The wheel turns and our library is going through an operational review. I’ve never been clear whether these are common or not. It’s involved a lot of data analysis and report writing. It requires a lot of explanation about what the law library does, to people who may have no context. I thought I’d jot down some thoughts on the process and how a law library director might prepare and respond.
If you’ve not been through an operational review, you’re not really at any disadvantage. I think the term is used even when what you’re doing is not an operational review. At a definitional level, it functions as a spot check on your operations.
This is one reason that I think it’s not always the right term. I’ve written before about operational reviews for law libraries and how they tend to have negative outcomes. That has less to do with what an operational review is, and more to do with how it is implemented.
In an ideal world, an operational review would work the same way as walking a defense perimeter. Let’s say your law library is a castle with battlements. You would have soldiers patrol the battlements regularly to look out for potential threats: an enemy attack, a crumbling wall, whatever.
An operational review should have that sort of regularity. What are you doing and why are you doing it? Is what you’re doing working? Do you still need to do it? Like a well-managed law library collection, law library operations need regular tending like a garden. You may add services and need to weed others.
It can assist you when things don’t have a natural sunset provision. This may sound strange in a for-profit environment, but my experience suggests we’re better at starting new activities than stopping them. Association committees live past their usefulness because of tradition or an unwillingness to change, services or policies continue because we’ve always had them or because their implementation was so hard.
A regular review of what you’re doing can be useful. A law library director will be doing that pro-actively anyway, on a micro level. An operational review can take that to the macro level. It creates an interface between the law library management and the governance or funding overseers, the C-suite or board of directors.
When operational reviews are irregular, they create a context that undermines the benefit of the review. They are no longer driven by operational concerns but by whatever catalyst caused them to come into being. Frequently, in the law library world, they seem to arise when budget cutting is the goal.
This creates a couple of challenges. First, organizationally, the term operational review becomes aligned with cutting and diminishing. But that’s just one possible outcome of a normal operational review.
An operational review should look at what to keep and grow, what to modify to improve, and what to eliminate.
This negative perspective is emphasized by doing operational reviews irregularly. This creates uncertainty, especially if there have been other bellwethers that signal cuts and reductions.
Crucially, your culture has a role in this. A corporate culture that lacks trust and that does not regularize macro feedback can hardly be surprised when operational reviews create negative perceptions.
The Director’s Role
If you ever wondered about what a law library director does, this is a great example of a very specific role. Ideally, everyone involved in an operational review wants the same thing: success. The director has a particular role in helping to provide information so that success can be achieved.
Success isn’t the same for everyone. When a review is initiated, the goal may be to cut and you may not know that. It’s important to understand that, no matter what you do, a review can be a checkbox on a task list to cuts.
One factor that will impact your approach is where you are in the organizational structure. If you report to the group running the review, it’s that much easier. In my case, I’m three layers down, so the CEO and my VP-equivalent will deliver the review to the governance board.
This presents a particular challenge. It means that, when the law library operational review occurs, there will be no subject matter experts involved. All of my contributions will have been made to the staff supporting the review (who are outside the library) and to my boss.
An additional challenge is to make sure you understand scope. An operational look at efficiency and effectiveness might suggest a relatively narrow scope. But our last review was 8 years ago and this review will cover that entire time.
Which brings me to data. When an operational review is announced, it is too late to start gathering data. At a minimum, you should have access to your financials and your basic usage statistics: reference, database access, book browsing, whatever.
Here are some examples. If you’ve followed this blog, some will look familiar because they’re updated versions of visualizations or charts I’ve used before.
You will want to be able to answer questions about why you still have books. You should be able to discuss how your researchers use books and why your collection reflects print or ebook formats. We have tagged books and scan those pulled off the shelf.
A chart showing a drop then plateau in the print book browsing at the Great Library
You will need to be able to help the reviewers understand the data. You may not have a clear idea yourself, but you are closer to the data. Our context reflects a lot of print materials cuts. There are fewer books being used because there are fewer books.
Explain Digital Resources
The reviewers will want to know what your digital usage is like. If you haven’t already asked your legal publisher providers for more detailed usage reports, do it today. Once you have the data, you can use it to tell your story.
A chart showing AccessCLE continuing legal education visits over time.
A review should be looking at efficiency and effectiveness. Those can be hard to value in a law library – we’re usually distant from knowing whether what we did was useful. This can lead to challenging expectations that there will always be growth.
Many of your services will plateau over time. Unless you are experiencing change – to your staff, to your budget, to the researching habits of your researchers – you will reach a point at which things are largely flat. You should be able to communicate why this is normal in a non-profit service oriented world.
When there are changes – as we experienced in 2018, in the chart above – give the reviewers context. They may not realize that, when the corporate web site was redesigned and all the navigation to our digital resource changed, that it would have a knock-on impact on our digital resource until people found it again. A corporate web site redesign might not normally be considered within a law library review.
Numbers, Numbers, Numbers
The key data is most likely going to be your financials. You will need a way to show the columns of data in a way that makes them easy to compare. Here’s what our budget has looked like since 2006.
A chart showing staff headcount and financials for the Great Library since 2006.
A deep data set can help you show trends better than a short set. The reviewers may only look at a very narrow window – three years – but if you can show that three years within a broader context, it can be useful.
I used a supplemental graphic on that chart to show how detail about our staffing. It’s easy to see the salary budget has stayed flat for nearly 13 years. But the diminishing staff count graphic shows why.
In an ideal operational review, you might spend more time on the details rather than on the big numbers. Unfortunately, if the operational review is a cost-cutting exercise, the details may not matter. If your budget is not already segmented to give you this detail, work with your accounting folks to make the necessary changes. In our general ledger, we have specific lines for a number of print formats – especially loose leaf – so that we can see how they impact the budget.
A chart showing the Great Library’s print collection budget over the years, and the over-sized impact looseleafs have.
It can be useful – especially in the context of why law libraries haven’t converted entirely to ebooks – to be able to explain how you’re spending money on print formats. If you are being reviewed by lawyers, they’ll at least understand what a looseleaf is in most cases. If you are being reviewed by people who don’t use law libraries, they will need some additional information.
Help the Reviewers
It can be hard to put ego aside. In a sense, the reviewers are reviewing you: your decisions, your actions. It can be hard not to try to read motives into the reviewers’ actions. My experience in all but one situation is that everyone is trying to do the right thing. The fact that your vision for your law library may be at odds with the reviewers doesn’t change that.
Operational reviews that occur without subject matter experts are almost inherently not going to have a strategic element. When done regularly, they can be a useful tool for a director to get an outside confirmation or perspective on what’s working. Ideally it will lead to the reviewers providing feedback or guidance that will make the library better. Even if that means eliminating some things.
If you have not had an operational review, you might consider initiating one. Then do them on a regular schedule. It can help you and your successor. It can help your staff. Your reviewers (funders, governance board, executives) will have a more regular view into your operations at a detail level. Everyone will be able to point to the fact that the operations are regularly revisited.