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Leading LAW Libraries into the Future

New librarian is strong on technology, diversity


For the first time in more than three decades, BU’s Fineman and Pappas Law Libraries have a new director. Ronald Wheeler joined the School of Law January 1, replacing Marlene Alderman, who retired after 32 years.

Wheeler, who is also an associate professor of law and legal research, comes from Suffolk University Law School, where he was director of the Moakley Law Library and an associate professor of legal research. He is also vice president and president-elect of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), and will become president in July.

BU Today: What’s exciting about coming to BU?

Wheeler: It is in a lot of ways a dream job for me. It’s a top-ranked law school with a really talented staff—many of whom have national reputations in the law-library world—and a top-notch collection. And a dean like Maureen O’Rourke, who has a real vision for making the law library a 21st-century model, a forward-thinking library of the future. That’s how I want to spend the rest of my career, achieving that vision.

You wrote an article in 2015 comparing the law library of the future to an episode of The Jetsons. How close are we?

I don’t think we’re anywhere near that, and in fact, I don’t know any libraries that are anywhere near that. The technology is available today to implement things like holographic libraries and other space-age stuff. That kind of technology is not going to be financially feasible for academic libraries for decades. But getting us to move forward along that continuum is my job.

What steps can we take now?

One thing that’s attainable right now is e-textbooks, e-casebooks from certain vendors. When I see students on the Green Line juggling those 5,000-page casebooks on the T—I’ll feel like I have failed as a librarian if they have to read their casebooks on the train like that while everyone else is reading their novels on their Kindles.

You didn’t take a traditional path to this career.

I wanted to major in English literature and my Detroit autoworker dad said, “What are you going to do with that? You’re not a rich kid; you need to get a job.” I took his advice, majored in accounting, and worked for Arthur Andersen for a while—and hated every second of it. So I did what people did in the 1980s when they hated their bachelor’s degree—I went to law school. I did public defender work in Seattle briefly, and then I worked for AIDS nonprofits for almost a decade when literally every one of my gay male friends was dying. And then I sort of did my life reassessment at 30-whatever and went to library school, which was a great decision on my part. It brings together my knowledge and training in the law with my service orientation.

Tell us about your interest in queer legal scholarship.

I am very interested in LGBT issues because I’m gay, but it’s also fascinating to see a whole area of the law develop just since the ’80s. I remember the days when LGBT scholarship was not considered a real discipline, not a real area of the law, and LGBT scholars were not able to get their writing published. And now those very same people are teaching at UCLA and Harvard, and a whole body of scholarship, a legal discipline, has developed. Modern students don’t really understand what it meant to live in a world where you were illegal. When I was in law school, we were fighting sodomy laws in Michigan, which is crazy to think about, but true.

You write a column on diversity for Law Library Journal. Will diversity be a focus of your work at BU?

Because we in academic libraries want to be sure that we serve all our students to the best of our abilities, it behooves us to think about all those issues and ways in which academic content and services may be best altered to reach students of color and queer students—whoever. But for me it’s also important to find a way to communicate the importance of diversity to people for whom diversity has never really been a priority, for whatever reason. When I write my “Diversity Dialogues” articles, my target is Joe Librarian in Middle America, who just hasn’t had to think about it. They might pick up my next article and read it because I’m AALL president. I write from the heart, using “I” statements and anecdotes about my experience as a black queer man in the world, and I think that’s the way to change hearts and minds.

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Joel Brown, writer, BU Today at Boston University
Joel Brown

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@bu.edu.

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