There are days that I feel like the most important thing I can do is revisit the way things have always been done. It is not out of any sense that things are being done incorrectly. But I know that, after a thing is decided, circumstances change. And so, even as you are putting a new law library service into action, time and events keep changing. Over time, you may need a course correction even on services or projects that seem on target. This can be particularly hard if there is a mismatch in perspectives.
Do Not Walk
I’ve said this before: I walk to work. I have no car in my current location and so I use my feet and public transit to get around. It’s a benefit for someone like me who likes to take their time. It gives me time to think and to observe.
One thing I’ve noticed is that, if you are not in a car in downtown San Diego, you have a very different experience on the roads. It’s not something that I had ever seen before. But if you walk down a one-way street in downtown San Diego, you may find it hard to know what street you are on. The signs that show the streets are only posted so they are visible to drivers, going in the direction of the one-way traffic. They are not posted facing both directions, up and down the street. If you are walking the opposite direction, you can only see the streets signs if you look backwards.
Walk signs are irregular too. In the downtown core, many signs will change automatically as the traffic right of way changes. In a pedestrian-friendly environment, all of the walk signs would change with right of way. If you can go (the traffic flow is with you), they turn white or green. If you cannot, they turn red.
Outside of a relatively small area in the center of town, you start to have buttons that you press to cross the road. And in some cases, if you don’t press that button, the light will never change even if the traffic right of way does. It took me a while to realize that I needed to press the button every time. Often, the walk signal will immediately flip color because it senses I have the right of way. Sometimes, and I’m looking at you, northwest corner of Ash and Pacific Coast Highway, there’s an even more convoluted system. You press the button, traffic right of way changes, but still the walk sign doesn’t appear until the 2d iteration of the cycle.
The thing about intersections and lights is that they are programmed. They’re a system. Someone decided which ones would turn on or off automatically. Someone decided how they’re sequenced with traffic right of way. Everything is deliberate. But it isn’t always desirable.
My fellow pedestrians just walk. They ignore the walk or don’t walk signs. They do what you’d expect: look both ways and then cross. Sometimes they get caught mid-intersection as the traffic right of way changes or an empty intersection is suddenly, unexpectedly filled. Commonly, they cross an empty road and its meaningless traffic signals.
Most days, I wait and watch. I may be too distracted with my own thoughts to risk crossing a street without a signal. But you get fed up when a service doesn’t work the way it should, when you press a walk button at an empty intersection. You make a risk assessment: size of street, number of cars, time of day, how far you can see, speed limit. And then you cross.
I think of this decision-making a bit like how we create desire paths. My dog and I love desire paths. He will often veer off towards an area of trodden grass that heads down to a riverbank or through a cluster of weeds. It’s not an intentional path made by humans; something else has created it. There are smells that I can’t pick up but I can tell that some other creatures have used it enough to permanently create space for their coming and going.
I like them too because they tell me what people wished they could do even if a system or service doesn’t support that wish. Think about any campus you’ve been on that has grassy areas and classroom buildings. Or any government building with a lawn. There are sidewalks. And there are the other paths that have been trodden. An ideal approach would be to dig up all the sidewalks and let people walk the most effective patterns, and then paved more durable paths? Let the people we’re trying to serve show us the way.
And that’s how I feel about services or activities that have been done for any length of time. Any. I’ve been in my new role for just over three months now and some changes I made in the first month I can already see are not resulting in the value that I thought they might. It’s time to pull the plug and try something new.
One challenge for a director, particularly someone who has been promoted or transferred into a new role, is to make changes to existing activities. I’ve been fortunate to work in a number of places and, sometimes, to absorb new roles or teams at those places. I don’t follow the “make no changes for 6 months” or the “achieve quick wins in your first 6 months” approaches. The first is arbitrary and can cause you to be overly cautious when the situation doesn’t demand. The latter can cause you to move quickly without understanding.
When you start as a director, you should absolutely look for opportunities to change things. That’s the whole reason you were hired: not to make change, but to lead. It’s a great time to ask questions and test assumptions and analyze long-standing routines. You do not need to take every opportunity that presents itself. In the past few months, I have seen things that I hope to change in the future as well as those that I’ve already started to change. I’m also not waiting when there are things that need to be done now.
At the beginning, you are in a period where you can see desire paths perhaps more clearly than anyone else. Think of how you would receive a given service. Or how you would design an activity. What would you change? What has stayed the same while the context within which it operates, like the library’s strategy or the resources it uses, has changed?
In particular, you can start to test assumptions. Why are we doing this? Why are we doing this this way? If you repeat a process, you get consistency. And you may have widespread agreement that it the output is consistently good if you can measure the output value.
That’s not enough, though. And I think a lot of law libraries have experienced this because I’ve experienced it in every environment I’ve been in. What do we do when our environment changes?
Take pandemic document delivery or legal reference support. It takes more time to fulfill legal reference requests when the librarian has to intermediate the entire process: answer question, identify materials, deliver materials, loop process iteratively until solved. We might have been at the front of that process but now we’re handling every stage.
Do you keep up that level? How does that impact your reference staff? Can you afford more staff? Can you afford burnout? Do you undo the service at the risk of losing researchers who are now accustomed to that new service level (and not having to leave their office)? Do you revisit the service to see if your initial choices when the pandemic still make sense?
We recently wound down a long-term offering that ticked a lot of success boxes. It generated a small amount of revenue. The people who used it loved it. But it was used by dozens when we serve thousands. Its operating cost was multiples of the revenue it generated. It was not a core service.
Sometimes you need to rip up the pavement. Just because you see the pedestrians walking the path you’ve created doesn’t mean you see all the pedestrians. And you may not have any way to reroute those who’ve chosen their desire path, outside of your service.
Likewise, just because you and your staff are busy does not mean you are necessarily busy doing the right things.
Some activities or services have a rapid cycle: dozens of reference questions a day, hundreds of web site hits a week. Others are things we do once a year or things that are hard to measure. How do you take a step back there without waiting years for change?
We’ve noticed a drop in foot traffic, both here and at my last law library, since the pandemic. If I had to guess, our library closure has meant that researchers have trodden desire paths to new resources. Or have decided that their need isn’t great enough to go for a walk at all. There’s not much a law library could have done to avoid that but it’s not necessarily obvious how to undo that outcome either.
Sometimes the metrics don’t matter. I don’t believe, in a public law library, that “only the things that can be counted, count.” Some outputs are done even when you can’t measure the value output. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still analyze the resources used to deliver it.
We recently did a once-a-year activity and I decided to make some minor changes. Nothing that I felt would impact the output; I’m too new to be confident enough to do that. The activity was an event that had a number of embedded choices in that I felt we could simplify or do away with. It was complexity without necessarily adding value, but the only way to test that was to make the changes and see what happened. I made more changes than I might on something that occurred more frequently.
On the surface, it seems to have been a comparable output. Different, but equivalent. Someone commented to me that we achieved a similar result as in past years with a lot less effort. The changes had reduced the complexity. In my mind, it’s like turning the bow of the boat a bit to a new course. We’re going to get together as a group next month to give it a post-mortem and see what changes to keep, what to revert, and what new changes we might make.
Everything old can be new again. Sometimes that happens because a law library tries something, stops doing it, then does it again (“we tried that”). Sometimes it’s because we look at what we’re doing and make it better. One way to look at things differently is to look at the current path and think about where it might go if you started from scratch.