Arriving at the headquarters of the Ministry of Justice, I was struck by its imposing concrete modernity, a contrast to the opulent leather chairs and majestic fireplaces of the House of Commons Library. Rachel Forrest, Assistant Librarian at the Ministry of Justice, gave us a tour of the resources in the airy, modern and colourful library. With 90,000 potential users, the MoJ library caters for a wide range of professionals, including lawyers, psychologists, economists and statisticians. As well as supplying books and journals to users, the library also keeps all documents produced by the Ministry of Justice, preserving the ‘corporate memory’ of the department.
We were given a detailed introduction to the classification schemes and user statistics of the library, but I was most impressed by the sheer significance of the books and journals on the immaculate shelves – these sources are the authority on the law of the land, determining how justice is defined, protected and enforced. The shelves house a cornucopia of subjects, ranging from race-related crime to youth justice, sentencing policy to rehabilitation, weaving together political, legal, statistical and sociological works. Uniquely, the Ministry of Justice holds the complete set of Inspectorate Reports into the United Kingdom’s prisons. The Ministry of Justice generates a vast amount of statistics, and these are available in the library and on the intranet, with some figures dating back to the 1800s. As well as statistics, the library collates all the bills and amendments that are generated in the passage of an Act through Parliament, indexing the material and preserving it as a complete history of the nation’s law.
The library team of six staff includes four Assistant Librarians who rotate between areas, meaning that all each member gets to develop their skill-set and specialisms. These rotations include Customer Services, Cataloguing and Classification, and Marketing. Librarians at the Ministry of Justice undertake background research for Parliamentary Questions, a task necessitating incredible accuracy. Another task they undertake involves media searches and media-tracking. A large part of the librarians’ work centres on literature-searching – gathering all information available on a topic requested by an analyst or researcher, which can include books, journal articles, newspaper articles and government material – providing evidence for policy-making processes. The separate library team at the Royal Courts of Justice is responsible for providing access and materials for all the judges in the UK – a herculean task when you consider the magisterial courts, county courts and tribunals, as well as the High Courts.
Perhaps the most useful part of the visit was the chat we had on careers and law librarianship as a profession. It was quite a surprise to hear that none of the librarians in the Ministry of Justice library had law degrees and qualifications – they all originate from Library and Information Service backgrounds. I found this particularly encouraging, as I had looked into law librarianship but had been demotivated after reading a haughty law library book which claimed law degrees as prerequisite for the profession. Emma Child, the newest member of the team, is from a health and academic library background, possessing little previous law knowledge before she commenced work at the Ministry of Justice. It was lovely to hear that she had enjoyed studying Librarianship at Sheffield University (where I’m headed) and to hear her passion for her new law role. Both members of staff assured us that training is made available on the job, which sounds perfect! Rachel recommended visiting law firms’ libraries and making the most of courses, training materials and online information provided by BIALL, the British and Irish Association of Law Librarians. She also recommended a visit to the Inns of Courts, which she says offer a sense of the history of the law, and I hope we can arrange a trainee visit!
Of all the visits I’ve attended, the staff at the Ministry of Justice library seemed the most positive about our chances of succeeding in this career, extolling the benefits of studying for a library qualification and sharing their enthusiasm for the variety, flexibility and challenges of their work. In a time of recession, these librarians are taking every opportunity to develop personally and professionally, to run a successful library, and to enjoy their work. They believe that we can do the same, and I hope that we can share this optimism.