including the law library at the National University of Rwanda, have increasing access to online resources to serve their users.

In Rwanda, a new access to information law (Official Gazette No. 10 of 11.03.2013) makes online legal information even more critical in the developing state, and Rwanda's current efforts can serve as an example for the importance of modernizing online legal information. The access to information law imposes a positive obligation on the Government of Rwanda, and some private companies working under government contracts, to disclose a broad range of information to the public and press. It has been stated that the law "meets standards of best practice in terms of scope and application" for freedom of information laws. Despite the law's conditions to withhold information under Article 4, the significant shift in policy and the law's broad range of information available are very positive signs. This and similar laws across the developing world have created a need for the improvement of existing legal information systems, or the creation of new systems to adequately make available essential legal information. A critical component to the implementation of this law, therefore, is a reliable and sustainable online legal information system.

A view of the volcanoes in the Northern Province of Rwanda.

A view of the volcanoes in the Northern Province of Rwanda.

Lessons Learned from Rwanda's Experience
While Amategeko.net and the Rwanda LIP are no longer online, institutions within the justice sector of Rwanda are currently working on solutions. In the meantime, there is no meaningful way to search Rwanda's laws online. It is possible that a stronger financial commitment at the outset of the Rwanda LIP would have solved this. In the future, long-term sustainability should be one of the primary qualifications for creating an online system.

In the meantime, there are other ways of expanding Rwanda's access to online legal information through databases of foreign law and secondary sources. Talking with law librarians in Rwanda, I learned that there is little, if any research instruction being delivered from law libraries. Even in the few libraries with subscription electronic databases, users aren't necessarily being directed to relevant legal resources. Furthermore, law librarians generally collect, catalog and retrieve legal materials for users, rather than directing users to relevant sources. Users of legal information in Rwanda (and elsewhere) would be well served by being exposed to other online sources of legal information. Sites like the LII, WorldLII, and the Directory of Open Access Journals offers access to a wealth of free online primary and secondary materials that could be useful to researchers. Creating research guides and offering research instruction in these areas costs very little, and opens up countless resources that could be valuable to users of legal information in Rwanda, and elsewhere. Those working in justice sector development should investigate the possibility for this, in conjunction with creating online legal information systems of domestic laws.

Directional sign outside the Law Faculty at the Independent Institute of Lay Adventist of Kigali.

Directional sign outside the Law Faculty at the Independent Institute of Lay Adventist of Kigali.

Finally, the majority of those working as librarians in Rwanda's law libraries have no formal instruction in library or information science. Nonetheless, it is remarkable that those with little or no formal training are competent librarians. Formal training or not, qualified librarians generally do not have the opportunity to offer research training to users of legal information. Treating law librarians as professionals would open up many opportunities to increase the capacity of users of legal information, and the online resources available.

 

IMG_1857Brian Anderson is a Reference Librarian and Assistant Professor at the Taggart Law Library at Ohio Northern University. His research involves the use of law libraries and legal information systems to support the rule of law in developing and transitional states. In September 2013 Brian presented two papers at the 2013 Law Via the Internet conference related to this topic; one related to civil society organizations and the use of the internet to strengthen the rule of law, and another about starting online legal information systems from scratch.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.

Much to the dismay of several family members, I majored in anthropology in college. For those of you not up on your social sciences or Greek roots, anthropology is the study of all aspects of human existence, from the human genome, to cultures, to evolutionary history, to our primate cousins, and many things in between. Much to every one's surprise, however, I couldn’t have picked a more useful major to help me navigate the ever-changing landscape of modern librarianship and legal information.

Besides analytical thinking and general research skills, my anthropology classes taught me how to make connections between seemingly divergent ideas, to dispassionately observe human interactions, and to respect differing cultures. Although they were not directly related to my career goals, I loved my primatology courses the most. Observing primate social networks allows one to distill the essence of a relationship without the confusing trappings of cultural artifacts. As an added bonus, monkeys are really cute.

LorisMy favorite non-human primate is not a monkey, actually. It’s the genus Nycticebus, more commonly known as the Slow Loris. They are absolutely adorable! Lorises are nocturnal, tree dwelling lower primates. They split off from the human evolutionary chain about 50 million years ago and haven’t evolved much since then. They don’t have many natural predators, but when they do need to defend themselves they rely on poisonous saliva or by curling up in a ball and hiding. Due to the lack of predators and their widely varied diet, they tend to move very slowly and cautiously through the trees.

You’re probably thinking to yourself right about now, “Well, this is nice and moderately interesting, but why is she writing about lorises in an legal information blog?” Well, if an overly cautious, slow moving, non-evolving primate that responds to threats by a poison tongue or hiding and pretending the threat isn’t there didn’t remind you of anything, well then I guess you haven’t spent much time around librarians.

