The Problem With Discovery Tools and Law Firm Libraries

Most legal libraries subscribe to a number of online services, so library users frequently have to search multiple electronic resources as part of their legal research, and trust that they have not inadvertently missed any relevant resources. Researchers need to know what electronic products they have access to, what materials these products contain, and how to best to search them. Other challenges related to online research include the duplication of resources (some materials can be found in multiple online services) and cost containment.

University libraries have been dealing with precisely this problem for a while now. Discovery tools (such as Summon) allow university library users to search across all of the library’s databases at the same time for a more “Google-like” search experience, rather than having to move from database to database. Discovery services are independent of the library’s catalogue software; the idea is that the library catalogue is just one of the databases being searched. The use of discovery tools means that users do not have to explicitly choose the databases they are searching.

One interesting aspect of discovery tools is that it is not always necessary to have a subscription to a specific database in order to include information from that database in search results. According to Jason Vaughn’s article “Web Scale Discovery What and Why?”, a publisher may agree to allow a discovery service “to index their content and provide access to citation-level metadata … regardless of whether the local library itself has a licensing agreement with that publisher and has purchased access to this content.”

However discovery tools do not appear to be a practical solution for law firm libraries. A fundamental problem is the difficulty with integrating Westlaw Canada and Quicklaw into discovery search. If the discovery tool cannot include these resources, it severely negates its usefulness.

Valeri Craigle surveyed a number of law libraries to find out whether they were using discovery tools. The majority of the law libraries that responded were university libraries. Craigle noted that users “expressed frustration with the lack of legal information databases available for activation within the system.” According to the survey results, HeinOnline was the legal database most likely to be implemented as part of a discovery layer, while Westlaw and Lexis were the least likely, generally due to licencing restrictions.

Even if Quicklaw and Westlaw could be successfully integrated into a discovery tool, there is still the problem of cost recovery. Although it appears that most law firms are slowly moving away from cost recovery, combining discovery tools with cost recovery tools is a challenging task. Are law firms willing to forgo cost recovery to increase the efficiency of legal research?

It should be noted that not all librarians think discovery search is the best way of helping users find information. For example, Mita Williams, the User Experience Librarian at the University of Windsor, argues that discovery search is going the wrong way:

At my place of work, the use of Web of Science is an order of magnitude over most other databases. Why? Web of Science presents a small, understandable set of the most important journals that cover a long period of time, along with strong linking to full-text, meaningful connections between items, and adds the ability to download, sort and parse results sets. Discovery Layers do the opposite in every way.

For legal researchers, where time is of the essence, having to wade through too many results can pose a significant problem. The addition of “faceting” whereby results can be limited by filters (such as author or subject area) can alleviate this problem. However, the usefulness of faceting is dependent on the metadata attached to the record.

So if using discovery tools is not an option how can legal libraries improve the visibility of the databases that they subscribe to?

Library catalogue. The most obvious step is by adding more information to the library catalogue. Depending on what is already in the catalogue, this may include adding URLs, tables of contents, or individual records for electronic books. The idea is to make it easier for users to see what resources are available electronically and to gauge their relevance to research needs. Depending on the resource, it may be possible to automate the addition of some of this information. It can also help to add popular, if unofficial, names for resources. I find quite often that a lawyer will tell an articling student to use a certain resource, but not give the student its proper name; the student then walks into the library and says “Help! I’ve been told to use [X], but I can’t find it.”

User education. Library staff can offer seminars on best practices for electronic research in specific subject areas. If databases are upgraded and new information added, the library can alert users to these changes. Usage statistics mean that these alerts can be specifically targeted only to the people using these services. (This is obviously only practical for smaller organizations; i.e. not university or courthouse law libraries.) Usage statistics can also be used to pinpoint people who should be using certain services but are not.

Pathfinders. For people carrying out research in an area that is not familiar to them (e.g. articling students) pathfinders can be extremely useful. The pathfinders should be highly tailored to the organization’s needs and resources, making it obvious what databases are available, how to access them, and any tips and tricks that will help users get the most out of them.

