This post follows on from an earlier one that highlighted the gap around law libraries that unrepresented parties may not cross. I’ve been thinking a lot about whether law libraries should be focusing on reducing their footprint – especially space and staff – to shift the interaction points closer to the point of need. It’s not a value judgment nor a recommendation to reduce a library’s activities. It’s one of logistics. Is the need to access a law library a barrier to getting law library resources?

There may be opportunities to change your services or your staff or your space. But that’s not really the fundamental idea I want to visit. This isn’t a cost-saving or service rationalization post.

Rather, I think there is a service gap around law libraries. Our common goal is to get people who could benefit from our resources – who may first visit a law firm, or community organization, or public library – to come into contact with our resources. We rely on partnerships and marketing to try to bridge that gap, to draw people in.

The reality is that not all of those people are going to make that journey. And the people that they rely on may also not leverage the law library’s resources. A public librarian may not have the time to call the law library, and a community organization may not know the law library has the relevant resources. In a law firm, lawyers may – rightly or wrongly – make the assumption that they already know or have access to the necessary information.

I’ve touched on this with mobile law libraries and with kiosks before. But those are both physical manifestations of the law library. It’s a “more of the same” approach. It’s not a bad approach, but it’s not a rethinking of what we are doing.

What would happen if we broke the law library’s operations – still managed by the law library – and pushed them out so that the delivery nexus, the contact point, was closer to where people are?

Relocate the Print

The cost of print legal materials continues to grow as – my perception – law libraries become the primary customers for it. One reason we cut print spending is lack of use and the gap around law libraries exacerbates that lack of use. It makes me wonder if we could place that print collection somewhere else, even if we fund it, to increase usage and usefulness:

  • place most of it in local public libraries or fund a consistent collection of titles that could be placed in local public library branches. The law library would not need to house that material or even, possibly, catalog it. The law library would retain the expertise layer: selection and deselection of a collection, regardless of where it was located.
  • place some of it in duty counsel or legal advocacy locations, where practicing lawyers, courthouse navigators, and others could use it. This would be practice-specific collections (landlord/tenant, divorce, child support/custody) and would be a cost-shifting partnership.

The shift of print is perhaps the best opportunity to try to bridge the gap. Even without a pandemic, courthouse law libraries are becoming harder to access as obstacles like enhanced court security increase. The town square courthouse law library focus is antiquated.

The intention would be for the law library to no longer have a physical container with a physical collection. Picture law library operations that no longer required physical storage space. That would be the end goal, with the print remaining accessible in other spaces. It would fundamentally change our space needs.

Delegate Services

A law library could delegate reference services and catalog exposure to other entities. This is a common model in other professions. Senior lawyers shift work to associates, who may know less but know enough. Help desks in technology teams may deploy the least skilled staff – who may be more numerous – before escalating to more senior, skilled staff. You may have experienced this on a service phone call, where you go through a bunch of rudimentary, even silly, steps before you are able to speak to a more skilled person.

A law library that delegated reference would engage in regular legal research training and support of other professionals. These people, whether lawyers, librarians, social workers, would then be in a position to know how to find and answer a variety of legal reference questions. Those professionals would know to call the law library reference for the difficult legal research that couldn’t be handled at the contact point.

There are law libraries that deploy their reference librarians into other contexts. I don’t think this is scalable and it denudes law library operations. If a law librarian can only be in one place, I would rather have them in the law library and find a way to replicate their expertise (recorded training videos, finding tools, etc.). It may make sense for partnership building and marketing but it’s not a long term strategy.

We already do a version of this in law libraries. We push routine legal reference down to every staff person who is public-facing. One reason that we struggle with what it means to be a librarian is that a lot of people in law libraries already do this core task. It’s not a huge leap to shift that education and support out to a group of arms-length professionals.

But complex legal research requires print too, I hear you say. There’s no reason law library staff couldn’t be placed adjacent to the collection, using public library space or an office space nearby. There’s no fundamental reason for a law library operation to maintain a collection in its own space to enable complex reference. The only necessity is that the librarians have access to the collection. Should it be closer to the contact point or closer to the librarian?

