Managing Unstaffed Satellite Libraries

Satellite libraries, as the name suggests, are libraries that are adjuncts to a principal library. In law firms, they can vary in size from a bookcase in a hallway to a full-sized library. Satellite libraries may be in the same building as the central library, or they may in a different city or even country. They may or may not have library staff running them. Unstaffed satellite libraries present a greater challenge as they depend on articling students, receptionists, or secretarial staff to do such things as loose-leaf filing and reshelving books.

Why do satellite libraries exist? For satellite libraries found in the same building as the main library, they tend to be specialized collections that support the work of a well-defined group; an example would be highly used real estate books being placed in a satellite library for the firm’s real estate group. These sorts of satellite libraries may either happen spontaneously (for example, a member of the real estate group decides to place all the real estate books in the bookcase outside his office for ease of reference) or be a deliberate choice. Satellite libraries in other locations may be unstaffed due to the office’s size (the office is too small to justify a full-time librarian) or there may have been a conscious decision to centralize all library services.

Services provided to satellite libraries by the main library may include research and reference (particularly if the satellite library has no library staff), technical services (such as cataloguing), and maintaining the library catalogue.

Challenges of managing unstaffed satellite libraries include:

  • Library staff in the main location may not be as aware of user needs. It is much easier to know what books are being used a lot and what areas are of research interest when you have face-to-face contact with library users.
  • For satellite libraries in different cities, library training can be a challenge. In order to carry out training, either a staff member has to travel to the satellite office to do the training (which is time-consuming) or training must be done as a webinar (which presents its own challenges).
  • In an unstaffed satellite library, the support staff do not tend to see the library as a priority. As a result, filing may not get done (or be done incorrectly), books may not get shelved, and invoices may go missing. Problems with loose-leaf filing can be alleviated by replacing the contents of a loose-leaf publication on a yearly basis rather than having an ongoing subscription; this has the twin benefits of reducing both costs and filing errors. Unfortunately, Carswell’s recent changes to its loose-leaf policy means that you can no longer save money by doing this.
  • It is easier for books to go missing.

With unstaffed satellite libraries, it is helpful to make regular visits. The frequency, however, of these visits are quite dependent on the remoteness and size of the library. Physically being there means that you can see the physical state of library and talking to library users and the support staff who are helping with library maintenance. These visits can also include training sessions.

Communication with the people using the library is important. In addition to visiting the library at regular intervals, it is useful to have a local advocate (a “library partner” or “library associate”) in each office with a satellite library who can suggest purchases or alert you to any problems.

Electronic resources can be an effective way of providing library services remotely. Advantages include not having to worry about loose-leaf services getting updated and, unlike print materials, electronic resources do not go missing. Electronic resources can be challenging to set up as, depending on the publisher, licensing may be inflexible. The costs of the product may be greater than the print publication being replaced. Additional staff time may be needed to train users on these new electronic materials.

As more and more materials become available electronically, a number of the issues associated with managing satellite libraries will lessen. Communication, as always, remains key. In order to provide the best possible service, it is vital to know who is using the satellite library and how best to be responsive to their needs.


  1. Very true that library work can be a chore to support staff who don’t see it as a priority.

    Freelance library staff are very helpful and cost effective in regularly updating services and liaising with the main library team to ensure smooth running of a satellite location and that users get value from their resources.