Law librarians want their seat at the table. And, when we’re overlooked, we raise the issue. We are professionals with a specific expertise. That expertise comes from experience and exposure, some of which overlaps with other professionals. One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is how to deal with the edges of our expertise and being as mindful of other expertise as we want people to be mindful of ours.

It is a definite fact that there are edges to a law library’s operations. How blurred they are will depend on a variety of things, many of which we can choose. For example, we’re a public law library. But that doesn’t mean we provide all the ancillary services that a public library provides. Some of that is due to expectations: do we provide services or resources that are outside a legal collection or that people aren’t seeking out in a law library? Some of that is due to choices about resource usage: do we collect non-legal materials? do we provide a resource, even a free one, just because we can? Seed library? Tool library?

I’ve written about those sorts of things before. Many of those choices fall within our expertise, so they’re easier to make. What about the ones that fall outside our expertise?

Blurred Lines

I’ve been experiencing a lot of this lately. Before I took this role, I was at an integrated library. If I needed support outside of my expertise, there was usually another entity that was providing it that belonged to the same organization, outside of the library. A marketing department, facilities group, in-house counsel, finance, HR. In a standalone organization, you hire all of these functions.

The question then becomes this: how do you resource those skills with a staff of librarians?

In some cases, the integrated service approach fails. It’s why you see law libraries with their own IT departments or other service providers even when that creates overlap with their parent organization. Many corporate IT teams don’t understand integrated library systems and libraries have to develop their own IT teams or use shadow IT or outsource and use the cloud.

If you think of it a bit like software, the law library is the app. It’s where the people seeking information interface with the expertise and content that is core to the organization. You add plugins or extensions to that to enable your experts and researchers to do more. I think of tools like an online catalog or research guides along this line.

The catalog is an access point. You might make it only a tool for your experts to intermediate but we can expose it to the researcher directly. Now they can start to make choices about what they access. It’s a manifestation of expertise – items don’t catalog themselves – even if people can use a librarian to mediate access and avoid it. The extensions allow researchers to research even when we’re not accessible but still rely on our expertise.

Then there are the things you don’t provide or create. You link to someone else: a court, a publisher, etc. Or perhaps you blur the line by using technology like APIs that blend your law library’s contribution with someone else’s information. This is where things get blurry.

In general, we are hiring information professionals as our core team. We try to hire them with as broad a range of skills as possible but their key skills will meet our core mission. Outside of that core skill set, we have to assume that we will need to access other resources to get those wider things – finance, marketing, and so on – done.

My perspective is that expertise is the result of exposure and experience. The unending debate around new lawyers not being able to research has more, I think, to do with lack of experience than anything. Everyone in the legal profession is exposed to legal research training and content. You want someone to get better at something? Give them exposure to resources to help them understand it and experience doing it. Lots of experience.

I have a possible solution to this but it’s well beyond my time and resources at the moment and would require a lot of community participation. It’s not novel but it’ll be fun if I can ever turn my mind to it.

It may be great to find that one person who can do more than you need for the skills. It’s why, I think, some law libraries have specialized job descriptions – I was once the Electronic Services Librarian – to recognize that individuality. But if that person moves on or up, then you have to find a clone. Over time, I’ve leaned away from that sort of job titling, not because the purpose isn’t necessary, but that it isn’t necessarily something that should reside in one person’s job description or role.

However, cross-training is the enemy of expertise. Unless you’re doing something all the time, the best you can be is aware of how to do it. If you have an expert on your staff, regardless of their title, you want to leverage that expertise.

The challenge comes when you don’t.

Know Your Strengths

One example of this happened in my first month and I was talking with someone about alternative revenue streams. We’re funded by filing fees made in the local courts. It is healthy but stagnant and our law library income is falling behind the cost of living, inflation, and collection increases.

The person suggested that we should be writing up grants, which is a solid idea. But, as they say, money doesn’t grow on trees. I’ve been involved in a number of grants and a decent amount of fundraising in academic and courthouse law libraries. There is a point at which you spend more resources – time, specifically – that, even if you get the grant, you’re not coming out ahead.

I have a threshold for grants because of this. It’s not a hard rule but, in general, the grant needs to be 5 figures and preferably more than 1% of our budget ($25,000) to justify chasing it. The requirements of the grant may require additional specific outcomes that would push that floor much higher and I use the salary of a librarian as my measuring stick: how much of a reference librarian’s time will be spent earning this grant money?

Here’s the thing, though. Grant writing? That’s a specialty. I mean, sure, I can write a grant. I can also write a complaint, motion, and brief, but you don’t see me offering to help a lawyer with those things. I can get exposure to grant writing information but I have little experience, even if I have some.

