I’d been driving for nearly 16 hours when the snow started. I’d taken some breaks but I knew now it was time to find a hotel. I came off the highway at the next town and found a cheap motel. It was fortuituous, because that’s where I ran into the Oops towel. No matter how small your law library and how limited your resources, you can find little ways to make the experience better.

I like to think I have a pretty decent approach to strategy. That’s the big picture and you need to have that. But strategy consists of lots of small steps before arrive at your end goal. I like the little things that law libraries do to match their researchers needs. The Oops towel is a great way to visualize this approach.

If you’ve ever been in a hotel, you’ll know they have a variety of towels available. They’re often a bright white. And whether it’s wine or shoe polish or some other mess, you can picture that some people use whatever hotel-provided object to sop up or wipe up the mess. Even the best cleanser may not get out what a person puts into a hotel towel.

The oops cloth is just a hotel cloth that someone has already marked up with a pen. The sign inside indicates to use it for those situations where you know you are going to leave a mark. It recognizes that certain circumstances will arise and gives an outcome that can work for both you and the hotel.

I also like to look at the small stuff, so if you think you’ve read this post before, that may be why. Success isn’t dependent on lots of resources. It can be built on lots of thought.

We Don’t Do That

It’s the little things that can make a big difference. I groan inside when I hear someone say, “we don’t do that.” I completely understand that something is outside the normal scope of operations. I can understand if it’s something that you can’t do, for whatever reason. But when someone says they don’t do it, it’s often a choice not to.

I had only been Canada for a few months when I was talking to some reference librarians about customer service. “Oh, we don’t do that,” one said, “we won’t spoon-feed the lawyers.” Huh.

What does it mean to spoon feed? I expect most people would take that to mean that the recipient was not doing anything meaningful. In the world of legal research, that would mean the law librarian providing all of the information in response to a legal research request.

Is that ideal? No. But sometimes that’s what the circumstances require and allow for. If there’s more time available, you take the time. To teach, to help the lawyer understand how to do it for themselves, to ensure they understand why they got what they got. And sometimes they just need something and they need to be in the court 5 minutes ago.

How Can We Help?

The small things are sometimes the easiest to show, if not say, “how can we help?” One benefit is that, if we think about them in advance, we do ourselves a favor at the same time.

Small things:

  • signs that point to important things. Your reference staff are getting directional questions that can be turned into signs. They’re getting follow up questions that may show your signs aren’t in the right place or aren’t clear.
  • furniture that is comfortable. Decades ago I went to Washburn’s law library and was taken with their chairs. They had the back of the bottom legs angled, so the chairs could rock back. Rather than worrying about students tipping normal chairs back, they had chairs that accounted for the behavior.
  • think about sound. This Chicago-area law school has a curved seating area. It creates a nice nook to sit in (comfy chairs inside the arch) and has stool/bar seating around the outside. I think it’s a great use of open space and the likelihood that you may encourage more noise with more comfortable, more open spaces.

  • collection placement. Put the things where people use them. Put the things people don’t use in less accessible places. One reason public libraries are rethinking the Dewey Decimal Classification system as their presentation system is that it may not make sense to the people using it. Consider that most people are 6 feet and shorter and, in additional accessibility issues, having collection closer the floor can be helpful.
  • shift your hours. I had a chance a few weeks back to talk to some law students about their law library experiences. One commented on how the law library was never open early enough in the morning and so it wasn’t as useful. Do you know when people want to use your law library? Is opening at 7am (as this student wanted) an option?
  • office supplies. What is the cost of having pens out, even if they get taken? If they get taken a lot, get branded pens so your visitors take you with them. A paper cutter? Tape? Stapler? Big staple remover?

One of my kids was finally old enough to go to a clothing store where they really tend to your needs. Where they take the time to ask you what you need and show you some things that go together. Spoon feeding. And a committed customer for life because of the amount of attention for someone who didn’t know how to get started.

There are little things we can all do to make the experience of using our services, our staff, and our space more enjoyable for our researchers. They don’t need to break the bank. Furniture is expensive, so just think about the small things when you have the opportunity to acquire it. There are many small, inexpensive steps we can take to help ourselves and help our patrons.