One goal of a law library director is to correctly allocate resources. That means, whether it’s a strategic or tactical goal, you need to have a bit of self-awareness and be open-eyed about what it is you are trying to accomplish. I had a conversation recently with a law librarian who was trying to solve a problem. As we talked, though, it became clear that they were going to fail because the problem they said they wanted to solve wasn’t the problem they actually had.

This can be harder than it seems. And I don’t want to suggest I have a better insight into other people’s libraries or challenges than I do. The only way to get at good outcomes is to really think about what it is you’re trying to do.

There’s a certain amount of information gathering that you need to do. I have often likened this to going on a trip. In most cases, you know the destination but may not know the route or the resources required to get there. Do you fly or drive? Is there are time factor that means it can happen at any time or is there a deadline? Whether you know where you’re going or just where you’d like to end up, you need to get information on how to get there.

From a strategic standpoint, you may not be able to pinpoint the destination. Some things unveil themselves as you move toward your desired outcome. At a minimum, though, you should have an idea that, when you leap, there is something to leap onto.

In a law library, there are lots of information sources. You might do a literature search and see what other libraries have done for examples. You’ll probably talk to colleagues or to the people impacted by your decisions. You’ll mine your staff’s expertise and experience. You’ll look at data, yours and other libraries or organizations. Which of these approaches you use will depend on what your destination requires and what resources you have.

I Don’t Think The Problem Is What You Think It Is

I’ve written about this before. You should start gathering data as soon as you realize you’re going to need it, even if the realization is speculative. If you get to the point where the data can be determinative, and you don’t have it, you weaken your decision-making ability.

The law librarian wanted to make a service change. Their organization was collecting a publication in print format and they wanted to shift to collecting it only in digital format. They needed to make the change because of the cost of collecting the print format. The question was how to get there.

Again, on the one hand, this is an easy one. Just buy the digital and make it available. But increasingly law libraries are having to make format choices due to budgetary constraints. In a sense, this was even easier: the digital format of the product they were buying was available for free on the internet. We’ve seen this with some government documents, where a print version (with its related costs) may be in the collection when free PDF versions are available directly from the government.

The challenge, then, wasn’t about collecting the new format. That was cost-free from an acquisition perspective. The challenge they had was that their researchers had said that they wouldn’t use the digital version. When I hear that lawyers won’t do something, I see a red flag. I mean, I get that they can be stubborn about change, but what exactly is it that they are balking at? Unless you have done a very careful survey of all the impacted lawyers, color me skeptical.

This is a decision point. In some cases, a law library director will just make the decision. “Due to cost considerations, and our acquisitions expertise, we are switching from print format of X to digital format of X.” Decision made, feathers ruffled, move on.

BUT PRINT IS BETTER! If you haven’t read this recent discussion about the benefits of print over digital content, it’s worth a look. It’s backed up with some recent research. The question is whether legal researchers use information in the same way (long, linear reading) as other readers.

When it comes to the kind of focused reading that we ask students to complete in service of understanding and remembering course content, print has a substantial advantage over all the other options. That finding seems to be especially true for longer texts and for narrative-based reading….

Why We Need to Rethink Digital Learning, James M. Lang, The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 21, 2021

Does retention by legal researchers matter or do they just need to find information so that it can be incorporated into briefs and other documents? Does the learning and retention happen in that transition from text (regardless of format) to legal document or can it only happen by reading (which favors print)? Do legal researchers regularly read long, linear collections of text or do they primarily seek out chunks (paragraphs, holdings, sections or chapters of a book)? I don’t know, although I have my guesses.

Data can help. We can’t know if a lawyer is correct or not when they say they prefer the print format because it’s better for them. Better how? More comfortable? More legible? Doesn’t require resources that the lawyer doesn’t have (like a tablet or e-reader)? The legal profession swirls in anecdata but it’s not a good approach to law library decision-making.

But first, you need the data.

To Know Where You’re Going, …

You need to know where you’ve been. The solution this law librarian had come up with, the destination at which they wished to arrive, was a good one: to increase usage of the digital such that it reached a tipping point and elimination of the print would no longer matter. Or, at least, fewer feathers would be ruffled.

The goal to increase usage is a good one. We tend to be able to gather usage data. In fact, we probably over gather usage data. But it’s a trusted measurement, both by law library directors and our governing boards and decision-makers.

The problem in this case was that they had no data to show current usage. While their law library could add the digital item to their collection – had done so, in fact – they did not have any information about how often it was being used. This created a number of problems.

The first one is that they had no baseline. You can’t measure “increased usage” if you don’t know what you are increasing from. In other words, you will never know if you’ve reached your destination because you’ll never know if you’ve left your starting point.

It turns out they were able to have a conversation with the information provider who hosted the free digital format objects. The information provider could not provide them with the discrete usage data for the simple fact that it was a publicly accessible resource and so no discrete usage data existed.

The second is a broader challenge. A free resource like a government document or free ebook that the law library does not host or license may not return any usage data. Even if a law library is clever and can track clicks from the catalog or uses enhanced links so that outbound web site links from pathfinders and other resources are tracked, there’s no reason to think it’s the only way a researcher will find that document. It is very difficult to get an accurate picture of information access that you don’t control.

This could be an opportunity, if only in the form of a silver lining. In light of not having any data to justify the decision, it might be better to just make the more difficult decision: drop the paid-for print format, direct researchers to digital format. It’s a net financial gain and can be made easier to swallow with messaging.

Not all decisions are easy. I was a pretty new law librarian when we decided to implement printing quotas at the SMU Underwood Law Library. A quota was established such that only a handful of students ever exceeded the free printing. We were roasted at the annual student skits, where the context was switched to the bathroom and the law library was rationing toilet paper. After 3 years, there were no students who had ever experienced free, unlimited printing. Change happens.

After we parted, I thought about this for awhile. My sense is that they are going to proceed with the goal to increase usage of the digital format. They will dedicate resources to doing so, whether it’s marketing or development of training resources. It will involve additional costs and staff time. And, in the end, they will never be able to achieve their goal, merely because they have no way of knowing. At the same time, their actual issue – the need to shift formats to save money – will go unaddressed.

You can’t reach a destination merely by wishing for it (except maybe with some ruby slippers). Sometimes a law library director has to make uncomfortable choices to properly allocate the law library’s resources.