Assistant Dean of Information Technology Chris Knott tries to balance tradition and technology

Photo of Chris Knott

Chris Knott

The process of teaching law students how to research legal information has changed little over the last 500 years. But in a world that is flooded with information, it’s more difficult for law students to use the information they find well.

Chris Knott, the assistant dean of information technology at the School of Law, has the task of teaching the Google generation that sometimes those dusty print sources, or their electronic equivalents, are a quicker way to find good answers.

“The law student today has grown up with Google all his or her life,” Knott said, “and they don’t really understand that there are better ways to come to answers. There are better sources out there, more reliable sources.”

Knott’s goal is to see that students leave the School of Law, not only with the tools to conduct effective research, but with a good understanding of the technological issues that confront lawyers. That can mean thinking about social media as a means of advertising or considering the ethical implications of keeping client files in cloud computing systems instead of locked file cabinets.

A lot of law schools are grappling with the balance between traditional law libraries and technology. No one has gotten it right yet, Knott said. He is optimistic that the School of Law can.

“A law school runs on data. It’s that simple. To the extent we can harness information and be intelligent about it and make it available to people, I think we can really set ourselves apart,” he said. “We’re small. We are of a manageable size and we have a commitment and forward- thinking leadership.”

Knott comes from a family of librarians and printers, but it took a while for those genes to assert themselves. After graduating from the University of Michigan School of Law, he spent five years in Washington D.C. as a commercial litigator. He became interested in the burgeoning field of electronic discovery, or ediscovery, and the move to electronic information within the legal field.

He left law and earned his master of library and information systems degree from Indiana University. He thought he would work as a rare books librarian and a printing historian. Instead, he found himself being pulled back into law librarianship.

He worked as a reference librarian and curator of the rare books collection at Columbia University Law School. At Georgetown University Law Center, he managed operations at one of the world’s largest law libraries. He went on to the University of Maine School of Law to gain some experience in information technology, and was eventually swept out of the library and into a position as an administrator.

He jumped at the chance to return to library work at the School of Law, where faculty members are involved in large empirical studies.

“There is an awful lot of sophistication about data and information,” he said. “I think we really have an opportunity to have an ever-expanding role in helping faculty manage their information just like we do with students. It’s really exciting and fun. I have the best job in the joint. There’s no question.”

As the father of a 17-year-old aspiring actress and a son who is in first grade, Knott enjoys such non-sedentary activities as swimming, riding bikes, attending concerts and taking in some local theater.

He hastens to ensure doubters that libraries are still essential as places, and so are librarians.

“We still go out into the world and select the good stuff and bring it in, in print or electronic form and teach them how to use it,” he said.

The information commons planned for the newly transformed library shows how law libraries will evolve in a digital age.

For example, the student may walk into the commons, get a cup of coffee and sit down to read the New York Times. The student, who is working in the Elder Law Clinic and taking Mark Hall’s health law class, might read about some proposed change to Medicare. Not only do the changes possibly effect the student’s work at the clinic, but he or she might want to raise the point in class that day.

“The idea is that the information you might get from some unexpected source can connect to all sorts of course work you’re doing or a paper you want to write,” he said. “Whatever use you want to put it to, we’re there to help.”