What’s Wrong with Librarians?

Oh, everyone calm down. Put away your pitchforks. While no one loves to play “Poke the Bunhead with a Stick” more than I, that is not the point of this essay. Rather, I am here to answer the question, “What is wrong with librarians?” As a librarian who spends a significant amount of time discussing legal information issues with non-librarians, I am often asked this very question. Many times with some colorful adjectives thrown in for good measure.

Here’s the short answer: There’s nothing WRONG with librarians.

Libraries and librarians have different cultures and missions than other players in the information business, and thus place what may seem to be an unreasonable emphasis on certain attributes of an information delivery mechanism, or require characteristics of it that may seem unnecessary. Frankly, we think you’re pretty weird too. However, automatically labeling beliefs and actions different than yours as “wrong” creates unnecessary divisions between groups that must collaborate. Everyone - librarians, computer scientists, legal publishers, government bureaucrats, etc. - needs to work towards a greater cultural understanding of the other players so that mutually beneficial and important projects - for instance, law.gov - are not lost to petty infighting and simple misunderstandings that devolve into huge clashes.

Now for a slightly longer answer...

Libraries, as a cultural institution, have existed for millennia. Through that time their collections transitioned from clay tablets to papyrus scrolls to codices to printed books. It is only relatively recently - about one percent of the time of their existence - that libraries have been confronted with digital media. This means that library culture primarily evolved during a time span in which information containers were tangible objects. Furthermore, during this time libraries' mission has been mainly to preserve and protect the information for the long-term good of the civilization, even at the cost of preventing contemporary users from accessing it. Finally, libraries have existed for the most part without competition in either resource collection or distribution.

Law librarians, in addition to the library enculturation, have often received legal training. If you’ve not had the pleasure, suffice it to say that respect for the rule of law, adherence to social order, and an obsession with order, ritual, and formality are just a few of the many benefits that one receives from an American legal education. (Other benefits include nightmares about Contract Law finals, an inability to watch courtroom dramas without pointing out the inaccuracies of the script, and a competitive streak that would put most Olympic athletes to shame.) The informally educated are very similarly situated.

So, here we have a group of people used to being in control of tangible objects that they would rather preserve than use. Additionally, these people put the legal system and its laws up on a pedestal and rigidly cling to its structure and hierarchy. Is it any wonder, then, that the idea of accepting an electronic version of a law hosted by a private organization without a stamp of government approval sends them into a bit of a tizzy?

Let’s go back to our furry friend the loris.

As I said, the lorises move slowly. Glacially, even. I mean, I’m talking sloooooooow. Why is that? Well, they don’t have a physical impediment keeping them that way. Nor should it be assumed that they are lazy or have some other character defect (as if one could assign character defects to wild animals.) As a matter of fact, when they choose to catch live prey they can move quite quickly. They operate this way because when one is creeping along small jungle branches high in the air in the middle of the night and not running from any particular predator, it pays off to take one’s time and be cautious.

Similarly, librarians don’t cling to print materials out of some romantic notion of the superiority of books, nor do they make repeated demands for stable, authenticated archives of electronic materials just to make you crazy. When one is tasked with the preservation of information - on behalf not just of those looking for it ten years from now, but also of those looking hundreds if not thousands of years from now - and no one else is really in the information distribution or storage business, it pays to take one’s time and be cautious when determining what container to put that information in, especially when what you’ve been doing for the past 1,000 or so years has been working for you.

You Say You Want an Evolution...

A major factor in the loris's being able to move slowly is that it has few predators or competitors for resources. At least until recently, that is. A primate by the name of Homo sapiens has hunted the loris right onto the endangered species list.

Like the loris, libraries are no longer the sole occupiers of their niche spot in the environment . . . and what a rapidly changing environment it is. No longer are libraries the sole gatekeepers and preservers of information. Information is also coming from new providers and in different containers than what libraries have been used to.

While I said above that they are not “wrong,” that does not mean that libraries and librarians couldn’t do some things better. Librarians, as a species, are very risk-averse. If I had to guess, I’d say it had something to do with being the only information gatekeepers for so long. Now, generally, there’s nothing wrong with being a little cautious, especially when there’re no do-overs (as is the case with lost information.)

But with librarians this risk aversion has grown like a cancer and now manifests itself as a fear of failure. This fear has become so ingrained in the culture that innovation and progress are inhibited. Contrast that with the tech sector - home to many future library partners - where trial and error are encouraged and participants have a freedom to fail. It behooves librarians to embrace this culture of innovation and develop a respect for failure lest they become completely stagnant and, as a result, obsolete.

