Blackstone & Saddlebags

I attended the International Association of Law Libraries annual conference held in Oxford in July 2016 thanks to being awarded one of the generous bursaries offered by the group for non-members.

Being a novice court librarian, and with few equivalent services in the UK, the conference was an excellent opportunity for me to learn how other jurisdictions run their court library services. It allowed me to meet a wide range of people (and provoked some quiet jealousy when I heard about the number of staff some people had available to do what we currently do with two staff!). It was also interesting to be able to compare the services and facilities that different court libraries offer and helped to clarify that we are already offering an impressive range of services for such a small team, which was very good to learn!

The conference talks helped me learn a lot more about the common law. Scotland is a mixed jurisdiction as some of its laws originate in the common law whereas other are of civilian origin. Therefore my knowledge of other common law jurisdictions was fairly basic. In fact, I was somewhat confused when a speaker referred to English settlers in America riding “with black stones in their saddlebags”. I assumed this must be some sort of trading goods, for use with local populations, or maybe it was another way of referring to flints, for fire-making, with them having been blackened by previous use…until it occurred to me later that he was referring to Blackstone! The perils of attending a common law conference with only a basic knowledge of some of the standard — to those working with them — common law materials! I imagine I would have provoked as much confusion in attendees from common law jurisdictions if I has told them that we recently tried to determine the correct calculation of time periods using Stair‘s.

I enjoyed the talks on the history of the English Law Reports series, which made me think that I needed to improve my knowledge of the development of the early Scottish law reports series, something I hadn’t really thought about before attending these talks. Getting a quick roundup on the status of Open Access materials internationally was particularly interesting, as I have previously worked in an Open Access support role, and am trying to increase awareness about the availability of OA materials for my users. I was surprised to hear that a proposed reform of English and Welsh family law would be to more closely match the way things are done in Scotland – you always think that maybe other people elsewhere might have better solutions to some problems than your home-grown responses, so it was nice to know that my country is held up as an exemplar of doing something right!

I spent a lot of time taking notes in the sessions and transcribing them later to share them online through Google Drive with other attendees who were not working in their native language, and who found it difficult to simultaneously listen and take notes. This is probably one of the few times being monolingual (inless ye coont Scots iz a’ proppir langwidge) is ever going to be useful for me! It also means I now have notes that I am able to easily share with colleagues as to let them see what was being discussed during the conference.

An ongoing theme with most of the talks was the impact of Brexit…and how we had no idea yet what it will be! It was noticeable that this could have an impact on almost every area covered in the talks: family law, employment law, data protection, international relations, human rights, etc. As a resident of Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU but is subject to the UK decision to leave, this is likely to also have further implications for the law in Scotland, as this makes another independence referendum (where Scots will be given the choice of leaving the rest of the UK or remaining a part of it) almost guaranteed. The possibility of me having to figure out what books to add to, and keep in our collection when Scotland could be out of the EU and in the UK, or out of the UK and in the EU makes collection management and development a bit tricky!

It wasn’t all work though! I arrived early enough to my room at Keble College that I had a few hours to myself to explore Oxford, including visiting a few museums, and get to the top of St. Michael’s Tower to take in the views across the city. The social events were also excellent, ranging from an informal barbecue (although due to the usual British summer weather, this was relocated inside to the impressive dining hall of Keble College) and a drinks reception in a secret garden, to a more formal annual dinner in the Balliol College. All these allowed me to have more informal chats with a wide variety of people.

It also turned out that quite a few people coming internationally had visited Scotland and Edinburgh before going to Oxford for the conference: I wish I’d known, I’d happily have given them a tour of my library! 🙂

The varied schedule of tours and trips to various Oxford libraries was, of course, irresistible – I’ve never met a librarian yet who would turn down the opportunity of a visit to another library! Along with the essential visit to the Bodleian Library to see the Divinity School and gaze in hushed awe at Duke Humfrey’s medieval library, we also got to visit another Oxford library of our choice.

I was thus lucky enough to be able to see All Souls College library, which was beautiful, bright and airy, with wonderfully detailed plasterwork on the ceiling…well, it was in the original part.

The Victorian extension which houses the law collection is a bit more…brown and wooden. Still interesting to see, it’s just quite a difference from the look of the main library area!

While we were there, we got to talk to three of the specialist conservators who were on-site to do their ongoing (I think they said something like 20 years so far) summer book cleaning and conservation work. I do love to see how these highly skilled people work, and they were happy to answer our very random questions, and show us the fabulous old materials they were cleaning, stabilising and creating appropriate enclosures for.

And, I must give huge thanks to our hostess at the All Souls College library, who was very tolerant of a daft librarian who wanted to mess about in the library, doing starjumps….

So, if you haven’t been to an IALL conference before, I’d highly recommend it – the content was excellent, and the opportunity to get to meet and know other professionals from around the world was wonderful! If you can get to the Philippines next year, do it – I was lucky enough to be able to chat with the organisers of next year’s conference, and they were possibly the friendliest, most enthusiastic and welcoming people I have ever met – the 2017 conference is guaranteed to be a brilliant experience!

Jennifer Findlay

Librarian, Supreme Courts of Scotland