The Legal Division is proud to feature John Miller in its April/May Profiles in Law Librarianship series:
A Little Bit About John:
A native of Aberdeen in Scotland, John Miller has been Senior Librarian at the African Law Library since November 2012. He’s based at Globethics.net in Geneva but travels around Africa.
He was previously UNESCO’s Chief Librarian in Paris for six years (with two jobs – running the Library plus carbon auditing UNESCO’s operations worldwide and developing UNESCO’s and the UN System’s Emissions Reduction). Before then, he was Library Director at College of Europe in Bruges for 8 years and prior to that was the Regional Coordinator for British Council Information Services in Eastern and Southern Europe, including Russia and the former Soviet Union. Interesting highlights included the British Council party held inside the Kremlin, and the visiting academic who fell in the carp pond while attempting to get on stage with the belly dancer at the BP Reception in the Baku caravanserai … ! Poignant moments included visiting the British Council offices in Sarajevo several times and walking through No Man’s Land between the Greek and Turkish halves of Nicosia. Previous existences have included stints with USAID in Kazakhstan, running Radio Free Europe Library and being Library Director at Central European University Library in Prague, complete with an unforgettable budget meeting held at 7 AM in the Chief Executive’s Wenceslas Square hotel room, crunching the numbers while assorted bras, underwear and other bits of lingerie flew back and forth over the screens as she got dressed.
In the UK earlier, John was Information Services Director at McKenna’s for six years and at Allen and Overy before that, having come back from seven years with the EU Commission in Luxembourg, Brussels and at the EU Press and Information Office in Paris. Before the EU adventures, there was a brief stint in Falkirk Public Library (where he met his wife – agreeing to go out with him being perhaps her worst ever decision), two years running Ayrshire and Arran Nursing College Library and two years in the Science Library at Aberdeen University. In addition to salaried jobs, John has also done consultancy work with law firms in England and for the EU and ASEAN in Albania, Malaysia and Laos, where he spent several months setting up an Information Centre in the Lao PDR Foreign Ministry. Some of these exploits are chronicled in an article in the Law Librarian ‘Wanderings in Foreign Parts’ Legal Information Management (Volume 1 – Number 4 Winter 2001/02, pp. 40-44).
John has a BA Honours from the Open University, mostly in History and Politics (management of the KGB having proved a useful topic in office warfare ever since) plus half a Scots Law degree from Aberdeen University, in addition to a Certificate in the Identification of Potato Diseases qualifying him to go through a field and tell you why your potatoes are, in fact, dead. He has been a Chartered Librarian since 1977, having studied Librarianship at Manchester Polytechnic, and in 2012 collected a Certificate in Carbon Accounting from Swinburne University in Melbourne. He has recently been asked if he would like to carbon audit Liverpool Cathedral. The Miller family home is in Liverpool, where his wife also works in libraries, the cat occupies the sofa, and four of the kids are still in residence (the other four having scattered to the four winds – eldest daughter is now a solicitor).
John has made presentations at numerous conferences around the world, including SLA in 2008 when he spoke about UNESCO. He has been Chair of the Greening UNESCO Working Group, Vice-Chair of BIALL, Chair of the City Law Librarians Group, Member of the UK Joint Copyright Committee and a Member of Eurolib. Current Memberships include SLA, CALL, IALL, and CILIP. His interests include information service management, climate change, copyright and copyright compliance and legal issues generally, politics and international relations – especially African-related, military history, not sitting beside people who snore on long flights, trying to keep vast hordes of Miller offspring fed, clothed and suitably amused or financially afloat, and living to see freedom from imperialist tyranny at last in 2014 if the Scottish Referendum goes the right way (which, rather sadly, he suspects it won’t).
A Few Questions for John:
What brought you to the legal information industry?
I had been dealing with legal information at the EU Press and Info Office in Paris and worked on the Official Journal in Luxembourg. I first got into mainstream legal information work in 1985 when I resigned from the EU Commission rather than accept a transfer back to the Transport Directorate in Brussels there to crunch statistics. Instead I ended up running the Law Library at Allen and Overy, which in those days had just me (later two assistants) and reported to the Partner responsible for the choice of wallpaper in the firm’s offices. I moved to McKenna and Co the following year and went up with the boom times on an escalating salary until George Soros sank the £ in 1992. This led to a big bloodbath in City law firms –in ours 40% of support staff and many partners were fired. Leading lights in BIALL were falling off their professional perches left, right and centre and it was a scary time. But I’m now glad it happened because it was the big push that forced me to polish up my job-hunting skills and set off really globe-trotting …. and I’ve never stopped since!
