The New Library Science: An Interview with Janet Sinder, Director of the BLS Law Library

Janet Sinder, new BLS Library Director. Photo used with Ms. Sinder’s permission.

Janet Sinder, the new director of Brooklyn Law School’s library, is fascinated by how technology is changing what a library does. She became director in May and says the library is in good shape. “I don’t see anything at the library that’s in desperate need of change. I think this is a well-run library and that the faculty and students are pretty happy with the library.”

But libraries are indeed changing. Technology is altering books, magazines and directories in vital ways. “The question is how quickly the library should move,” says Sinder. “Some people want e-books and some people want print books.”

Buying an e-book is more complex than purchasing a print book. When the library buys an e-book, it doesn’t just make a purchase — it executes a contract. For example, the library may have the option to purchase a one-user license, a three-user license or an unlimited license. Some e-book licenses come with print limitations.

Databases can raise more complex issues. Many contracts for databases contain confidentiality clauses. Confidentiality clauses make it more difficult to determine whether the library is getting a good deal — and make it easier for publishers to sell the same product at different prices to different libraries (potentially offering it for free to Harvard without letting anyone else know).

What happens if the publisher goes out of business? Could a library lose access to a critical database? Should a library buy the data and try to run its own copy of the database? Sinder is the editor of the Law Library Journal. She recently published an article about a library that decided to run a major database in house. They made it work, but time and resources made it expensive, and the resulting interface was not nearly as sophisticated as the commercial product. The cost is too high for most libraries. Law school libraries that are part of a large university can share the cost of some databases with other libraries at the same institution, an advantage that is not available to Brooklyn Law School.

The Free Access to Law Movement (FALM) could change things radically. Its goal is to make free legal resources available online. Most students have come across Cornell’s Legal Information Institute (LII) when Googling important legal reference materials, such as the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The LII was founded in 1992, predating parts of the World Wide Web, and is seen as the inspiration for the FALM. Sinder believes that law school journals, at least, should be made available to everyone online.

For all the change in materials from print to electronic, usage patterns are not changing. “First years use materials on reserve like nutshells and hornbooks,” says Snider. “People taking seminars may use specific e-books or print books. People on journals learn to use specific databases, some of which are on Westlaw and LexisNexis. Some use the Bureau of National Affairs for newsletters on specific topics, such as the Daily Labor Report. “Professors each may use the library differently.

Sinder knows that the library is an important study space. “I started on May 1, during finals, and I saw how many students were in the library. It was very full.” There’s not much she can do about conditions during finals. The director of the law library can do many things, but she cannot easily add space.

Sinder says she is happy to receive suggestions about ways to improve the library or library services for students.

Law Librarianship as an Alternative Legal Career

Sinder has always been interested in research. After graduating from the University of Michigan Law School, she worked as an appellate defender in Springfield, Illinois. “I did a lot of research and writing and I liked the analysis the best. I liked reading the records, figuring out the issues. I wanted to get into academics. I like to do research and have time to think about issues.”

Adding a Masters in Library Science to a J.D. usually takes a year. People choose to become law librarians for different reasons, but many are influenced by their time at law school. “Many librarians worked at the circulation desk at the law library while in law school. Some people go to library school because they had a good experience as a research assistant working for a professor.”

(Full Disclosure: I told her I was a research assistant this summer.)

“Brooklyn Law School offers a JD-MLS degree,” Sinder says. (This program is offered in conjunction with the Pratt Institute.)

As a law librarian, Sinder continues to contribute to the research work of many professors at the law school. As the editor of the Law Library Journal, Sinder also works with librarians and professors across the country. Sinder is teaching one course this year, Advanced Legal Research (offered in the Spring). People choose to become law librarians for many different reasons. For Sinder, it was a love of research.

As a professor, Sinder is interested in pedagogy. One criticism of the standard law school curriculum is that it doesn’t teach teamwork very well, because it’s so competitive. “One year, I gave students the option of working on a final project together, but if they did, they would both get the same grade,” Sinder says. “In business school, where a team gets the same grade, the idea is to force people to make sure that their part gets done, and to manage each other. Very few students took me up on this offer. Two women here were already close friends did a joint project, but nobody else. When you’re teaching a small research class, you have the opportunity to try new ways of teaching (such as experimenting with wikis and blogs).”

Moving to Brooklyn

Sinder is enjoying Brooklyn. “I moved directly to here from Baltimore. I grew up on Long Island, so I’m kind of a New Yorker, but I have never lived in the city,” she said. “I walk to work — that’s a huge benefit of life here. Everyone’s been very nice and welcoming. I like that it’s small, and easy to get know everyone who works here. It doesn’t have the bureaucracy of a university.”

Alexander Goldman, ’14, is an incoming Legal News and Events Editor of The BLS Advocate