Newsletter of the Association of Library and Information Science Students (ALISS)




 title of the newsletter: The Silverfish


April/May 2004

Vol VIII Issue IV

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Academic Law Librarianship, Not Just for Lawyers

By Scott Matheson, MLIS Law Library Program alumni 2001
Scott Matheson is the Reference and Government Documents Librarian at the Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.

In many ways, working in an academic law library is like working in any other academic library; there are some important differences though. What I do over the course of a day is not that different from what my colleagues across the street in the main library do, but the details of some of the work are very law-specific. One of the biggest advantages of working in an academic setting is the range of expertise in the library system — a great plus in today’s increasingly interdisciplinary academy.

I am “reference and government documents librarian” so I may start my day by checking e-mail and voicemail for reference requests that come in from faculty, then end the day working on maintaining the documents collection. Somewhere in the middle I usually manage to answer student questions, work on lesson plans, get in a little staff supervision, update a web page or two and work on committees for library- and university-wide programs.

The reference part of my work is largely what you would expect from taking LIS 520. I collect queries and work with patrons to help them articulate what it is they really want to know, then show them how to find it. We get questions in person, on the phone, through e-mail or our chat service; frequently we get referrals from other libraries on campus. Because we are subject specialists, we can help patrons understand what materials will be available and how to find them even when they are not familiar with law or the U.S. legal system. The reference staff members use our experience interacting with patrons to help with collection development, advising on general items and doing specific reviewing for our individual specialties.

In addition to the specialized work we do in law, and sometimes within sub-fields of law, we have the chance to do general reference duty staffing the virtual reference service, when questions come from all over campus. It helps keep us on our toes and aware of what the basic resources are in many subject areas. Usually we get the patron started then refer to the subject specialist for follow-up.

In many academic libraries, and especially in law libraries, reference librarians are also instructors with varying levels of faculty status. We guest-lecture in various courses in addition to teaching our own, research-specific classes. Research instruction is considered so important in American legal education that it is a requirement for law school accreditation . In many schools, the job of formally teaching research falls to the librarians. Because of this teaching requirement, academic reference positions sometimes require a law degree; however most librarian positions in a law library (and even reference positions in non-academic libraries) only require an MLIS.

The government documents part of my work involves managing the Federal Depository Library Program collection in the law library. It’s a relatively small collection, but a challenge to manage because it is integrated into the rest of our collection and is largely a serials collection. For those who have taken the excellent Government Publication class (526) we’re an 11% selective. If you want to know what that means, take the class — the government publishes something for everyone’s library, really!

You don’t have to go to law school or be a lawyer to be a law librarian. Many of the lights of our profession are not lawyers. While you’re at UW, you have a unique opportunity to take multiple classes in law librarianship — take advantage of it if you’re considering special libraries. Although some academic law libraries prefer for reference librarians to have both a JD and an MLIS, many do not require it, and some will support you if you choose to pursue one once you have a taste of working in a law library.

For more readings on what academic law librarians actually do, I recommend Mary Whisner's column "Practicing Reference" in Law Library Journal . Or stop by the Marian Gould Gallagher Law Library and visit with the staff, ask a classmate in the law librarianship program or attend a Law Librarians of Puget Sound meeting.


ABA Standards for Approval of Law Schools, Standard 302(a)(1) and (c)(1), requiring instruction in legal skills, including legal research. Available at (last visited April 3, 2004). 

The law librarians’ professional association, the American Association of Law Libraries, also offers scholarships for librarians interested in furthering their educations. See



"You don’t have to go to law school or be a lawyer to be a law librarian. Many of the lights of our profession are not lawyers."








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