I used to have sanguine views about the relationship between librarianship and Knowledge Management. I haven’t had any formal education in KM, but I attended an early conference on the subject - the one which the Special Libraries Association organized in St. Louis in 2000. I used to think that librarianship and KM would co-exist and even support each other - until I worked at a law firm with a strong KM department. In fact the library is a part of KM and its rebranded name reflects this. My experience there has made me reevaluate my opinion about the ideal relationship between the library and KM.
My advice to a librarian interested in applying for a job at a large law firm is to find the answers to the following questions (please note, I’m not suggesting to ask all of these questions in a job interview context):
- Is there a National Library Manager who is a librarian?
- Are library staff allowed to develop the research sections of the intranet, or is that reserved for specialist KM staff?
- Are library staff allowed to work on new technology projects, or is that reserved for specialist KM staff?
- Are librarians, or people aren’t lawyers, allowed to work as Knowledge Managers?
I’m not writing to criticize KM per se, but to express concern at what happens when KM is left in charge of the library - at least from my own experience. I've seen that in this situation, KM ends up cannibalizing the library, creating a two tiered system in which the library is definitely subordinate. The library remains responsible for reference, document delivery and training; time intensive activities which KM doesn’t want to be burdened with. Cataloging remains with the library by default, but it is not appreciated or understood by the KM masters and is marginalized.
KM takes on several higher status activities which the librarians used to be responsible for: liaising and outreach with the users in the practice groups, developing the research section of the intranet, working on new ICT projects and managing the library staff. Because KM is taking on additional work, it needs more people. The trouble is that KM professionals are lawyers and are not cheap. To balance the books, the library is shrunk.
I’m worried that the library could be shrunk to the point where it could be drowned in a bath tub or outsourced without a peep because it has been under-staffed and under-resourced for too long. I’m also concerned that in this KM dominated system, librarians have been deskilled - going from being professionals with opportunities for advancement into occupiers of a dead end job.
This negative experience doesn’t mean that I think that there is no scope for effective and meaningful partnerships and collaboration between KM and the library in law firms. I have just observed that putting KM in charge of the library is not a good idea.