Strategic Librarian

Using strategy to develop the law firm library.

Musings on the Librarian’s Role in Knowledge Management in Law Firms


Mary Abraham’s post on her blog, Above and Beyond KM titled Librarians vs Knowledge Managers, about a blog post written by Morgan Wilson on his blog,   , titled  reflection on KM and libraries in law firms really got me moving this morning.  Near and dear to my heart, the goals of librarians and knowledge managers are or at least should be the same. 

Morgan discussed his disappointment in how the two roles evolved when placed in the same department which was called Knowledge Management.  Mary discussed her surprise at his musings and questions about whether the two groups should work together.  More concerning, comments made by at least two readers discussed the need for librarians and libraries declining in the future. 

I couldn’t help but comment myself:


This post really caught my attention since I am a librarian and a knowledge manager. I’ve been a librarian since 1980 and I’ve worked with knowledge management in law firms since 1986 where I wrote a two-part article on law firm km – part one, part two. I believe that article was the first law firm km article posted on the web in 1997.

I have a masters degree in library and information science and I’ve taught KM classes for a graduate level program similar to what I attended. I write, speak and consult on KM and, yet, I am not a lawyer. (Note: the caste system is alive and well and doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.) I know a lot of other librarians who have the same interest, education, skills, and, yes, passion. Morgan being one of them.

During all these years, I’ve learned that KM in law firms is a messy endeavor that has survived more by the passion of those who work with it, instead of any firm’s commitment to what using KM as a tool can do for them. There have been jumps and starts that have gone no where and there have been some successful projects at some firms. Any consistency in effort has been done outside of the U.S.

I recent years, KM has started to take hold at firms where the lawyer KM manager or the librarian KM manager have been in place. I don’t believe either have moved of the other in the goal to make KM work. I will note, though, that many of the skills needed by one are the same skills needed by the other.

In library school, I learned more than just cataloging and selecting materials. I learned about defining & building systems, human interaction with systems and more. While working on an MBA, I learned about organizational development, change management, communication and more. I am just one librarian to have all this in my background. There are many more of us.

Much of what is called knowledge management today is library science re-branded. It isn’t new to us. Some librarians may not be able to talk the same talk as a KM manager but that is because the language has changed.

Finally, librarians in law firms (and else where) have never been valued to the degree they should because of old stereotypes that continue to live on because of jokes we’ve heard to often and messages that are reinforced over and over again. We are not a shushing, sensible shoe wearing, or angry lot. We are professionals who have skills that most law firms have left untapped because they don’t fit that stereotype.

I don’t believe where the library is situated organizationally matters. Morgan’s situation has and is being repeated throughout the legal industry where a law firm doesn’t understand what the library is capable of supporting/doing or where the individual in charge (no matter what department) doesn’t value or understand the potential contribution.

The library and KM teams are a powerful force when connected and managed properly. Who does what shouldn’t depend on what part of the team someone is on. Look at the education, skills, experience, etc. to determine who should be doing what. If that isn’t done, and the library is relegated to doing what the stereotype describes and the librarian’s traditional role, that part of the team will suffer. Especially when they have already been playing many roles that the KM team may see as their turf only.

P.S.: For Rick, “connecting people to people and facilitating their ability to make sense of their collective information/knowledge, etc” has been a role the library has thrived on for many many years.


My comment to librarians regarding these two posts is as follows:

I have always said that librarians will be employed in law firms for a long time to come and have never been too concerned with those who have been painting a darker picture.  Lately, I’ve been doubting my stand on this topic and have been become more and more concerned with our future.

If we do not do something to change the perceptions that the rest of the law firm has about our skills, we will be marginalized.  With more lawyers out of work because of the economy, we should expect an influx of the same unemployed lawyers as library positions open in the near future.  As law firms decide that having a lawyer, who has demonstrated an acumen for research, in charge of the library,  we will see the numbers of professional librarians diminish.  Don’t think it won’t happen.  There are many law firms who still don’t get it.    Our associations should support us in changing that perception but I don’t think we can look for anyone to save us.  We each need to take action now! 

  • What do you or other library staff know/do that others in the firm do not know/do?
  • Does your firm understand that you have skills and knowledge that is unique?
  • Does your firm know that you have skills/knowledge that can be used in innovative ways?
  • Do you understand how you can innovate?
  • Do you have any ideas of how to start the discussion about the validity of their perception?
  • If you are fortunate to be working in a firm where you are valued, what advice do you have for others?

I am really hoping we can get a discussion going here through your comments.  If not here, then consider making a comment on Mary’s and/or Morgan’s blog.

5 thoughts on “Musings on the Librarian’s Role in Knowledge Management in Law Firms

  1. Hi Nina, I appreciate your post. I wanted to reply to Mary Abaraham’s post on this, but I’m having some ISP issues at home and my work browser isn’t working with the Disqus commenting system. Something I want to stress is that there were definitely some local management issues in my former workplace, which definitely made things worse than they needed to be. I’m not angry at KM in general, and tried to word my post so as to avoid sweeping statements against KM. Maybe I wasn’t completely successful, but that was my intention. Although my post was purely anecdotal, it is very interesting to read your thoughts about the relationship between the library and KM, as well as their place in law firms. I’m not very optimistic either, that’s one of the reasons I decided to find a library job outside of law firm sector.


  2. Nina and Morgan –

    It’s great to be able to chat with both of you in one place!

    First, let me thank you both for helping move my thinking forward this week regarding the relationship between librarians and knowledge managers. Over the course of my career I’ve been a transactional lawyer, a knowledge manager, and a lawyer supervising library and knowledge management functions. As a result, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some first class library and knowledge management professionals. My posts were not addressed to those folks or their kin. I suspect the real problem lies with librarians and knowledge managers who are stuck in old ways of thinking about their jobs and their potential.

    The concern becomes more urgent when we factor in Nina’s warnings about the increasing availability of lawyers to perform library and knowledge management functions. When they bring practice experience to bear on their new work, they may well have an unbeatable advantage. Even having a law degree on top of a graduate degree in library or information science does not buy you the equivalent of their practice experience.

    Law firm librarians are at a pivotal point in the development of their profession. I’ll be watching with great interest to see what happens next.

    – Mary


  3. Mary

    This discussion is creating a dialog that is very interesting.

    What I perceive is the problem is that Knowledge Managers are creating their role as they go. We as Librarians, for hundreds of years, know that our role has been one of organising information, sharing knowledge of information resources and of connecting people who are working on similar research.

    Over the last 20 years, this new job title of ‘Knowledge Manager’ has evolved. What does this person do? What should be their function in an organisation? And if that organisation also happens to have a Librarian, how does the role fit in with the Librarian? It is very similar to the Information Technology (IT) Manager role versus Librarian that was very prevalent in the 1980’s.

    And yes I do agree, after working as a Librarian for some 38 years, our role is fading. It is largely due to the fact that we have not evolved with the changes that have occurred in the information/knowledge industry. Some of that lack of change is due to the organisations we work in, who have pigeon holed us and have not given us the freedom to make changes, even though we have made several demands.

    I also have spent the last 15 years working in law firms. All firms are different. Some of the smaller firms do give you freedom, but the larger firms, with more complex organisational structures, are stifling.



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