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Classic Wisdom for Contemporary Challenges: The 2021 AALL Conference
Posted On August 3, 2021
More than 1,600 information professionals met July 19–23 in virtual Cleveland (more about that later) for the American Association of Law Libraries’ (AALL) annual conference. Under the conference theme Leading With Wisdom and Insight, they shared a liberal dose of classic wisdom for addressing the unique challenges of our present moment.

Conference Structure and Tech

The conference blended prerecorded and live sessions. Both types were accessed via the eventScribe platform, which offers a range of functions in both web and mobile app versions. Prerecorded sessions were released a week before the official conference start date, with half-hour Q&A sessions with their presenters built into the live program during conference week. These Q&A sessions were conducted via Zoom, which provided the only disappointing aspect of the conference experience: Meeting attendance was limited to 75, which turned out to be too low for demand and shut some would-be attendees out. It was reminiscent of the bad old days of in-person conferences when popular sessions were scheduled in inadequate meeting rooms and latecomers were left out in the hallway straining to hear the dialogue.

Opening and Keynote

The first day was devoted to exhibits and scheduled presentations by vendors. The second day began with the opening general session, introduced by AALL president Emily Florio. The featured speaker was Tina Tchen. Tchen—the daughter of Chinese immigrants, an attorney at a prestigious law firm, a longtime advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, and the former chief of staff to Michelle Obama—reviewed her career, focusing on highlights of her time in the White House. She then described her current work as president and CEO of TIME’S UP Now, a nonprofit that advocates for gender equality and funds legal services for victims of sexual harassment. She also spoke about Care Can’t Wait, an initiative to strengthen the care infrastructure and improve access to child and family care.

Program Themes

The theme of Leading With Wisdom and Insight was particularly apt for this unprecedented year. It reminds us that wisdom and insight, which are not easily attained, are critical to navigating our challenges and building back better. The best of the conference presentations served as vivid illustrations of this point. Here are a few examples.


Library collection management is a challenge that never goes away, but it does evolve over time. By forcing library users to rely on digital content, the pandemic accelerated initiatives to downsize print collections in a way that continues to fulfill user needs, and it increased management attention to the cost-effectiveness of digital resources. Speakers counseled an evidence-based approach, mentioning (among others) tools such as OCLC’s GreenGlass to assess print collections and COUNTER 5-compliant usage data to evaluate digital resources. Others reminded the audience of tried-and-true tools such as ILS and intranet usage reports, of the need to pay attention to internal politics and communication when making cancellation decisions, and using SAML (security assertion markup language) to provide seamless access to digital content.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Several programs addressed aspects of the interrelated needs to include diverse sources and viewpoints in collections, improve access to justice for underserved communities, and diversify the law librarianship profession. The field still has far to go in attracting diverse professionals: The proportion of AALL members identifying as nonwhite was reported variously as between 12% and 20%. A variety of change initiatives were discussed, including the University of Arizona’s Knowledge River, ALA’s Spectrum Scholarship Program, and South Dakota’s rural recruitment program. AALL was called upon to improve its tracking of member diversity and recruitment of diverse professionals. Common characteristics of successful programs include institutional commitment, funding, mentoring, training, and strong individual commitment to following through.


Management-related sessions focused on challenges stemming from the pandemic and the next challenge of adapting to a post-pandemic world. The pandemic drove a sudden transition to working from home (now abbreviated simply as WFH). The consensus was that the resulting technical challenges, while real, were relatively easily overcome. The greater tasks involved restructuring work and influencing organizational behavior to cope with new, growing demands while building morale, motivation, and engagement. Well-prepared, astute managers reported finding positive outcomes, such as expanding workplace flexibility (including flexible hours) and using workflow management tools to improve staff collaboration—both of which, it was reported, improved the responsiveness and quality of the library’s services. Still, staff communications demanded increased management attention, and there was the new challenge of setting work/life boundaries: When you’re at home all day and evening, how do you define being “at work” and separate it from not being at work? With the pandemic now subsiding (we hope) and institutions developing their policies for the “next normal” mix of returning to the office and WFH, the next challenge will be to implement institutional policies.

Marketing and Service Delivery

The pandemic was bound to upend marketing and service delivery plans and programs, and yet those librarians who adapted tried-and-true principles to their environment seem to have prospered. At least one law firm librarian reported a steady increase in attorney requests. Other presenters seemed pleased with their ability to get out of their virtual library zones to attend virtual meetings of attorneys and faculty. Some kept up the flow of communication by issuing digital newsletters or placing articles about digital library services in firm-wide or school-wide publications. A common occurrence was that attorneys and faculty members were so in need of help to adapt that they were quite receptive to overtures from their librarians. When it came to actually delivering services, one strategy to assure quality was to emphasize effective reference interviewing—the subtle set of skills and techniques taught in every library and information science degree program. Innovative services were presented as well, including competitive intelligence in law firms and a collaborative initiative to foster faculty learning communities focusing on distance learning and teaching in a law school.


Innovations in technology never stop, so programs devoted to new tools and tech are a mainstay of professional conferences. This year, much of the AALL event’s focus was on the challenges of communications technology and the skills needed to support WFH. However, other technologies were addressed too. Project management, collaboration, and workflow management were prominent among them. Tools mentioned included (a live transcription tool), FireShot (screen capture), Asana (project management), and Visualping (website change detection). A session on AI-based software designed to analyze legal briefs reminded the audience of the importance of doing your homework. A team of academic law librarians analyzed four commercial products designed to accomplish the task and found major variations in their performance. They concluded that while the tools can be useful, there is a risk that faculty members and students (and practicing attorneys) can overuse them, misuse them, and become too dependent on a single tool. In other words, they present yet another challenge for librarians in introducing and managing IT.

Next Year in Denver?

This year’s conference was originally planned for Cleveland. Despite its virtual nature, organizers made significant efforts to highlight the intended host city, including a local highlights webpage and virtual tours of local museums and libraries. In terms of engaging members and providing valuable learning, the event seemed very successful. Attendance was up by about a third (from last year’s 1,200 to 1,600-plus), many sessions attracted hundreds of attendees, and the Zoom call limit of 75 for live Q&A follow-ups to prerecorded sessions proved inadequate more than once. Still, AALL hasn’t given up on holding in-person conferences. In her opening remarks, Florio referred to the event as “AALL’s second virtual conference, and hopefully our last.” The conference website advertised Denver as 2022’s in-person venue, and more than one session presenter closed by vowing to see everyone there next year. Much depends on the pandemic, of course, and it will be interesting to see how the plans develop.

Dave Shumaker is a retired clinical associate professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a former corporate information manager. He is also the author of The Embedded Librarian: Innovative Strategies for Taking Knowledge Where It’s Needed (Information Today, Inc., 2012), and he founded SLA’s Embedded Librarians Caucus in 2015.

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