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One of the challenges of a courthouse law library is to serve a broad audience of researchers. Perhaps more than any other law library, we serve people across a lifecycle. I was talking with one of the people who used our law library at the start of their career and even, as they are closing in on the end of it, I was surprised how much they misunderstood our law library’s operations.

None of these misunderstandings were negative. But this legal professional had used the law library heavily at one point in time, decades ago. And although things like our funding and general approach to collecting haven’t changed during the intervening years, they really did not have any idea about our reality.

And why should they? They don’t run a law library. Even when they were there every day, it was just to be a researcher. How many of us understand how a grocery store works? How do you manage fresh inventory and schedule stockers and oversee theft prevention. Those are all things a law library does too, but not in the same way. It brought home to me how similar to social media our relationships with our communities can be.

One Degree of Separation

I’m going to lean on Dunbar’s number again, because it helps me think so much about networks of interactions. The basic idea is that the people closest to you know you the best. And they know you the best because you, and they, can invest the most time in the relationship. And as you get further out, the connections are weaker because there is only so far you can reach, and be reached, before you run out of the ability to reach any further.

I’m going to exclude staff from this idea. Hopefully, you are already communicating with them about how the law library operates. In the months that I’ve been at my new job, I’ve been trying to share all the information I can. Even though I’m the new guy, I don’t want to assume anyone else knows what I know.

Partly it’s about situational awareness. But if you ever need to worry about transitions, then other people aren’t starting from a blank slate. And staff should understand things like the budget and what’s in it, especially if these things will be presented publicly to a governance board. Transparency is a good thing.

The next closest people for me and many courthouse law library directors is a governance board, often judges and lawyers. We meet monthly and they have a fiduciary responsibility to understand the law library’s operations. If they ever wanted to speak more regularly or ask about our operations in more detail, not only would I be open to it, I’d be expected to. I take for granted that they understand a huge amount about how we operate. Almost all of them have been on the board longer than I’ve been at the library.

And yet. During one meeting, I was asked a number of detailed questions about our financials. It was early on and I didn’t know nearly enough about what some of our balance sheet GL line labels meant, as I was still learning from our CFO, who would normally field those questions. It was really helpful on two levels.

First, assuming the Board member wasn’t just having a bit of fun (!), it let me get a sense of the type of detail a Board member would be interested in. It was a bit like being in a canoe, and trying to figure how deep the water is below by poking your paddle down and measuring. I expect I would have learned in the fullness of time anyway, but now I knew that the sooner the better.

Second, it let me know that, perhaps, the Board doesn’t know that sort of detail either. Or, even if they did know, they may not have retained the information over time. I can’t really take their knowledge for granted, even though they are essentially immediately adjacent to me and the staff in knowledge of the library’s operations.

I need to ensure that, each time I deal with a topic that didn’t come up recently, I spell out labels and clarify concepts without making assumptions. This is a good idea anyway, because we have public meetings. And if someone comes to the meeting, they will almost certainly have no idea what I’m talking about.

Beyond Your Reach

As you get further out into your community from your Board, you will find a variety of understandings of your work. Or misunderstandings, like that your courthouse law library is only open to lawyers and judges (and some are limited that way). Or that you are supported by taxes or some other sort of funding that you do not, in fact receive.

The discussion I had with the legal professional centered around this. They had wanted to understand a decision I was making – closing a branch – and to suggest solutions. One was for us to open up a branch in rented space belonging to the local bar association.

On its face, this sounds plausible. If you were a lawyer in 1990 and using our law library’s services, you can imagine the foot traffic of the bar in the library back then. And a spot in a bar association makes sense.

Flash forward 30 years, though. A law library in bar association space may find itself restricted from public access, if only by the hours of the building in which the host operates. And it ignores the shift in usage of the law library, as the self-represented participants in the legal system have outstripped the legal practitioners who use law libraries.

In fact, if the goal were to make the law library accessible to legal professionals, we really need to focus on remote access. That is how we are going to best deliver information to people who already have a legal background and legal research experience. They may not need their research intermediated or need to visit a physical location.

I mentioned this and it led to a discussion about our funding. And if they had ever known that we relied on court filing fees, they didn’t remember it. They were stunned, not only about the process but also to learn that our current funding is about 60-70% of what it was 10 years ago.

And, upon learning that, their initial concerns about my decision appeared to fade away. It’s not necessarily that they liked the decision any better. But they had the factual information that they had been lacking when they had created their perception about my decision.

Like so many things in information and libraries, this sort of interaction doesn’t scale. And, realistically, most people who are further and further away from the law library’s management core don’t need to know this. But I do wonder if some people did, if it would change their interactions with the law library? Would they donate funds if they knew that our funding was more precarious than they believe, for example?

Mind the Gap

What to do? I am mostly taking this as an internal lesson for me. To be clearer, to not make assumptions and, as in this case, to take the time to sit and talk with people who are interested but who have questions. It’s a good time to tap into other perceptions and perhaps find people with energy to come closer to the law library, as a supporter or champion.

I am wondering now if we should do more with our annual report. It is a document required by law and is an opportunity succinctly show our operations information. Money flow, activities, services rendered.

One thing I know I need to understand now is how our annual report has been shared in the past. If we haven’t already been republishing it, or a condensed version of it, in local bar association publications, that may be a good next step. If we haven’t turned it into a leave behind and taken it to local legislators’ offices, that would be another one.

I work at the law library every day. Our Board engages on at least a monthly basis. Everyone else may only engage once in a lifetime. But there may be other people I can reach on, say, an annual basis to bring them closer and keep them informed, just in case we need their assistance or they need ours.