There is a perspective among some lawyers that, once you have a law degree, there is no expertise that is beyond your reach. You don’t even need exposure or experience! It’s built-in to the J.D.! But we know that’s not true, because new lawyers are frequently incapable of researching as well as an early career law librarian. And if you’re at the rock face of public legal information delivery, you know that some people need a lawyer because that is the person with the expertise they seek.

I still have the first significant grant document I wrote, which helped bring laptops to academic faculty at the law school where I worked. Dirty secret? The development team had found the money and just needed someone to provide a rationale, to which I contributed. Want development funds? Call a professional.

The person I was speaking with shared this perspective and suggested that our staff “two hat” or “double hat.” As they also say, Jack of all trades, Master of none. Surely someone who is a law librarian – J.D., M.L.S. – can ALSO become a grant writer? And, technically, the answer is yes. Successful law librarians are smart, creative, curious people. But (a) that isn’t what they were hired to do, (b) we didn’t necessarily hire someone with latent grant writing skills, and (c) each hour spent grant writing is an hour away from what they were hired to do.

In this instance, I was able to make the case – if not actually persuade – the person that grant writing was a skill we’d have to hire. We don’t need a full-time grant writer or a full-time development officer for fundraising unless they can both fund their own position AND increase our net revenue. We had reached an edge beyond the blurriness.

Making Do May Mean Doing Without

A public law library is full of people who lack the resources to hire a professional to help them resolve their need. It is people seeking legal information in lieu of a lawyer. It is also law librarians trying to deliver services that stretch beyond what they learned in library school, law school, or even on the job.

At the end of the day, resources are a ceiling. You have limited resources and have to do the best you can with them. In some cases, you may be able to hire expertise. In other cases, you have to do without because the gap between what you and your staff know and what you need to know is to great to bridge.

We also ran into this recently. We’d been spinning up an advertising campaign to raise awareness. The idea was to create an ad and run it on public transit in areas where we suspected there was need combined with lack of awareness of our free resources.

Easy enough. I worked with the local transit company’s ad company and we figured out the technical requirements. A Photoshop-compatible file of such and so proportions and this or that resolution. Easy enough to do for a professional, using professional tools.

Next, what would the ad look like. We had some ideas internally. We are the experts on our services and we know what people look for. As I mentioned a few months back, a couple of us also spoke to other people and got some additional guidance. We had the concepts, the raw materials. Now we just needed the professional.

I emailed a couple of graphics design firms in downtown San Diego. No responses. I emailed a couple of illustrators and designers whose portfolios I found online. I was really trying to find someone in San Diego County who might be interested in a small, paid job. Still no response (it wasn’t the amount either; I never got that far).

Unfortunately, we had a time deadline to deliver our artwork. And it was getting closer. So despite wanting – and believing we needed – to use outside expertise, it fell on us to create the ad. Time to flex the ol’ librarian creativity.

This isn’t always a terrible thing. Some staff want to grow in ways that are outside the core work and this can be a great way to do it. It’s professional development and also builds the team’s skill set for the next similar project. We are going to do more ads, so having people work through this process isn’t the worst outcome. But at some point, here be dragons.

I created the ad in PowerPoint because (a) it was fast and (b) it meant that anyone else who had a comment or suggestion could make the change and we could see it without one person having to manage the creation. We had our raw materials still, from discussions about what this might look like. My first take was modified and improved until we were closing on our design deadline.

It wasn’t pertinent but I did my first published advertisement back in 1993 and have worked with a variety of graphics tools over the years. I’ve also spent a lot of time trying to understand how marketing and advertising works (I’m hugely skeptical). I do not consider myself an expert in design or graphics or illustration or marketing.

Someone sourced a great illustration that we could license. I pulled all the elements together in an open source graphics editor and sized it at the right resolution. I still don’t believe these are core skills for a law librarian or even a law library director except to say that you can never look a gift adaptable law librarian in the mouth. We refined, reviewed, and delivered the ad images on deadline. Without an expert.

A success. But also, not. Each project like this has a cost, whether we pay it to an expert or we subtract it from the services we can deliver. It is not that we have limited creativity; but we do not pay people to deliver creative output 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And that time is a resource cap: there are literally only so many hours in the day.

It’s an ongoing battle. My staff do it all the time. People think director’s shouldn’t venture into those blurred edges too often: I once stood at our front door to let some Board members, lawyers, in to our building. We were closed and I didn’t have any other contribution to make. A couple of them commented on me, the director, handling the door, and whether there wasn’t someone lower down more appropriate to do that job.

But that’s what we do. It is my goal to limit that as much as possible. We should not be doing things that are better done by experts. We would want other experts to see our value and it seems reasonable not to undervalue others’ expertise. In many cases, we can pay to have the work done, like our bookkeeping or other financial reporting and audits, or graphic design and illustrations. In other cases, the cost may outweigh the benefit, as with grant writing. And in some, we will continue to do what we always have: make do and do what we can.