A Change for AALL: The Time is Right, The Name is Right

The American Association of Law Libraries, founded in 1906 and my preferred professional association home since I joined it in 1989 as a library school student, may be ready to change its name. I say “may” because, of course, it is up to a majority vote of its membership whether to agree with the unanimous recommendation of its executive board to change the institution’s name to the Association for Legal Information. Although I am privileged to serve on that executive board, this post reflects my own personal beliefs and is not intended to represent any official statement by the association, its officers, or other executive board members.

Any name change, whether for an individual, a business firm, or a not-for-profit organization, involves strong emotions. After all, our name is part of what defines each of us. Expectant parents pore over baby name books in search of the perfect name for their child. Human names connote a family history, such as Cooper or Smith, or a place, such as Kimberly (“the king’s meadow or field”), or a familial relationship, e.g., Mackenzie. For a business, the name may represent the founders (H.&R. Block), a line of business (General Electric), a particular product (Coca Cola), or may contain made up words (as in the second word of Eastman Kodak.) For an organization, the name may tell you about its membership and purposes (American Bar Association, American Association of Law Libraries), an activity (Human Rights Watch), or a name that may not trigger the identity or purpose until you learn more about it (Acumen.) Companies and non-for-profits go through their own choices, sometimes also agonizing, to change a name. Some examples: Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC, American Association of Retired Persons to AARP. In the latter’s case, the organization found that its name was limiting interest to people who had left the work force, when its benefits would be useful to many who were still employed.

I like the proposed name, and in a moment let me show you how its individual words work together. Our present name, American Association of Law Libraries, was created nearly 110 years ago, when law libraries were both places and institutions that were the home of organized legal information in law offices and law schools. Librarianship itself was a relatively new profession, with the first American school of library science founded at Columbia University in 1887. At its founding the association members were synonymous with their institutions, and an association of law libraries made sense as the name of a group organized, in founder A.J. Small’s words, “for the advancement of the libraries and cooperative work among the law librarians.”

Today the word library remains important, but it has taken on new meanings, and many libraries have ceased to exist as separate places within their parent institutions. This does not mean that librarianship is not as important as ever, but we in the profession know that we have taken on many new duties. We also have taken on many titles in addition to librarian. These include information professional, information analyst, legal technologist, chief information officer, chief knowledge officer, and even informationist. Many of the schools from which we received our professional degrees have recognized the changed environment. Some in steps, such as my alma mater Florida State University, which started as the School of Library Service, then became the School of Library and Information Studies, and is now the School of Information. Similar name changes have been implemented at UNC-Chapel Hill, which has put “Information” in front of “Library Science,” and at University of Michigan, University of Washington, and Syracuse University, among many others that use only the word “Information” as the subject of the school’s name.

For me, “Association” in the context of “Association for Legal Information” means people associating with each other. Freedom of association is an implicit right within the First Amendment, and it foremost applies to individuals. “Legal Information” is what each of us works with every day, whether it be statutes, cases, regulation, articles about the law, blog posts, or any form of expression that contributes to or participates in a discussion of society’s rules. Regardless of which job title we put after our name, we work with legal information. The preposition “for” between these two concepts strikes me as showing we are not ourselves made “of” legal information, but that we are “for” it in every way imaginable. We are for its accessibility to all, we are for teaching law students to understand it, we are for helping lawyers and nonlawyers find it and use it to their best advantage. We are for an informed citizenry that can understand the legal information that defines its rights and obligations.

The term library remains dear to me and I am proud to be called a librarian. But today, librarian is too narrow a word upon which to rely to tell those outside our group what we are all about. We are not a disjoined collective of different job titles who want to be recognized. We are people who are for legal information, and for our fellow citizens who want and need to understand it.

7 thoughts on “A Change for AALL: The Time is Right, The Name is Right

  1. Ken,
    This is an excellent and thoughtful reflection, and I particularly like the observation about our being broadly “for” legal information. I still think/fear that the profession you describe remains more aspiration than reality. Law and its libraries have been very slow-moving. The reason for this isn’t bad, at its core, to the extent it comes from a sense of professional duty to be good curators of knowledge and mindful of both current and future needs of society. But the time is long past for us to be concerned primarily with how those professional values and duties “translate” into a fundamentally transformed environment of legal and scholarly communication.

    BUT I am no longer working in a library. There were a lot of purely local cultural difficulties, troubled legacies of troubled past leadership, and fairly nasty Dean-related political issues in my institution. But a significant part of why I didn’t remain is the implacable opposition of one faction to even fairly modest managed change (moving away from staffing/operations structured fundamentally around a business model of acquiring and processing serial print; (belatedly) accelerating budget movement away from serial print; and especially to devoting an initially pretty modest share of resources to creation/curation/visibility of our scholarly output as opposed to a purely ‘consumption side’ role in (re-)acquiring and warehousing it).

    And this wasn’t just “capture by our best customers” in terms of faculty attached to their favorite supplemented treatise/newsletter. Apart from a few, generally pretty reasonable, special requests the faculty presented with budgets and numbers were entirely accepting of what the leadership team and I were proposing. The resistance at its core was from librarians who were unwilling or unable to see a future for themselves/us that embraced any meaningful change from decades past.

    Acknowledging that mine is a response most relevant to the academic librarians, the point is that change that we don’t make/embrace won’t equal a lack of change. It will instead equal Jim Milles’ darker scenario of “doom.”

    But also that there is still a lot of resistance out there “in the ranks,” and that even in more ‘change-forward’ domains the transformation we’ve “done” (in business/operations design and in budgets) has lagged far behind the change we’ve “talked.”

    1. Andrew,
      I largely agree with your initial observation. Much of what we do is setting aspirational goals and then finding the early steps to move toward them. Renaming the association is one of those early steps, and as Laozi wrote, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

  2. Ken, I’m almost with you on this. However, I don’t think we’re an association for legal information. I think we’re an association for legal information professionals. (For a similar reason, I can never remember if the second L in AALL is libraries or librarians.) To me “Association for Legal Information” sounds like an organization for the information itself, not the people.

  3. I’m fine with either “library” or “legal information.” I do dislike the that the suggested change would result in us having the acronym ALI. When I see/hear it, I think American Law Institute. If the current ALI was in an unassociated field, or had just recently adopted the name, I wouldn’t bother to bring it up. However, ALI has been ALI for almost 100 years. As someone who frequently must clarify SEALS v. SEAALL, I see the change to ALI as just asking for confusion. If we do decide to change, perhaps we could go to AALI or ALIS or some other title that a person more creative than I could suggest?

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