Rethink the Catalog Access

Law libraries that are large enough still maintain collection catalogs. Small law libraries have options but may not run a catalog if their collection and skill set doesn’t demand it. The library catalog tends to be an island, though, and that can make information access as difficult as if the law library wasn’t there.

We have attempted to bridge this issue using technology and cooperation. We may expose our Z39.50 interface to allow other systems to incorporate our catalog records. We may partner with other libraries to create a union catalog. My current law library does cataloging for nearly 50 other law libraries because (a) we all largely collect the same titles and (b) cataloging is not a core task in solo, part-time law libraries who have other things to do with their limited time.

Instead, we might look to a public library and leverage their catalog. The cataloging expertise would remain in the law library but the system licensing, maintenance, and operation would exist in the public library. They already have the sunk costs. The cataloging staff would have the added benefit of working as part of a dotted-line cataloging team, so that the solo law library cataloger is no longer working in isolation.

It seems to me that individuals are more likely to have searched a public library catalog than they are their local law library catalog. I don’t think that’s because they have greater need for a public library catalog than a law library catalog. While you could keep both catalogs and connect them with Z39.50, the law library is paying for a resource that will remain underutilized. And if you have moved your print collection to the public library, then a catalog search could lead to immediate information access even if the courthouse is closed.

Is the system where the value is? Or is it the cataloger’s expertise and the records they create and maintain?

Distribute Digital Access

Law firm libraries already do this. A license is negotiated and paid for and people in the law firm can access the resources. It’s not remote access because these people are in the law firm. But the law firm isn’t always a single building or floor.

Courthouse law libraries struggle with this hitch in digital licensing. It is often designed for (a) a group of discrete individuals or (b) a specific location. We use authentication tools like EZProxy and public terminals to get around the former and IP authentication to manage the latter. It seems to me that a license could just as easily apply to multiple locations for a courthouse law library as it could with a firm.

As with print collections, this could be a cost-shifting partnership. Community legal advocacy groups and public libraries would use the law library’s licensed content from within their space. Public serving law firms (including county prosecutors and public defenders) would also use IP authenticated access. Remote access could be outsourced to OCLC using EZProxy and hosted on their servers, reducing the law library’s technology footprint.

The law library would retain the expertise layer. Staff would negotiate the licenses. They would select and deselect the digital collection. But they wouldn’t need to provide public access terminals and free wi-fi – or even have space – to deliver access to the digital information.

What Does This Law Library Look Like?

This could be a very different looking law library from the ones in which we currently work. There would be no accessible collection in a law library space, print or digital terminals. There might not even be a space to visit. But the change is incremental because a lot of what we do is already what we need to be doing. The activities are right but the delivery is different.

As I say, this is not intended as a cost-saving measure. But the reality is that many of us are faced with steering publicly funded law libraries that are not fully funded. We operate out of a physical spaces that are not well-located for the population shifts that have occurred in the hundred-plus years since our founding. There may be cost-savings that would help decision-makers support this sort of change.

A change in our contact point might provide opportunities for us to rethink what roles and how we hire, what we collect, and what is integral to being a law library. We might hire fewer front line staff, reducing headcount, or build out a highly skilled reference team. We might eliminate our law library space in favor of something that supports tele-work and flexibility, since the print collection and technology footprint would be smaller.

I am definitely not suggesting eliminating non-MLS roles. People who do front line work may be re-trainable or, frankly, already have the skills to provide the complex reference support. But the roles the law library retained would be ones it was uniquely suited to utilize.

Not unlike our current work from home paradigm, the costs still run through the environment. Our companies may be saving on wear and tear but our home computers, furniture, and internet connectivity isn’t free or paid for by the company. A law library that no longer needs public terminals for legal information access may still need to or want to fund them for the contact locations. In general, I think print collections remain an integral law library resource, even if they don’t need to live in a law library.

So there may be cost savings. And there would almost definitely be some existential dread. But mostly I think this could shift a law library to a point where its resources were focused on maximizing its expertise while shifting its resources closer to the point of need.