I officially became a lawyer at a ceremony held during a special session of the Ohio Supreme Court, at which I and a couple of hundred other new law school graduates received our law licenses. After I had been handed my license in this graduation-like event, one of the State Supreme Court Justices greeted me by saying “congratulations, Counselor.” For me it was a Perry Mason moment, simultaneously funny and humbling. No one had ever called me counselor before, and the word brought home to me the responsibilities of my new profession. It also got me thinking about the nature of my other, more long-standing, profession of librarianship.
The role of counselor, or consultant, is a key aspect of most professions. Indeed, one possible definition of the professions is as fields in which specialized learning is applied to the unique and often unpredictable situations of specific clients. Lawyers and doctors have theoretical knowledge that is of no particular use except insofar as it can be applied to the varied and various situations that come in each day through the office door.
Consultancy is also becoming an important model for library service, bringing our profession more into line with those that have long been recognized as professions. Some of the newer things that we are doing – providing assistance with copyright issues, helping create data management plans, working with digital humanities projects – reflect this focus on consultation quite clearly. In each case, we are applying what we have learned about information management to problems brought to us that are outside the more routine tasks traditionally associated with librarians. Cataloging books and helping locate information resources have always required specialized knowledge, but they are tasks viewed as library-specific and ancillary to the core processes of teaching and research. In the digital environment, those core processes, however, are changing dramatically, and students and faculty are coming to libraries more and more with their unique challenges in teaching and research that require our particular expertise. Thus the role of the librarian as professional consultant (or counselor) is developing.
As someone whose job is called “scholarly communications,” I often tell other librarians that the real meaning of this increasingly ubiquitous term, at least for libraries, is this new focus on support for the research process as it unfolds. Libraries have traditionally worked on the two ends of research, providing the inputs and purchasing the outputs in order to renew the cycle. But the digital environment has simultaneously made those roles less vital and increased the need for the skills of libraries at other points in the research cycle. Those needs are far less predictable, and far more idiosyncratic to a particular research project, than the ones we are comfortably familiar with. Hence the need to develop our skills at consultation.
Although it may not sound like it, good professional counseling is difficult. The movement from theoretical knowledge to application to a specific set of facts is not obvious or easy. I provide a good deal of copyright training to faculty and staff, and they often reflect back to me a good understanding of the rules and principles I have articulated for them, but an inability to take that next step, which is application to their own specific needs. As library service moves in the direction of consultation and counseling, application of our body of theoretical knowledge to more unpredictable situations and needs will also be a challenge for professional librarians, and our approach to library education might need to change.
It is helpful, I think, to look at how legal education has developed to see where those changes might lie. Lawyers were originally trained through apprenticeships, as, indeed, were most professionals. The unique feature of an apprenticeship is that the training happens inside the process of applying legal rules to specific cases. Although the apprentice would study the theory behind that application, there was no disjunction between theoretical study and application; the apprentice was involved from the start in real world counseling of clients.
When legal education moved into the classroom, the revolution that made that change successful was the case-study method pioneered by Harvard Law Dean (and one-time librarian) Christopher Columbus Langdell. Rather than learning legal rules and theory first, then trying to apply them, lawyers are taught by examining actual cases that apply the law being studied, from which they must extrapolate the rules, exceptions and qualifications that make up that body of legal knowledge. It is hard work to do this, but not as hard, I think, as it would be to actually practice law without this sort of inductive training. Lawyers who learn the law from within actual cases are being trained in application, even if they neither realize it nor much care for it.
As academic librarianship moves more and more to a consultancy model, our education ought, in my opinion, begin to mirror this model of “application first.” We should begin with real instances of needs felt by faculty and students, whether those needs be for description of a unique digital resource that is being created, for preservation of a data set in an unfamiliar or difficult format, or for resources that are usable in a project that will be available to all on the open web. From the process of seeking solutions to those specific and always unique problems, the theoretical knowledge that defines our profession will emerge, but it will be grasped in a new way, as a tool born out of application. Law students are always told that the goal of their education is to be able to “think like a lawyer.” Likewise it is most important that information professionals be able to think like a librarian and take that skill into unique and new situations; an approach that will lead our patrons to appreciate the newly-developing role of “library counselor.”