Where do you see our industry in 10 years?
I hesitate to engage in futuristic speculations. I recall going to the Library Association Conference in Sheffield in 1980 where there were great crystal ball gazing sessions with Charles Oppenheim etc. and the general feeling on leaving was that paper would be dead within 10 years …. but it simply wasn’t (and even now in large chunks of the world it isn’t). We still employed loose-leaf filers into the 90s. Nobody at Sheffield predicted the internet and everyone got the speed and timescale of change wrong. But change IS now happening faster than it was back in the 1980s when expectations of change were not matched by speed of change.
In fact, there are several legal information ‘industries’ – the information producers and publishers, the business sector (like law firms), the government sector, the academic sector, etc. – they’re all different. Many of the future jobs will be in the production of information resources – as we are doing at African Law Library – and less in the area of reference and reader services, where end-users are increasingly doing all their own research and institutions are building knowledge resources which allow practitioners direct access to what they need to know without going through the middle-man of the librarian. I have spent close to 40 years mostly working in a reader services environment. I came into libraries because I liked answering questions not because I loved cataloguing and classification, but even now I am working almost entirely in a ‘technical services’ capacity creating a new resource. Reference librarians will become like full service gas station attendants, a rare breed. There will be jobs in creating information resources and managing them, but there will be relatively few jobs in personally helping people to find information.
The other big change coming (and indeed already here in the case of China, Russia and certain Arab countries) is the decline in the dominance of English on the Internet. We will see huge efforts coming to fruition in terms of making available legal content in other languages. I was already working on content in Russian for our USAID project 15 years ago. The legal information resource we are creating for Africa will be quadri-lingual from the very start but will eventually encompass more languages, including indigenous African languages as opposed to colonial-era legacy tongues only.
What are you doing to get Future Ready?
Well, first of all, I try to ignore all the ads for Funeral Plans which start arriving once the mailing lists realise you’ve reached ‘a certain age’!!! We are planning accessibility via mobile devices into our African legal information resource. Large numbers of people in Africa have a mobile phone but very few have a computer or even a smartphone and are actively targeting local content, in local languages where resources exist, and information related to Customary Law which is likely to be of increasing importance in Africa in years to come as countries across the continent grow and develop further beyond their colonial legacy frameworks from the past.
And we are looking to develop business and professional contacts further in Kenya, Africa’s ‘Silicon Valley’ and a world leader in things like money transfers by mobile phone, and other fast-developing parts of the continent.
Looking to donor income for project support, India and China rather than the ‘usual suspects’ in the West will be the way to go as their economies grow, and it will be increasingly realistic to look for financial support from Africa. In fact, funding for our current law Library project already comes entirely from African sources.
On a more personal level, it’s important to keep professionally up to date. This means keeping up with the literature (online and off) and keeping in contact with colleagues, and attending relevant meetings and conferences (if possible, speaking at them because information flows then become more 2-way, networking at receptions is easier because people know who you are, and if you’re a speaker it’s easier to get agreement from employers to attend!!
Do you have any advice for people looking to break into the legal information industry?
It clearly helps to have some idea of the law or a willingness to learn because, although of course it’s lawyers who have to advise clients, it may be you who has to actually find it for them. If you plan to work in the US, you’ll probably need a JD but elsewhere you don’t. I only have half a Scots Law degree, for example, and have never found that anyone cared just as long as my employment track record has looked interesting. But it’s harder now to GET that track record, so a law degree could be helpful at the outset.
Other things you will need to do include putting yourself about at meetings or on social networks, because a surprising number of jobs are not advertised. Often times they’ve been filled before expensive advertising has become necessary. Polish up your interview skills too, and learn foreign languages. Business is international. I personally have found that it helps not to be fussy. If offered the job I always say ‘Yes’ because potential employers are looking for commitment and not to quibble about location, which is how I’ve ended up working in places like Kazakhstan and Albania. Most people are not willing or not able to be geographically mobile, so if you are, you have an immediate advantage. Going into the legal information sector may not be the most obvious way to see the world, but it’s worked for me. 60% of my working life has been spent outside the UK.