Peering into the Fog: The Future of People in the Law Library of the Future


A few years ago, I started a summer book club for my law school faculty, staff, and students. Mostly we’ve read literature – the sort of books that are sometimes difficult to make yourself pick up and read, but that stick with you and you are glad afterward that you did it. Needless to say, the discussion groups were small for some of those books! This summer, I changed tack and decided we would only read fun stuff. Beach reads, if you will. Enter Scythe by Neal Shusterman.

Cover of Neal Shusterman's book Scythe
Cover of Neal Shusterman’s book Scythe

Scythe is set in a post-mortal world. Humans no longer feel pain and they no longer need to age or die. Computational power is essentially infinite. Artificial intelligence has advanced so far that ‘the cloud’ has now become the Thunderhead – a benevolent and all-powerful governing body for the entire planet. The Thunderhead manages all human population optimally so there is no longer war, disease, hunger or want, though there is a tiny problem of overpopulation which threatens to become a much bigger problem. There is no longer any need for human work unless humans want to work. If they do, the Thunderhead will find the right job for them, but this is only to keep humans happy as the Thunderhead could do the work better than any human possibly could.

This book comes to me when I am asking myself what my job will look like in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years. I’m an electronic services librarian and I do a lot of different types of work under that job title. I’m part of a traditional Collection Development department in a typical law school library. Like many other similar departments, we’ve seen many changes in what we do and how we do it. I recently received word that the technical service and ILL functions for a law school in the Midwest have been moved to the main library on campus. This is not the first time I have heard of this type of shift in law library work. These changes are happening in law libraries everywhere, in part because technology has changed library acquisition and information consumption.

Do not take this observation as an entreaty that libraries should remain static simply to maintain a status quo. I think most librarians are on board with that premise. I may be wrong, but I think as a collective, we are generally more open to change than the average bear. In fact, my colleagues have been real leaders where all technology adoption in the law school is concerned. Instead, the question I am pondering is what will be the long-term result of this shift.

In the Scythe world, the Thunderhead is an AI that can answer all questions. While our current-day legal research systems are obviously not at that level, it is easy to see that they strive to remove the need for an intermediary human educator between the database and the user. Can a system achieve that goal? Will a librarian (or whatever we call the Keeper of the Passwords) reasonably be doing due diligence by simply handing a password to a complex legal system to a new user and saying, “Have at it, Kid. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”?

To stretch this thought experiment to the very farthest reaches of the possibilities of technology, will there still be work for human beings in doing traditional librarian duties, such as educating law students, connecting law faculty with research and resources, or supporting practicing attorneys or will humans abdicate these duties to the Thunderhead of the future? If technology advances to a stage where librarians are no longer needed, is it possible to speculate that there may not be a need for any human workers in this tech-infused future? Further, if there is no need for human work, why should human beings work at all?

Now that I have worked myself into a fine existential crisis, I find it is time to return myself to reality. I am going to remind myself that we are human beings living in a human world, which, at least for the foreseeable future, is an interesting mix of analog and digital.  Humans, by their nature, have a need for meaningful work. Libraries and librarians continue to have a role to play in this educational system to contribute information resources, selecting those resources, creating them, teaching students to find and use them, and teaching students how to create the systems of the future. We have that role so long as we are willing to continue to learn and grow with technology. While many still enjoy an analog existence (and studies show many still want to learn with paper rather than looking at a screen) we can also move toward an increasingly electronic world.

Libraries do not have to die in order that an online future may live. It is not counter-intuitive that we might serve all these needs, providing more work than anyone has time to complete. And librarians can be the ones to lead that shift. At least, until the Thunderhead does not need us to do it anymore.