From One Accidental Law Librarian to Another: A Book Review


theaccidentallawlibrarian

I have to confess straight off the bat, that I am probably more entangled with and emotionally vested in Anthony Aycock’s work than many others reviewing this book; besides Anthony’s wife, that is.  It is due to Aycock that I can proudly call myself an accidental law librarian.

Never fear, though.  I promise that my review will be honest and unbiased.  However, because of my entanglement, I feel compelled to break tradition and take a moment to wax philosophical about my early days in library school and my arrival at Charlotte Law, both as an opportunity to breathe more life into this review and also to celebrate those serendipitous moments and connections in the library profession that chart your course and set your path.  Long and twisted journeys precede most librarians finding their place and their home in their profession, and oftentimes not only do we end up somewhere we never pictured, but our futures are touched and changed by unexpected people.

As a young MLIS student during the dark ages of the transition from on-site education to distance education, I had the challenge of navigating the waters between online classes and in-person classes from a satellite location.  Naturally, I gravitated towards what was comfortable – the in-person classes.  However, expecting a traditional class from a satellite campus that is transitioning to distance education leaves you with few options, especially when you have students from the main campus driving to the satellite campus for classes, simply because the cost was so much lower.

This is my roundabout way of saying that I ended up in Legal Resources almost accidentally.  And so encountered Anthony Aycock…

There was no way of knowing that he was the key to my future place in the library profession, so I merely sat back and enjoyed his instruction.  He was restricted significantly by circumstances, attempting to teach Legal Research using little more than PowerPoint slides, scans and a handful of print books because the university did not have a formal law collection, much less subscriptions to the major legal research players, nor would we have been able to use it to our hearts content, since we were the plus ones on campus.  These coveted in-person classes were filled with anecdotes and meanderings and my favorite, the absurd and unexpected real life cases that he would display and discuss.  In the six years since I graduated, times have changed significantly, with free legal resources and online research becoming more and more prevalent.  I’m not sure if class will ever be taught the way it was previously.

And I tried in class.  I really did.  As hard as I could.  But the simple fact remains – you can’t effectively teach a reference class without putting the books you’re talking about into the hands of the students.  You can do a good job.  You can do a great job.  But you can’t make students into confident reference librarians without getting their hands dirty.  Weeks of classes, despite including two visits to the Charlotte Law Library for dabbling in the dirty hands theory, seem to break up the lessons and disconnect the legalese and the convoluted resources from each other.  So despite an entire course in legal resources and research, after I finished the semester, I still felt like I was l floundering in a pair of water wings.  Why did I care, though?  Why would it matter?  I had no idea where I would end up after graduation, but I absolutely never envisioned ending up in a law school.

Enter that near graduation point of panic, where you’re realizing how crucial library experience is when trying to market yourself.  Add that to restricting your search to part time jobs, local, with hours that will accommodate single motherhood, and you’re almost frantic at the lack of options.  So I started reaching out to everyone I knew and every venue I could identify, casting a wide net.  I’m sure other librarians can commiserate with this feeling.

One such reach was to Anthony Aycock, my former professor, inquiring about part time work at a law firm.  By luck and serendipity and grace, he asked me to come in to the law school and apply for a job to lend a hand on the reference desk on the weekends.  I gulped and did some heavy breathing and then decided that the opportunity for experience was worth facing my fear.  However, once I came in, the current Director of Technical Services discovered my undergraduate and graduate mathematics and statistical background and immediately tapped me for technical services.  Over the years, my responsibilities increased as well as my knowledge, leaving me with a thirty hour a week job that both challenges me and grants me work-life balance, but that reference desk remained out of reach and the overwhelming fear of the desk increased exponentially.

Unfortunately, as the years passed and the books in the library and the records in the catalog became full of my fingerprints, I came to the realization that the more I knew about the world of law, the more I knew I didn’t know.  And without a J.D. or a Paralegal certificate and a busy, busy job doing a little bit of almost everything in Technical Services, there was no time, no resources, no energy left to dive in to the convoluted field and learn.  Six years have passed since then, and prior to opening the pages of The Accidental Law Librarian, I still joked about how I thought tort was simply a misspelled delicious multilayered cake filled with buttercream.  I could recognize every book on commercials and movie screens, giving my increasingly unamused couch companions the title, publication schedule and method of updating, but I couldn’t for the life of me explain why you would ever use it, and it killed me.

