Adjusting to Different Cultures of Information – Shifting Orientation from FOIA to Confidentiality of Information

Amanda Brooks, Head Editor, INALJ British Columbia

Adjusting to Different Cultures of Information – Shifting Orientation from Freedom of Information to Confidentiality of Information

Amanda BrooksI always felt that freedom of information was core to my professional philosophy while I worked in public and academic libraries. In the public library, many people were happy being in their own world (myself included much of the time) but most who sought out the librarians wanted to share something about themselves or see guidance. In academic libraries, most students focused on getting sources for their coursework as easily as possible. This often meant circumventing the physical library in favour of online sources but the principle of accessing information as freely as possible remained the same.

I do not mean to imply that I saw a stark divide between information freedom and privacy. The right of patrons to keep their borrowing records and personal information private was paramount. Courses in the art of the reference interview made me closely examine how apparently straight-forward questions would be laden with judgement and put the patron on the defensive. Still, it was definitely a culture shock to transition into a corporate environment where managing information flow largely meant restricting access to that information. When I accepted the position of Conflicts Information Specialist in a law firm, I had to sign multiple confidentiality agreements and I learned there were different hierarchical levels to use when I sought to give or provide information.

Ted Tjaden’s article “The Role of Law Firm Culture in Knowledge Management” emphasizes the idea that “the heart of a good KM [knowledge management] culture is trust”. Trust does not have to be conflated with a willingness to share all information. Certain information is valuable because the system acts as proof that only a select few had access to that information and legal professionals need to know their boundaries so that they can work freely and confidently within them. The work of the information specialist builds the trust that this confidentiality is preserved.

Secondly, the legal professionals have to trust that we are not wasting their time when we hold up their requests with our own requests for more information. Because legal work means maintaining the confidentiality of their client’s information, they tend to maintain this level of secrecy even with the information managers. Without clear explanations for why some information is needed, our department can meet resistance to getting the information we need to proceed with searches or file openings.

Drawing on my course work and experience conducting reference interviews, I have reconfigured its principles to emphasize brevity of questions and explanations of why the questions are necessary. Understanding the types of information and language used by each law practice group is essential to framing those questions. Our department has also initiated a new training program for new legal assistants on the types of information we need to conduct searches and open legal files. I think this is going to be a great opportunity to see how legal assistants view our and to clear up any miscommunication about information requirements.

When adjusting to a new corporate culture with a different attitude towards information sharing, keep yourself focused on the people and the value of information. I was drawn to the library profession because I wanted to help people find the information they need and that is still true in my current work. My true clients are not library patrons or the firm’s clients but the lawyers and their legal assistants. They need information but also need certain barriers to information are necessary to preserve the privacy of the clients involved. Information is far from free but my training and skills as a searcher and information manager allow it to be more readily available.