By: Meg19 Jul 2010
Imagine you're at the AALL 2050 Business Meeting in San Francisco, CA:
A librarian no one in 2010 has met, because he hasn't started his career yet, presides as president. After the treasurer's report, it's time to award the president's certificates of recognition. Among those called to the stage: a wizened Jenny Westlaw, honored for 40 years of service to the law library community. As Jenny makes her way to the stage, the librarians spontaneously rise to their feet and give her a standing ovation.
I've been trying to figure out something (polite) to say about Ms. Westlaw and her counterpart Johnny since I discovered their existence a couple months ago. (Incidentally, via a site with a url that revealed Thomson Reuters is outsourcing some of their marketing--sloppy, but not a huge surprise.) Since that discovery, the Westlaws have been easy targets for private jokes and mockery.
So here's the thing: the scene described above happened just as I described it this year, except with Cathy Lemann presiding instead of some unknown whipper snapper. And in place of Jenny Westlaw, it was HeinOnline's Dick Spinelli being honored for his 40 years of good work.
And I'm not sure why it took me so long to figure out, but that's when it really struck me: the reason some of us have such a strong negative reaction to Johnny and Jenny is that they are fake people. Characters. Dick is real. And he's got his own, non-scripted personality and has taken time to get to know us over the years, and isn't going to disappear when corporate HQ decides on a different marketing direction.
I like Dick Spinelli. When I visited the Hein booth at SEAALL as a baby librarian, he made me feel welcome and also made it clear that he had a working relationship with my director, mentioning her name without any prompting or guessing. And it's not a problem of old vs. new ways of doing business, because I also like Fastcase's Ed Walters, who let his personal passion for design shine through in the session he spoke at, especially as compared to the more corporate Lexis and Westlaw speakers. I even like my local Lexis and Westlaw reps.
Beyond being merely fake, there's also something a little creepy treehouse about Johnny and Jenny--like we're supposed to pretend it's normal for a legal information vendor to hire actors for us to interact with. (I think I heard that J&J were already Thomson Reuters employees, but the point remains since they're not playing themselves.) I don't know about anyone else, but if that's something I want to do, I'll go to a dinner theater show or visit the Plymouth Colony reenactment, thanks very much. I'm at a loss as to whom they are supposed to appeal to. Maybe students, but definitely not librarians young or old. And I doubt students love them either--they're usually even better than us at detecting fakes.
Sure, it's harder for Westlaw as an entity to connect with us because it's part of a giant corporation. Giant corporations like to be uniform and careful about their public presences, which often results in bland, personality-free communications. No surprise, but I'd rather have bland than fake.
I had a boss in my pre-library life who used to stress to the account reps that ours was a relationship business, not a transaction business. I've come to believe that outlook is valuable across many fields, including our own. I'd bet Spinelli and Walters might even agree with it. Unfortunately for Westlaw, it's pretty hard to have a relationship with a fake person.