Time to queue the music.  Enter Anthony Aycock’s new book, The Accidental Law Librarian.  As soon as I opened to the contents page, a smile slipped across my face.  With Anthony as my first real connection to the library profession, the first of those amazing librarians that collect on a list throughout your life – the ones that you are indebted to, the ones that helped carry you to the point you are at now, the ones that gave you a chance, took a risk, believed in you, opened up to you – I was immediately hit with a moment of nostalgia.  Anthony is a librarian, yes.  But he’s also a writer.  A creative writer.  And this book was filled with reminders of his zany sense of humor and his tongue in cheek approach to the driest of topics.

From Chapter One’s subtitle of “What are all those books on Law and Order?” to the encounters with entertaining footnotes pointing out facts like Wexis is the librarian equivalent of Brangelina and Bennifer, this book dripped personality.

The dripping personality isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, though.  Some people might find the excessive anecdotal bits and pieces nothing but glitz, distracting from the true content.  For instance, does a serious reader really need a chapter that starts out like the beginning to a bad romance novel?  Will they find it frustrating to follow footnotes and end up at pithy comments instead of formal citations?  Perhaps.  But perhaps a reader will find it refreshing, a welcome change from dry and dusty wording and standard approaches in primarily educational texts.

Either way, after sitting through prose that may or may not be excessive, readers are rewarded by the clear and concise manner that Aycock uses to approach most every aspect of law librarianship, ranging from discussions of primary and secondary sources, legal publishing, basic concepts and terminology and resources for the lowest common denominator reference desk bathroom break coverer wanna be (see also: me).  He then moves on to more specific advice for sitting the reference desk, including a frank discussion about the unauthorized practice of law fear that hovers over those bridging the gap between lawyer and librarian.

I was constantly stumbling over fascinating tidbits throughout the book, so even those sections that seemed more rote and addressed things that I had already gleaned through my six years ensconced in the back of a law library had something valuable to offer.  From explaining annotations and citations in a way that a newbie can understand, to listing out what a law librarian can and can’t do, to tracing the history of legal publishers in an engrossing manner, the ah-ha moments kept piling up.

As the book progressed, Aycock guided readers towards more specific information about online resources and mobile apps as well as navigating the world of public records.  With a somewhat less than seamless transition, he offered more tailored information for those in law firms, keeping my interest with his familiar writing style, but almost losing my interest because of its inapplicability to the strictly academic world.

Not content to stand on his own laurels, Aycock recommends a variety of resources for the budding accidental law librarian, ranging from print to online, even social media channels.  Unsurprisingly, he snagged that waning interest of mine back, since librarians are always on the hunt for more education, more resources, more materials to peruse.

My favorite portion of the later chapters was Aycock’s honest discussion about whether law librarians truly need a J.D. or an M.B.A.  This always seems to be a hot topic, or at least has been for my short six year library career, especially for those non-reference librarians who accidentally fell into law librarianship.  Coming from Aycock, a law librarian with a variety of academic credentials, though neither of the ones preferred for traditional legal reference positions, I appreciated his candor wholeheartedly.

Tables in the book were invaluable and a fantastic way of displaying lengthy content in a more efficient and palatable way.  To my dismay, though, screen shots were thrown up with some regularity, as well as those hyperlinks everyone wants to include in their printed materials these days.  I admit, I always find hyperlinks frustrating in a text.  With the information world changing as quickly and as grandly as it does, it seems to me that screen shots and images of websites are nothing but page filler; although I concede that they do break up the wall of text and content nicely and provide a little more white space on which to rest your eyes.  And hyperlinks?  Come on.  First of all, see earlier comment on page filler.  Second of all, I know very few individuals that actually open their book up next to them and hand type extensive URLs from the page in to their browser.  I certainly don’t do this myself, and find the inclusion of hyperlinks and screen shots in a printed text both frustrating and excessive.

Aycock, however, is a step ahead of the game and managed to temper my personal frustrations by creating a blog: http://accidentallawlibrarian.wordpress.com/ which provides hyperlinks directly to the resources in each chapter and all are kept current.  I still don’t like them cluttering up my book, but I have to tip my hat to his gesture and its resulting functionality.

All in all, even putting aside my personal connection and gratitude to Aycock, the hat tipping continues, as Aycock has created an accessible resource, basic enough for library students, public librarians and accidental librarians like me, yet detailed enough that even those who know the basics will learn something new.  Unthreatening and comprehensive.  Readable and browsable.

If only he had written it seven years earlier.  I could have tested out of three credits for my Masters in 247 pages.  And have been able to leave my office over the last few years and head out to the reference desk a little more often to see if anyone needed a bathroom break…

~Ashley Moye~

Aycock, Anthony. The Accidental Law Librarian. Medford: NJ: Information Today, Inc., 2013. 247p. $39.50

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