I’ve been thinking a lot about how to amplify and reuse reference interactions. Fundamentally, a reference librarian is available until they engage in an interaction. At that point, the librarian-as-resource is unavailable. Any ability to capture that interaction, then, can potentially allow the reference librarian to remain available and allow the interaction to occur. We attempt this all the time by capturing interactions as video and text resources. But what is the best place to position the law library amidst all that content?

Reference capture tends to be rudimentary, which I find continually surprising. We create pathfinders using tools like Springshare’s Libguides. We may capture audio or video and place it on Youtube. For privacy and other reasons, we strip out details and tend to focus on getting our audiences to resources.

One of the promising aspects of resources like Gimlet for reference tracking is their ability to capture Q&A. Integrated library systems like Lucidea and SirsiDynix’s EOS.Web have reference capture tools but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen once exposed externally. My experience has been that, when libraries attempt to provide a Q&A resource, it ends up being an FAQ which may or may not actually capture frequently asked questions.

One aspect I find endlessly fascinating is the idea that hundreds of law school libraries and courthouse law libraries are creating the same 101 legal research tools. I get the jurisdictional differences that mean different sources need different treatment. But somewhere in there is a substantial amount of resource waste and overlap.

We may rely on multiple platforms for our reference content. I’m excluding catalogs for the most part because they have a different purpose. One aspect of our reference work is also the marketing or promotion of the content we create. In addition to pathfinders and video tutorials, a library might post tips on social media like Twitter, and in-depth guides on closed garden communities like LinkedIn.

This distributed approach makes sense in some ways. If a law library is short of technology resources, it makes sense to deliver advanced content in ways that leverage technology that you don’t have to maintain or pay for.

There is also the 24 hour issue. I’ve posted before about how an hourglass approach to staffing is a goal. Reusable reference interactions will assist people who cannot use a library and access reference during normal operating hours.

The question then is what is the best position for the law library to be in to leverage that content? In front or behind? It’s not just a Marmite® question. The choice impacts where a law library puts its content development and marketing resources.

A simple animation showing options for audience (green) reaching the law library’s content. In the first two slides, the audience either visits a channel and then visits the library, or stops at the channel. In the last slide, the library is the outward face for all content.

The Law Library in Back

The whole idea of the law library’s location in the content stream started reignited in my head when our high schooler did an extracurricular presentation. It involved an online slideshow and an interactive tool called Kahoot. Like a library, these disparate pieces were hosted on multiple servers without integration. The extracurricular presentation is done and dusted, so no reason to have it archived.

To reach it, you need to know where the content exists. This is why platforms like Youtube can create different types of workflow needs. If your goal is to create an audience on Youtube, your approach will focus on getting audience to your Youtube channel and encourage them to stay there (#LikeAndSubscribe).

Think. Think. Think about why you are creating a channel. Do you have evidence it will help? Do you have the resources to supply it? Do you have ways to measure your activity and your audience’s engagement? Can you sustain a channel over the time it will take to make it worthwhile?

As you add new channels – Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Libguides, and so on – you will need to decide how each one fits into your strategy. If the law library sits behind these channels, and you are pushing your content out to each one, then you will need time and expertise to grow each channel. Contrast that to putting the library out front, which means the aggregate of your channels gets amplified.

I think that’s a pretty hard task for most law libraries. I think it’s a huge task for solo law librarians. But even harder is trying to get your audience to visit your channels and then visit your web site. In essence, you would be using your outward facing channels to drive traffic to your web site.

This is obviously how advertisers do it. It requires a certain amount of engagement by your audience in your social media or other platforms. It requires you to structure your external facing content – not your web site – so as to engage your audience but only enough to move them on to the law library.

All in all, I think the strategy of getting online content consumers to the law library web site is unlikely. You may be able to grow an audience on one or two content platforms. But I think the tools those platforms use to contain their audiences will inhibit your ability to get them to convert to your web site.

The Law Library Up Front

I’m not even sure I see the whole idea of being where the researcher is online as a smart approach. There are lots of places lawyers and law students are, for example, that they don’t want librarians to be. This is not to say that you should not use online tools, but I think that the more dense your content is, the more you will want to drive traffic to it on your web site.

For example, a tweet is just a tweet. It’s the ideal method of pushing someone who follows your law library online to a more detailed resource. Using the marketing approach of repetition, the use of something like Twitter can build familiarity with your online resources.

Channel building is not an “if we build it, they will come” experience. Twitter is a great example. I have a personal account to amplify things I discover. But links to my blog – by me, by law library associations, by publishers – generate next to zero traffic. You will need to invest time to interact with and grow a social media audience in order to generate subsequent traffic back to library resources.

If the law library is central to your content delivery, though, then those tweets will need to go to the law library’s web site. If you send visitors to your other channels (like Youtube or LinkedIn), you may disperse their awareness of your content. So the challenge is to use your channels as content delivery networks, to host your content, but your web site as the interface to use it.

This also means that you do not need to try to build traffic on each channel. You may realize organic visitors merely by properly describing your video. But you don’t need to spend time to grow that number if you are primarily going to embed channel content in your web site.

Slides are easy. You can load a Google Slide document or Microsoft PowerPoint on those platforms and embed the presentation. If you’re using a corporate Google or Microsoft resource (Google Workspace or Office 365), then the law library can retain it as an institution. My experience is that law libraries often don’t have those resources, and so it relies on staff hosting it on a personal, consumer iteration of the platform.

Other documentary tools like Libguides raise an interesting question. Is the Libguide something that you could just as easily create yourself using an online content management system like WordPress (I’m specifically thinking of a multisite subsite)? If so, you may want to host it entirely. Otherwise, you can use Springshare’s platform but just embed it into your online tool. Here’s an example of embedding a Libguide using Instructure’s Canvas learning management system.

The same goes for video. Sites like Blackboard allow your law school faculty to embed videos from Youtube or other sources. The law library can do the same, capturing the viewer on its library web site rather than sending them off to Youtube.

The Content is Key

The more I think about it, the more I think the right strategic choice is to focus resources on getting traffic to the law library web site. You may still get traffic on your remote content – people who stumble up on your community on LinkedIn or videos on Youtube – but I don’t think it should drive your activity. My experience working on a non-profit Youtube channel suggests that it probably takes more resources than most law libraries have to really grow an audience.

Instead, leverage the platform to deliver the content, to act as a content delivery network (CDN). Just as media sites do, try to ensure that each piece of your content is usable within your web site. In those cases where you can’t, ensure that any off-site content has navigation that will enable a researcher to go back to your main site.

Duh, Whelan. And I would have agreed with you except recently I’ve been doing some research and found a lot of law library sites that could use improvement. I could only find one law library web site by leaving the organization and searching on Google. If your web site is doing great, congratulations. If you’re not sure, I may be looking at you!

I am still thinking about reusable content, which will get a post on its own. The need for reusable content is huge. This is key to overcoming the resource challenge facing reference librarians. Your reference interactions are often based on how many reference librarians you can put into the field. The ability to make those interactions reusable without the librarian’s involvement is key.

The next step after that is then measuring those librarian-less interactions so that they are captured as part of the reference statistics. That will mean analytics that go beyond pages and views, but have interactivity that show value was delivered (“was this helpful?”) or captures conversions for people who go from a web resource, embedded or otherwise, to an interaction with staff.