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Helen Garner

Keeping the shelves in order

Helen Garner tells us about her time as a law librarian at Freshfields and Oxford University’s Bodleian Law Library (BLL).

How did you join Freshfields?

While at the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, my best friend, who was working at Freshfields, said the firm needed a cataloguer. I applied and was invited for an interview with Liz Hagan, who headed up the library team at the time but has since retired.

I didn’t hear anything for over a week, so assumed I hadn’t been successful. However, my friend then called me and asked why I hadn’t accepted the job. It transpired that my offer letter had been sent to the wrong address – a somewhat inauspicious start to my relationship with Freshfields!

What do you remember of your time with the firm?

After that unfortunate miscommunication, things soon improved as not long after I started in April 1993, everyone at Freshfields received a bottle of Moët & Chandon champagne to celebrate the firm’s 250th anniversary!

I was hired to manage Freshfields’ library catalogue – a physical ‘database’ of indexed cards showing all the publications in the library – and maintain the firm’s collection of around 600 looseleaf titles.

So far, so 20th century. But with the digital age upon us, I got involved in helping the library set up a computer catalogue using a database system called Stairs. This has since been replaced but at the time represented a technological leap for the library and the firm more broadly.  

I also acted as the firm’s library liaison for the Tokyo office. At one point, I was asked by the office managing partner to source a manual for his Land Rover, which involved contacting various car dealerships. Another time I was asked to purchase an antiquarian book for the president of the Japanese Law Society. This meant spending hours looking through the collection at Wildy and Sons, a well-known second-hand legal bookshop in London.

Perhaps one of my most vivid memories was when Liz Hagan asked me to deliver a legal research skills course to the firm’s trainee solicitors. I hadn’t trained anyone before and so was very nervous. But with Liz’s encouragement, I took the plunge. At the end of my first session, I got a round of applause from my trainees, which had me reaching for the tissues.

What happened after you left Freshfields?

In 2004, I took a librarian position at a US law firm White & Case. But, keen to leave London, I applied for a position at the BLL. It was a great opportunity for which my Freshfields experience obviously came in useful. I started as an information resources librarian in August 2004 and in 2018 became the Bodleian’s law librarian after Ruth Bird retired.

How does the BLL compare to a typical law firm library?

Like Freshfields, the BLL goes back to the 18th century. However, one major difference is the volume of materials. Freshfields and other law firms tend to keep only the most up-to-date editions while the Bodleian has to provide for those studying legal history as well as the law as it currently stands. This means we keep all the old volumes – for example, we’ve got every edition of Chitty on Contracts, an important reference for anyone advising on contract law in the UK and common-law jurisdictions more generally. It means that the BLL has over half a million physical titles on the shelves.

Like law firm libraries, the BLL offers an extensive range of legal databases, such as Westlaw, Practical Law and Lexis. But we also benefit from an extensive collection of academic online resources that complement the legal resources. The entire collection of the Bodleian libraries amounts to over 12 million physical items, over 80,000 e-journals, over 800 databases, and an extensive array of special collections some of which can be seen at Digital Bodleian.

How has the pandemic affected the BLL?

In March 2020, when the UK went into its first lockdown, the library had to close like most other premises. However, some first-year students were preparing for their examinations, so we had to deal with lots of panicked requests for materials. At first, this was quite stressful for everyone concerned. But as we could access a lot electronically, calm soon prevailed.

Thankfully the library reopened in September 2020. With COVID-secure measures in place, such as more space between seating, capacity was significantly reduced. So to manage demand, the Bodleian libraries introduced a booking system. That was fine over the summer. But when the students returned en masse in the autumn, we were full all the time. In fact, with other facilities still closed, the library almost became the heart of university life.

A tricky period was delivering the law faculty’s Legal Research and Mooting Skills Programme (LRMSP), which aims to help first-year undergraduates learn how to use legal resources effectively. Normally held in person, in one week in June we had to transfer the Moot meetings to Microsoft Teams, which took a great deal of work. The June 2020 course was delayed till November 2020 and then ran to schedule in June 2021, with 65 Moot courts held over the course of five days, which was a logistical challenge to say the least.

To support law students during the academic year, we offered a free scanning service so that items could be requested from the print collection, although each request had to be checked for copyright compliance. To make the service quicker, we were supplied with a state-of-the-art Bookeye scanner. We have supplied over 2,000 items via the service. Further scans have been made to support students via the university’s online reading list management system called ORLO. It’d be fair to say the library staff are now expert scanners!

What does the future hold?

With many students deferring in 2020 and record A-level results in 2021, we’re planning for a big intake this autumn. That’s going to mean a busy time running inductions and delivering the LRMSP – either in person or virtually. And like any good library, we’ve also got lots of new stock coming in. It’s our job to get all those volumes on the shelves – I just hope we can find the space!