Law librarians can sometimes feel like miracle workers. We find things that others can’t. That’s called expertise even if the result for the person wanting information seems magical. As we’ve worked from home, that merger of magic and expertise has appeared in technology too. We can take vital technology for granted and ignore things that are working because they don’t demand our attention.

This post came about because I was struggling with internet connectivity issues at our house. For long periods, it was fast and stable. Until it wasn’t. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, it decided to play up while we were going through our recent hiring process. Internet is one of those things that it can be hard to have a backup for, even if we make assumptions that everyone can do so.

There’s a need for an immediate fix in the moment. If you have the resources, you can go somewhere that has internet (like a parking lot outside a library or restaurant). Or you might be able to afford data (I have 100 MB of data a month so I don’t use it for video calls).

But underlying the problem is technology that isn’t working. And all the workarounds in the world won’t change that fact. The magic is gone and it’s time for expertise.

It Just Works, Part I

I recounted my troubles with our new cable internet to a colleague. “Oh,” they said, “you should just get one of these plug-in network devices. You plug it in and it just works!” As someone who has had a role in ensuring network connectivity at a law school, I was pretty confident that nothing “just works.” There is always expertise behind the magic.

Expertise doesn’t mean your expertise. I’m naturally curious about the technology that underpins our lives. But when something “just works” or when it doesn’t, it’s because someone’s expertise was involved in making it just work.

Parallel to this curiosity is a concern about what the device is doing without my knowledge. Like LG TVs scanning your home file server. As Mrs. Weasley said to her daughter, “[n]ever trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain?

As any customer would who was out of their depth, I called technical support. They sent out a new modem. Three times, for a new outage, they sent out a technician. The technician came into our house, cut a few inches off the cable behind the wall panel, and the internet worked! Magic!

But why? What did their expertise tell them that I didn’t see?

Not surprisingly, you can find out most of this stuff with enough effort on your own. You can then make a choice about whether you want to make a change yourself or hire someone. I usually give the former a shot before outsourcing.

In our case, we had older cable wiring in the house. It entered the house, hit a splitter, and then continued around the wall of the basement. The one that connected to our modem had a second splitter/connector. As I started to realize, the connection that hit our house was being attenuated as it travelled. It was pretty weak by the time it hit the modem. If there was an outage, it was weak enough that sometimes it just didn’t find the signal again.

Problem solved. I was a little stressed out about doing it myself but I could see the splitters and I could read about more modern cable wiring. I ended up buying a cable at a hardware store that was shielded. Since we don’t have TVs, I removed the very first splitter (tough luck for the next owner) and connected the new cable directly to the cable that entered the house. The moment of truth was when I moved the modem over. It reconnected and hasn’t dropped in 2 months.

Could I now consider a new career as a cable guy? Just as in a law library, a little research does not a law librarian make. But I had expanded my own expertise, spent $25 on some equipment, and fixed a problem by getting behind the magic.

It Just Works, Part II

WordPress’ parent company, Automattic, put out a recent survey about how people use their WordPress installation. One question was a bit of a poser for me: how much TIME do I spend maintaining my site. If you work in an organization with an IT team, you may say “zero” and just focus on your content. But if you’re an individual like me, or you work in a stand-alone law library or are a solo law librarian, you may find you spend a decent amount of time making sure the site is up and running.

Is it expertise or is it magic? In some cases, you may build out the expertise yourself. Both at work and on my own sites, I prefer that people gain that expertise themselves. But there is a point at which the complexity and time requires hiring consultants or third-parties to maintain our technology for us. To make the magic happen without us knowing how.

In my case, I run this web site. But I no longer run it on my own server – I’ve shifted all of the hosting to another provider. I’ve shifted some of the security to a third-party too. We make choices about how far our expertise extends.

I was thinking about this in a conversation with another law librarian. The topic of web site cost – for hosting, in particular – had come up and we were talking about some options. During our discussion, it became apparent that, while their web site was running, it was relying on out of date technology.

In particular, their WordPress site had fallen far behind the updates required to keep it secure and running well. They had gotten trapped between the magic and the expertise. Their web site theme was a custom theme and the site itself relied on plugins that would stop working if WordPress itself was updated.

On the surface, magic! But without expertise, they had some pretty serious corporate risk.

When I saw the theme issue, I offered to help. It was a child theme in WordPress which meant that it’s based normally based on a regularly updated theme. This one didn’t do that – they’d customized the files directly. So I remade the theme into a child theme and found that there was also a coding error. First problem solved.

In the end, the site was hacked without it being upgraded or repaired. I’m not sure that the hack was due to the site’s problems or the web hosts lack of security. It didn’t really matter. But as I rebuilt the site for them, it was an opportunity to make new choices. In a nutshell:

  • if you don’t have the expertise, you need to get the expertise you need in order to have the magic happen;
  • if you can’t get the expertise, you need to find new magic.

This required replacing old plugins with newer ones that provided the same functionality and were still supported. It required getting rid of old plugins and losing some functionality because the expertise was missing. It required getting rid of old plugins that were not being used.

I expect that, during the pandemic, we have been thankful for the things that work like magic. But my suspicion is that some law library tools or web sites are probably not as healthy underneath the hood as you might imagine. Just because something works, doesn’t mean it will keep working or is working the way it should.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Law librarians are experts in legal research and information. We are not necessarily experts in other areas. So if there is an opportunity to learn in new directions, to broaden our expertise, that may not be a terrible thing. Our worlds are changing and we will continue to adapt. But it’s important to distinguish magic and expertise.