Law Library of Congress is collecting treasures for you
By Hollee Schwartz Temple
Mar 1, 2013, 08:20 am CST
Like many attorneys, Mark Wojcik used to view law libraries as a means to an end. But thanks to an innovative outreach campaign conducted by the Law Library of Congress, Wojcik now relishes the tweets, blog posts and emails that reveal the riches of the world’s largest legal collection.
“It’s like the law library is coming to me,” says Wojcik, a professor at John Marshall Law School in Chicago. “They want to show me their treasures or share with me a secret about how I can use their collections more effectively.”
Even as public libraries slash budgets and critics question their value in the digital information age, the Law Library of Congress has leveraged new technology to reach more users than ever. Since launching its first Twitter account in 2009, the library has attracted more than 40,000 followers; almost 10,000 keep track of updates on Facebook. The end of 2012 brought record page views to the library’s popular In Custodia Legis blog, which covers current legal trends, enhancements in government information access, legal history and international law developments. Primarily written by a team of 15 librarians and lawyers, the blog offers new content each weekday, showcasing the library’s collection and the knowledge of its staff, which includes international law experts. “Before social media, people came to us,” explains Andrew Weber, who leads the Washington, D.C.-based library’s social media efforts. “Now, it’s about pushing information out and having it available where people are looking for it. It’s reaching out to people and trying to be where they are, even if they may not know that we can help them.”
Law Library of Congress reference librarian Margaret Wood, who blogs and tweets on the library’s behalf, became interested in using social media to educate the public after she saw how much information was being disseminated via librarians’ personal Twitter accounts. The institution then realized how useful social media would be to educate the public about its collection and services, she says.
“Legal research is interesting but not incredibly easy,” Wood says. “Through the blog and Twitter, we can help people better understand the legislative process.”
Staff members monitor Twitter conversations, jumping in to suggest when legal research questions might be answered via the library’s popular Ask a Librarian service. Hot topics warrant blog posts, which are designed to be accessible despite rigorous research standards. The most widely read blog posts span a range of legal topics, from Nelson Mandela to slavery in the French colonies to the history of the Mexican constitution. The blog also has conducted interviews with most library staffers, allowing the public a glimpse into the depth of the staff’s expertise, particularly in foreign law, Wood says.
University of Chicago law librarian Lyonette Louis-Jacques follows the blog closely and says she trusts the Law Library of Congress bloggers to curate important legislative developments. She likes to teach patrons about the high-quality resources freely available on the library’s website, often linking from the blog she maintains for her own library.
The library now records its major public events, such as last year’s discussion on revitalizing civics education in public schools led by actor Richard Dreyfuss, and makes them available via YouTube and iTunes U. Going forward, the Law Library of Congress plans to engage even more staff in its social media efforts, especially as it unveils Congress.gov, its new site for comprehensive legislative information. “On Twitter, you can be more active and engaged,” Weber says, “and foster conversation with people interested in the content.”