There is a tension in law library service between the physical core location and extending service outwards. As we create services that extend our reach, we also need to make sure the experience is a good one. When a local library resource broke down, it made me wonder about the impact on both service and perception that this sort of outage has on libraries.


A physical law library – whether focused on physical formats or not – has limitations in the modern legal services delivery world. Unless the law library is in a law firm or university, with a captive audience, there is a need to reach beyond the walls. This outreach enables legal researchers to use law library resources and services in a more flexible manner.

Choices Can Create Complexity

I was visiting a US city and went into a McDonalds. And then I immediately came out again and looked at the door. There are 12 non-cash methods of payment accepted here. I suppose it’s not uncommon these days, but I don’t think I’d ever seen them listed so clearly before.

Photo of front door of McDonald’s showing payment methods

One of the fundamental issues when we extend our reach is complexity. I see it in libraries that provide multiple overlapping resources. You can access videos from Hoopla and Kanopy, legal research from Westlaw and LexisNexis, audiobooks from Overdrive and Hoopla.

As we layer each remote resource on top of our research stack or service stack, it’s important to consider what it adds. More isn’t necessarily better, especially if additional gateways only confuse the researcher. Choice can help if it enables the researcher to have more options, in case one route to information is closed.

Each additional option requires the law library to manage another function to ensure that it provides a stable resource to the researcher.

We had a recent example of this, although it affected our internal users. We license two products from a legal publisher. Both use IP authentication and are secured behind our EZProxy login. One day, one product stopped working.

The outage lasted a week, as we worked with the publisher to understand what was going on and fixing it. We went through the standard list:

  • is the license still current (both extant and paid up)
  • did something technical change in the library (no)
  • did something technical change in our organization outside the library (no)
  • did something techncial change at the publisher (yes, the 2 products merged)

Many of the tools we use to extend our services are things we don’t really control. When they break, we rely on vendors and publishers to fix them. Where we can, we need to manage the expectations of researchers who want unmediated access to a resource. In this case, we:

  • placed a warning with an estimated time of repair
  • used staff username/password logins to mediate requests for this particular resource

Keep Watch

I’ve run a couple of web teams in my career and one thing you always want to know: is the web site up. That seems like a simple thing (like looking out the window to see the weather) but it’s not. It is not uncommon for a web site to appear to work to people inside an organization, but to have it act broken to external visitors.

When you are running a technology component that is out of your site, there are tools you can use to monitor up time. For example, I use WordPress JetPack and Uptime Robot to monitor this site. It’s not good enough to know that I can see it.

If I was running legal research kiosks in remote courthouses or public libraries, I’d definitely want some ability to monitor uptime. There are useful remote control tools to enable you to get in and fix remote kiosks, but at the end of the day, you need someone who can visit the location and press a power switch. Ideally, your resource will be in a place where you can ask someone to help you with that.

Hopefully, your users will tell you – or that remote assistant – when something is broken. When your service or resource breaks, it can help to let the people who rely on it know when it will return. You can’t always know, and different resources will require a different amount of response.

Our local public library has a resource called Green Reads, which is essentially a Little Free Library that is monetized and comes in a machine. They placed it at the community sports center, about 5 miles from the public library. It’s a great idea, because it puts book collections out into the community and has a possibility of generating some revenue.

Public library monetized remote library lending machine

Unlike remote technology – remote legal research kiosks, for example – a remote service that is not internet connected can be hard to keep tabs on. The more complicated it is, the more effort the library has to put in to monitoring it’s uptime.

People Notice Broken Services

The Library Link New Jersey had a terrible interlibrary loan experience. It’s a familiar occurrence: you have a great service, you want to [make it better | save some money] and you make a change. In this case, they switched ILL delivery providers and the system’s wheels literally came off.

No-one likes a service outage. And no-one would suggest that any library doesn’t do all it can to bring a service or resource back online as soon as it can. But that is a focus on reality and we also need to consider perception.

Unfortunately, you can experience a breakage and not know it. Your users may see it, though, and tell each other, even as you are unaware of the problem. I’m never clear whether this is because there’s an assumption that an owner knows about the problem or not. Sometimes I think the inconvenience of notifying the owner outweighs the interest in getting to a service.

This happens to me when I use the public library’s Freegal music service. Every so often, the connection between Freegal’s login and the public library authentication server breaks. Freegal can’t fix it and public libraries do not appear to monitor the connection. It’s not critical, so I go on with my day and check back later on the assumption that someone else will notice. But it begs the question: what if no-one is responsible for that?

We had this experience with our wi-fi at the library. Our corporate IT department made a change and suddenly VPNs could no longer communicate through our wifi. We didn’t notice this, since that’s not how we access services internally. And none of our researchers said anything. To us that is.

Our library gets a 1-star review for the VPN problem

We responded. But negative perceptions can linger, and spread, and so any time you deploy a service, you need to be aware that there is a lot of care and feeding required. The further it is from your physical space or the more out of your operational sight it is, the greater care it will take.

Negative perceptions can cause researchers to find other, more reliable outlets. Perhaps paying for their own service or book if they can no longer get it consistently from the law library. The library world is rife with anecdotes of certain legal researchers who won’t call their own or local law library. It might be some long ago grief but they commit to calling a different law library and that becomes their new habit.

A well-managed service can mean that you also maintain a stable, positive perception of your service. A well-managed outage can be mitigated with good communication and follow through. We can help ourselves as we extend our reach by avoiding complexity until we’re ready to properly support and manage it.