There is an interesting discussion over at AALL’s government law libraries community about which law libraries are using video tools for reference and how that’s working for them. It’s obviously a hot time for virtual tools. When a company like Verizon buys conferencing app BlueJeans, an app I’ve used to interact with law firms, it’s a sign that we should expect growth and change. But how do you use video for legal reference? and why?

When Do You Need Video Reference?

Video is a format choice. It’s the most intensive virtual format you can use. It requires connectivity, audio, and video devices. This may limit the number of people who can use it.

When we do legal research reference, we already do it in a number of formats. Video is just an alternative synchronous format. Synchronous interactions – in person and by telephone – are the most common in my library. They account for about 80% of our interactions. The next big format after phone is email, and lastly chat.

So if video has a place, it’s primarily to offset physical presence but will still require synchronous resources. That means, like chat, someone has to be there. I suppose we could leave video voice messages but then we’re really back to email.

Reference formats line up pretty closely to reference question statistics. The easiest questions can happen by email and chat. The harder ones require more interaction, a greater use of the reference interview.

As far as I can tell, video is for those calls that need something that you can’t do with audio alone. It isn’t a replacement for all in-person reference. Many of those questions can be handled just as easily with just audio. Questions and answers.

Shout to Karen Westwood at Hennepin County Law Library, who posted to that AALL discussion mentioned above, with the same “why” about video. What problem does video solve?

Video makes sense for that group of questions that involve the researcher showing you something. Or you showing something to the researcher. And the purpose of the showing will matter too.

Conferencing v. Streaming

One thing that will be interesting to watch is whether how we use the video tools. Some are designed for conferencing. Some of these include Google Meet (f/k/a Hangouts), Microsoft Skype, and Apple Facetime. There are also a slew of online meeting tools like LogMeIn’s GotoMeeting and Cisco’s Webex.

Many of these have been around for decades. Which is why I’m a little surprised at the excitement around, and uptake for, products like Zoom. But it makes a great example of some of the challenges facing the use of video for reference.

My organization licenses Microsoft Skype. Unfortunately, the Zoom rush overtook the IT department and so we now have virtual meetings using Zoom. A story for another day, but I don’t have a web camera at home. Our family tends to use desktop PCs which, unlike laptops, don’t have a camera built-in.

And if you’ve tried to buy a web cam – like I have – since the pandemic lockdown, you’ll know how hard it is to source them. I would say as hard as toilet paper, having had to shop for both.

Streaming is a different beast, though. And I think it’s worth pointing out the difference. Reference is a one-to-one activity. Streaming is a one-to-many video format approach. If you’re adding video formats to your reference work, you probably need two tools: one for streaming and one for conferencing. The kids these days use Twitch but I think I’d probably lean toward Youtube casting.

Zoom … Didn’t

Let’s think about conferencing, though. How hard is it for the user to participate.

For the last 16 months, I’ve been doing video interviews for news programs around the world. I use Microsoft Skype and Google Hangouts with video and audio enabled. So Zoom should be a no brainer.

My video delivery tool has been an Android tablet, which has a built in camera. If we’re going to leverage video for reference, I think we’ll be relying heavily on mobile devices. Here’s an example of what that looks like:

David Whelan speaking with Associated Press journalists.

One thing that’s challenging is the sound. The video will distort based on the bandwidth, so if your researcher is using mobile data, this could be a problem. The audio from the device is not distinct either, so any background noise (wind outside, etc.) gets equal weight to your voice. The same for your researcher on the other end.

Now, I use a headset microphone. This brings the recording closer to me and I am much less likely to raise my voice unnaturally during the call. While I have one that goes over my head, it’s less visually distracting to use earbuds.

My go-to recording tool is normally a pair of Skullcandy Chops sports earbuds that have a microphone attached. You can pick them up for about C$15 on Amazon and they eliminate the air traffic controller headset look.

Here’s a photo of me on a recent work Zoom call, using a virtual background on a laptop with a web cam. You can see the headset wire going down my front. I was surprised at how well the microphone worked, but I have a backup pair now in case my primary pair wears out.

I first attempted to get the Zoom app for Android on my phone. It wouldn’t download. You can grab the app directly from Zoom but then you need to know how to side load the app. I did. But then it told me it didn’t work on my phone; too old.

I then tried it on my tablet. Same thing. So one thing I learned immediately was that Zoom users must all have newer mobile devices than me.

Test your choices. If you use an app, install it on the devices your researchers are likely to use. Then use it and see what the experience is like. Have some tips for your video reference participants to improve the experience.


One of the challenges of chat reference is having someone available. If the service is online, then a librarian needs to be ready to answer. This can create resource issues if that means tethering a person to a device.

One of the nice things about many video conference apps is that you can be always on. Early on, I had to learn to mark myself as away or unavailable in Skype and Google Hangouts. Otherwise, anyone would could look up my email address or phone number could make a video call to me.

Camera placement will be important. If the purpose of using video is to make a visual connection, library staff should be trained to look at the camera. This feels weird at first, since the person you’re speaking to will appear on a screen that is often below your camera.

That’s not great for an individual. But it’s a real benefit for a service. You can tell people how to open the app on their device, how to find you, and how to connect. This is as close to normal in-person reference as you can make it.

I have seen some law libraries using scheduling to enable video interactions. I think this has a couple of drawbacks. First, research doesn’t always happen to a schedule. Ideally, video reference is an on-demand service, not a scheduled one. Also, it requires adding a scheduling app. That’s more software and training and overhead that I’m not sure actually creates any additional value.

No Interoperability

There is an open video standard for the web called WebRTC. Surprising to me, it doesn’t seem to be widely supported. If a law library lands on Zoom, then its researchers will need Zoom to interact with the reference team. Skype? Skype. FaceTime? You’ve now entered an iOS-only world.

I have heard tell that Skype for Business will connect to FaceTime. But I haven’t seen it happen.

Before a law library decides that it will offer video reference, it should understand what its users use. If you’re in a law firm or a law school with a hardware standard model, you’re in luck. That will help you to make your choice.

If you’re out in the public law library world, you may not have any way of knowing. Don’t benchmark against other law libraries – their researchers may not have the same technology resources.

You Need Controls

Courts have started to use conferencing tools and it shows how important the need for app controls can be. This court had to cancel a multi-party audio conference hearing because the lawyer participants couldn’t handle their technology.

If you use conferencing tools, they should give the call owner the ability to mute participants and to end the call. This may not be as important in a reference call, which should be one-to-one. But it highlights that even the most basic, decades-old conferencing tools still require a certain amount of training to use.

Where Next?

Video reference may be an easier sell when we get to the point that Skype talks to Facetime or Google Meet. Until then, we’ll be forcing our researchers to add apps or software. Those apps may then require credentials or other information to allow them to access video reference. As we’ve already seen, not all companies take good care of that information.

I think I’m going to wait and watch on video reference for one-on-one interactions. There isn’t a vital need for it at the moment. We have strong audio options that hit a broader audience: phones. If video solves the need to handle and show a physical object, it may be a good use case for that narrow segment of the audience.

Streaming is a great future, though. If we’re unable to do in-person group education, streams are a great answer. And the pandemic lockdowns may make people more comfortable with streaming video than they have been in the past. The ability to archive and replay a Twitch or Youtube stream can be a great benefit for a law library.