28th BIALL Conference
Bridging the Gap
Newcastle Upon Tyne, 5th - 8th September, 1997.
This is a Conference Report published on 31 October 1997.
Citation: Browning H, '28th BIALL Conference, Bridging the Gap', Conference Report, 1997 (3) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/confs/97_3bial/>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1997_3/biall/>
This year's conference of the British and Irish Association of Law Librarians covered a wide range of topics under its theme of 'bridging the gap'. Unlike the previous conference in Jordanstown, the issue of information technology was fairly muted, although this can be partly explained by the disruption of the conference by the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, which led to a number of presentations being cancelled. However, the benefits and the dilemmas presented by IT within the profession were mentioned in the speeches about the importance of professional development and dominated at the Academic Special Interest Group meeting, which focused on two of the Electronic Library Progamme projects, TAPin and ResIDe.
In the presentation on the Training and Awareness Programme in Networks (TAPin), Phil Stant (University of Central England) discussed the ways in which IT can benefit lawyers in academic institutions. The aim of the project is to improve 'the quality of teaching and research staff output by identifying staff information needs and developing information skills.' By targeting academic staff, there should be a cascade effect with students and therefore, eventually, the whole profession coming to understand the benefit of the resources available on CD-ROM, on-line databases and the Internet. The main method of 'spreading the word' that has been practised so far is a presentation to academics in the law department explaining the differences between the electronic bibliographic tools and indicating useful World-Wide Web sites (such as Findlaw, and Hansard) and the uses of discussion groups and mailing lists.
A balanced view of the project was presented with the unexpected benefits of participation including the fact that the librarian's status improved to equal standing with the academics and that it aided good rapport between the library and the department. The project demonstrated that academic staff were interested in what IT could do for them However, concern was expressed about the fact that networked information support was a responsibility that was simply being added to the other activities of the law librarian meaning that it often cannot receive the attention that it deserves. It was shown that demands upon the librarian can actually increase once the academics have seen the potential benefits of electronic information and want to exploit it fully. The question of what will happen when the project ends in January 1998 has yet to be addressed.
ReSIDe is an electronic short loan project that has been undertaken by the University of Western England. Whilst it does not directly involve the law department at the moment, Christine Dugdale explained the general advantages and disadvantages of the idea and the model being used in Bristol. The security of material in electronic format contrasted with the, unfortunately, all too familiar situation of a printed law report being torn out or text book being hidden. This advantage was closely followed by the improved accessibility of resources - 24 hours, multi-user and multi-location. Distance learners with access to a networked PC would benefit greatly from the system. However, the time it takes to scan the material into the database and potential network bandwidth difficulties mean that the day that electronic short loan replaces the hard copy version is still far away. There are also, inevitably, the training implications of the change, although these will decrease as electronic information becomes a familiar concept. The importance of the cascade effect of persuading academics to use the system and to encourage their students to do so was demonstrated once again.
The project has also examined as a 'spin off' the usefulness of a current awareness database in an academic library. The contents pages of journals to which the university subscribes are scanned into the database as soon as the journal arrives and then searches can be performed to alert staff and students to new research in their subject area. The fact that the institution is doing this itself provides the benefit that the individual knows that s/he can obtain the article immediately rather than having the frustration of finding material in a commercial database and then having to wait to obtain it via Inter-Library Loan or having to pay to receive it by fax from a service, such as Uncover. As long as printed journals continue to dominate academic libraries, the utility of such a database is clear. The copyright issues of this database and electronic short loan have been addressed by the project but were passed over briefly in the presentation.
The benefits and problems presented by the increasing prominence of electronic legal information in both academia and the private sector will be a continual thread running throughout BIALL conferences. This year's conference actually demonstrated the fact that it is now an integral part of the job of a law librarian by not making it a separate issue. Next year's conference, however, at the Guildhall in Portsmouth from 11th-14th September will move IT back up the agenda with the theme being 'Books, bytes and boats'