Law Libraries, Data, Value, and Story Telling

Among the discussions about transforming the legal industry many librarians are considering ways to express the value of what they do and to explore ways to contribute. One of the elements that has been discussed is to provide more data to libraries’ parent organizations to quantify impacts of various interventions. This is a worthy goal, but it has been my observation that people often respond better to stories than they do to data, and that data, even when presented in a visually compelling way, doesn’t always generate the best stories.

Improved data collection is an excellent tool to accomplish many things, such as:

  • quantifying the average time it takes to complete certain tasks to better illuminate business processes, costs, or billing
  • identifying trends and anticipate developments
  • demonstrating linkages among documents and concepts that are not immediately apparent
  • evaluating initiatives and cost centres for return on investment and analysis of value

But that doesn’t mean it will identify all important questions, give all answers, or that the answers it gives will be considered. Within the larger legal information environment, data reporting and understanding will help organizations evaluate options, but for information providers I don’t think numerically derived data alone will convince decision makers of their value or convey all the information they want to impart.

It has been my observation that lawyers are often people for whom stories are the most important factor in decision making. Given the professional and educational context of the common law system this makes sense, as the way to make decisions in that context is to make the same decisions that were made before. Much of lawyers’ professional education is based on the interpretation and application of stories, but many information professionals are not collecting the compelling stories that would help give the qualitative information decision makers need to see beyond the stories that are easily told using simple statistics.

Data is collected and used in libraries for purposes like the evaluation of usage statistics of purchased content to assess whether value is being gotten for money, and as a way to evaluate whether a physical space is still required, but I would argue that the numbers of times someone accesses a subscription, asks a question at a reference desk, or takes out a book are not reasons to fund a library that are compelling to decision makers. Activities like teaching students how to do research and provision of intensive research services often give more compelling reasons to fund libraries than those simple metrics.

Training students helps develop competent legal practitioners who can ensure the important tasks of legal research are done correctly. Contributing to the process of developing competent professionals creates more value than the counting of a book circulation, but to say library staff taught a legal research class to a particular number of students doesn’t necessarily convey that value. The development of new effective legal practitioners is one of the primary ways law firms ensure long term viability as businesses and is a primary source of value for law schools. To better quantify that value it may be a better option to collect testimonials from students and junior associates after they have been able to use their research skills for a time.

Intensive research, especially finding as opposed to analyzing information, is another area of contribution where the impact of the work done by information professionals is disproportionate to the number of instances of the work. To do several of these tasks a week may not sound impressive, but to find something that would have otherwise been missed that wins a case or ensures that a good decision is made has enormous impact. These stories need to be pursued because one of the best reasons to fund a library in a firm is protection against catastrophic loss. This can be a difficult task because it is often not the lead on a matter who works with the library on the research and it may have gone through several hands by the time it is used, but to gather a few of these stories will show value better than any numbers associated with these tasks.

One of the most important reasons to have a library is that having information and competent people available helps avoid major mistakes due to lack of information. The value attached to this benefit is difficult to quantify because it is generally placed on events that haven’t happened. Though the value associated with the risks of events happening is regularly calculated in industries like securities and insurance and could be for this purpose, storytelling is an important way to convey the outlying instances where something has gone wrong to show decision makers why this is worth exploring.

Most people value the cost of losing something higher than than the cost of gaining something, and as there are ongoing pressures on library budgets due to disproportionate inflation in information resources and diminishing annual increases even when there aren’t outright cuts. Having knowledgeable library staff and adequate collections not only incurs costs, but also delivers value by insuring against the potential losses that can arise from inadequate access to and understanding of the rarely used sources of information that can give a real competitive advantage to those who have them. It is stories that show this value that create a compelling case for information resources.


  1. Sarah, thanks for articulating the challenges of conveying law libraries’ – or any library’s – value proposition. The danger is that libraries’ contributions can be like icebergs, with only the small, less-substantive tip seen by many. Our task is to continue to tell the stories of impacts made by the larger volume of in-depth work we do. Quality over quantity, is always more compelling to the decision-makers.