Whether We Wither

I always laugh when I see the seemingly inevitable use of “whither” in library-related publications. It just as inevitably suggests “wither” and reminds me that we are a profession at some risk. It might seem unfair to pick on word choice, but “whither” always strikes me as being out of touch.

Law libraries are at risk of becoming similarly out of touch. Recent research on behalf of the Special Libraries Association by Outsell, Inc. and Fleishman-Hillard suggests that special libraries may be out of step with their organizations. While SLA’s Alignment project is focused on positioning the association for future success, there is information there that can be used in any library operation.

Who wouldn’t want to think about why only 8% of users, as opposed to 28% of information professionals, believe that managing a physical library and print collection is an important role? 42% of information professionals answered that conducting research on a user’s behalf was important; only 19% of users agreed. (See Alignment Project Presentation 2 [PPT]).

Are we aligned with our business? It would seem that after all of these years, the clear answer would be of course! Nearly 15 years ago, Judy Meadows, Library Director at the State Law Library of Montana, wrote in Law Librarianship: a Handbook for the Electronic Age that “[T]he key to success in the future is to stop thinking about library needs and start thinking about user needs.”

But law libraries are being closed in some law firms and government sites, and funding is under pressure in many organizations. The reasons for each situation are complicated, but each decision is a fundamental choice that the resources that were made available to the library were better utilized somewhere else. The perception of the library’s value was less than the perceived value of some other activity.

How do we help our organizations make better choices? We need to make sure that the value that we offer is the value that the organization needs. Interestingly, the roles that users valued highly in the SLA Alignment project results were ones where the librarian either provided higher value services or were not involved.

This is not news. Outsell Inc. and Thomson-Dialog’s Quantum2 Leadership series issued a white paper analyzing value and, specifically, discussed how future librarian value is not at the raw data, quick question end of the spectrum [PDF]. Law libraries have always had this challenge: a user population already able to do essential legal research for themselves. But as more of the research is available at the lawyer’s fingertips, the value perception becomes even more difficult than it was. Not only is the bread-and-butter research commoditized, it threatens to make some library work a commodity as well.

Law firms are perhaps the most nimble when it comes to aligning collection to user needs. The bottom line ensures that materials are acquired (though not necessarily weeded) to meet lawyers’ needs. Other law libraries may not have the same guidance. They need to be proactively shifting their acquisition patterns, as Leanne Cummings, National Resource Manager for Deacons in Australia nicely puts it, from “just in case” to “just in time” [PDF], purchasing core materials and supplementing as use demands. The financial benefits are a clear value at any organization.

We also need to ask the Yirka question: what should we stop doing in order to address higher priority initiatives? If our users don’t perceive value in what we are doing, we should figure out what it is they want. But instead of service accretion, where we continue to try to do the same things we’ve always done, we need to weed our services as much as we do our collections. Why create the perception that we are continuing to do the same, low-perceived-value activities and have that overshadow new, more closely aligned initiatives?

This may lead to unusual possibilities. I was intrigued when I saw that the Harvard Law School library is hiring a non-librarian empiricist to assist faculty and student research. Why? Because they support a growing number of faculty who do empirical research. This additional support can move the library further up the value curve, and shifts the balance of what the library can provide back towards the library, re-intermediating the staff into their user’s research.

Mark Gediman, Director of Information Services at Best Best & Krieger, discusses at 3 Law Geeks and a Blog how his firm has adopted an Information Technology department-like service model for their library. Their focus has included staff specialization, greater focus on training, and being visible. These all contribute to being able to deliver higher value services as well as working on the perception of value.

If a library’s service model is primarily reactive, it may veer away from alignment with its organization merely because its staff can’t know what they aren’t being asked. All the marketing and re-branding window dressing won’t change the fact that the perceived value of the library is diminished. No library can be entirely proactive, but the concepts that Sheri Lewis outlined in her 2002 Law Library Journal article on faculty services librarianship [PDF] as part of the proactive approach are the higher value roles that users seem to want.

At the end of the day, that may be the best explanation for why we find ourselves considering our place in relation to our organization. Law libraries don’t die. They get out of step with their organization and wither.


  1. There’s a lot to think about here, and perhaps less time than we know to come up with answers to the questions you pose. Other types of special libraries are also starting to look at the “thou shalt not analyse” stricture. For starters, I think it’s a fiction, and secondly, refusing to go beyond simply amassing data means that we don’t add value. We need to be seen as adding value in order to BE valued. Does this fall apart when thinking about law librarianship? Perhaps not, but it may be a delicate dance, more easily done in firm libraries, where the lawyers and librarians can negotiate more clearly what the librarian can/should do. Public-facing law librarians are treading a very dangerous path.

  2. Great point. There’s no question the unauthorized practice of law is problematic. So if analysis isn’t the right higher value, it may mean we have to dig deeper. Proactive service is probably where there are greater opportunities. Even public researchers could benefit from topical case updates by e-mail or blog, better collection placement (even out of LC order), better finding tools, more available professionals.