Vendors. Talk to vendors about how products can be improved. It is important to let vendors know about any problems with their resources, as well as ways the resources can be improved (e.g. the addition of certain subject material). While the vendors may not have the flexibility to change things as much as users would like, they are far more likely to remedy a problem if they actually know it exists. Publishers should be encouraged to have all their electronic materials in one resource rather than scattered throughout separate products.

As the number of electronic resources increase, there is going to be an increasing need for effective ways to search and manage these resources. The ideal would be a “publisher agnostic” platform on which all content could be mounted, regardless of who supplies it, but the realities of the legal publishing world make that unlikely.

Further Reading

Valeri Craigle, “Discovery Layers in Law Libraries” AALL Spectrum, December 2011.

Michel-Adrien Sheppard, “Evaluation of Single Search Implementation at North Carolina State University” January 12, 2012.

Jason Vaughn, “Chapter 1: Web Scale Discovery What and Why?” Library Technology Reports, January 2011, Vol. 47 Issue 1, pp. 5-11.


  1. The issue of whether discovery services has peaked is general, not just among law libraries, and for good reason. You’ve definitely hit the biggest reasons, though, which is that discovery services don’t generally have any way to get at the core content for lawyers. I was interested in a federated service that “scraped” legal publisher electronic services – apparently legitimately – called but they’re no longer around.

    From a practical perspective – since we’ve implemented the Primo discovery layer and are slowly building out publicly-accessible content, since our audience is outside our 4 walls – there are plenty of challenges, many of which you name: facets are great but the metadata isn’t always there or consistent, access to content isn’t always “password free” so a search doesn’t always know if they can access an item without intermediation, etc. Another one that I think may be somewhat unique to law libraries is that researchers are accustomed to one service providing most of their answers. Surveys of lawyers (like LexisNexis’ Workplace survey) show they like comprehensive. If the discovery layer is unable to be that comprehensive front end – firm documents, catalog, CRM, etc. but not legal research – it means you’ve got to overcome the habit/preference that lawyers default to a primary system for finding information.

    Great post!

  2. When a library buys a great online product, but no one can find and use it, we are throwing money away. What are the best strategies to make invisible online library resources visible – search, training, marketing, pathfinders, other approaches? This is a topic near and dear to my heart!

    Much as we care about discoverability of online content, we’ve abandoned the concept of a discovery layer product at Courthouse Libraries BC (though it was worth a try, goodbye Aquabrowser). Instead we are working on bringing online product metadata and catalogue functionality onto our website. But this is an imperfect approach, given that we have great metadata on some products and nothing at all on others. My dream would be to use APIs from our legal publishers to pull selected basic metadata from their products into a publisher agnostic starting point and steer search traffic to their products in the library that way. Our library computer desktops offer an excellent collection of online resources but they are hidden inside the silos of each publisher’s online platform, which are all challenging to use effectively.

    Given this unwieldy tool set, I think the best we can do now to enhance discovery is to figure out how to keep clients up to date with how to use a growing and changing collection of online resources to find what they need. I wish we could just make it easier though.

  3. ” a “publisher agnostic” platform on which all content could be mounted, regardless of who supplies it” ?

    It does exist : it’s the librarian.

  4. Tracy L. Thompson

    Thanks for this post, Susannah. In 2007 NELLCO received an IMLS grant to fund the development of the Universal Search Solution (USS) for law libraries. At that time, we had identified all of the shortcomings identified by you and the commenters here. We went on to complete that project and the result was an open source discovery tool developed specifically for the law library community. We knew then that we would be at a disadvantage in the marketplace, as the for-profit companies were well ahead in terms of R&D and technology resources, but they were focused on a more general discovery market, and we were focused on law. After 3 years of development work and the exemplary leadership of a working committee led by Roberta Woods, then at Franklin Pierce Law Center, the project was completed in 2010. The USS is still extant today, languishing on our servers, but has not gone beyond a beta phase as NELLCO lacks the technology expertise required to advance its development and support its ongoing maintenance. We continue to seek an opportunity to partner with an organization that has that expertise and would be interested in reviving this enterprise search tool with such potential for law resources, and I’d welcome any inquiries.