Unlike the loris, libraries are operated by sapient beings that can adapt to changes in their environments. Libraries need to choose to acknowledge these changes and model some - but not all - of their behaviors after newer and perhaps more successful members of the ecosystem. As it stands now, librarian participation in a multidisciplinary project is often regarded as more of a hindrance than a help.  If librarians don't change, they will eventually stop being invited to the conversation.   Ideally these other ecosystem members will be patient with the process of evolution and appreciate the qualities the libraries posses and the values that librarians bring to a discussion.

One way to develop this mutual respect is to interact professionally and demonstrate one’s knowledge, skills, and willingness to collaborate. Unfortunately, up until now most interaction between librarians and other information industry members has arisen out of conflict - librarians wagging their fingers, telling someone that they’re wrong or complaining that librarians are being persecuted by the mean old vendors. Another important factor in gaining professional respect is the ability to give and receive constructive criticism without resorting to petty snipes or retreating to salve wounded egos.

Get in the Goddamn Wagon

A few weeks ago, I was sent a link to Peter Brantley's blog post, “Get in the Goddamn Wagon,” an inspiring call to action for newer librarians to become involved in future planning for libraries. It’s a good read and worth a look, but I bring it up here for two perhaps non-obvious reasons. One, it’s notable for who sent it to me - none other than Thomas R. Bruce, Director of the Legal Information Institute.

Tom has been a valuable friend and mentor to me. He is not, however, a librarian. Still, because I know he respects me while perhaps not always understanding the reasons behind my actions - and vice versa - we have been able to forge a cooperative professional relationship. Because of this mutual respect, when he offers a suggestion on how libraries might change, I listen and consider his suggestion instead of automatically discounting it because he’s not a librarian.

The other reason that I mention that blog post is that it introduced me to the William Faulkner quote, “Them that’s going,” he said, “get in the goddamn wagon. Them that ain’t, get out of the goddamn way.” I wish I could say, “Librarians . . . computer scientists . . . legal publishers . . . let’s all hold hands now and sing kum-bay-yah!” However, while I am hopeful that cultural differences between these groups can be diminished and a feeling of amity develops between them, I am realistic.

So instead I say, “Get in the goddamn wagon or get out of the goddamn way.” I imagine at times the ride will be about as comfortable and collegial as a bunch of children crammed in a station wagon for a family vacation road trip. There is no ultimate “Mother” authority to keep us all in line with the threat of turning around, however. For these collaborative efforts to be successful, no constituency or person gets to be “in charge” all the time. It doesn’t matter how many millions of dollars in grant money one has, or how many thousands of members in one's organization; everyone’s expertise needs to be used and respected. It won’t be easy and it won’t feel natural, but we all must make a conscious effort to work together.

How will this happen? We could start with meetings on neutral ground (physical or virtual) designed for the express purpose of ironing out differences between the camps. (Perhaps a Festivus airing of grievances?) Ideally, though, I’d love for it to happen more organically. More multi-disciplinary organizations, conferences, and publishing platforms (like Vox PopuLII) need to be created so that we can learn from each other. Until such time that these exist, more trips into the other camp need to be made - attend their conferences, publish in their discipline’s journals: anything that will start to put human faces on the monolithic titles such as “librarian” or “publisher” so that we can get past the distrust and the disputes and move on to the more important work.

The projects that we can (and should) be collaborating on are new and different and will completely change the way people access their law. As such, they will be met with resistance and suspicion and push-back from commercial vendors and government agents. Presenting a united front and creating a system that benefits from all of our areas of expertise from the beginning will go a long way towards legitimizing our cause. We have one chance to make a first impression, one opportunity to make free law an accepted resource in this generation. Don’t mess it up.

[Editor's Note: For other ideas respecting collaboration between law librarians and members of the legal informatics community, please see our earlier post, A Law Librarian Looks at Legal Informatics Scholarship.]

Photo credits:
Loris: 1887 Engraving of Slow Loris
Librarian: Of unknown origin
Librarian in stacks: The Bookworm by Carl Spitzweg
Horror and Agony, from Darwin's Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals
Wagon: Harris & Ewing, Wagon and US Capitol (altered by author)

Sarah Glassmeyer is the Faculty Services and Outreach Librarian at the Valparaiso University School of Law in Valparaiso, Indiana. When she’s not putting the fear of God and court clerks into first year law students, she writes about the intersection of legal information, libraries and the Internet at SarahGlasmeyer(dot)com.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editor-in-chief is Robert Richards.