I walk to work. I watch where I walk, because I don’t want to clean off excrement or other accidents that I step in. One thing that seems true: other than humans, the only creatures regularly excreting on the pavement or on buildings are dogs. But you wouldn’t know that from the signage.

Now, I love dogs. And I have picked up dog excrement for decades (mostly just for my own dogs). And throughout all of that time, I’ve almost never seen any other domesticated animal mark the same territory. If it happens, it’s usually a feral or outdoor cat that has decided it likes our vegetable or flower bed. Wild raccoons and rabbits? Sure. Deer, even. But not pets.

Imprecise Language

And that’s what caught my attention. As you walk around the city, you see all sorts of warnings against pet excretion. Not dogs. Pets.

The first one that caught my eye was this very bland sign, about a foot from the ground. Where, of course, your dog could read it. If it can read. #NoJudgment

Sign saying “not a pet relief area”

It doesn’t call out dogs, just “pets.” And it’s too prissy to say what kind of relief isn’t allowed. BUT YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID! One might imagine, without context, that cats should not loll on the pavement for relief. Dogs should not enjoy a good roll around in whatever scent or other thing is there. What does relief even mean to an animal? But that’d be getting existential.

Then there was this slightly more chic version. Same message, same placement, at dog level. Frankly, it’s not the end of the dog that is going to be proximate to the sign. It’s placed on an inward facing corner, not facing the street. Like many signs – including street signs – it’s not placed where it will be seen by everyone.

Sign saying “not a pet relief area”, but within an irregular quadrilateral

Finally, someone just got to the point. You, dog. Yes, you. Stop. No, NOT Spot. Stop! Yes, you’re a good doggo. (Also, these signs are at the owner’s eye-level, not the dog’s).

A sign showing a dog urinating, within a red circle and line through it, with the text “no pee zone”

We hear people saying “words matter” and they do. You can think that you’re using a common word with a shared understanding. But you may not actually be having the meeting of the minds you think.

There is a line from the 1987 film The Last Emperor, given by Peter O’Toole’s character, that has stuck with me over the years:

If you cannot say what you mean, Your Majesty, you will never mean what you say.

Peter O’Toole as Reginald Johnston, The Last Emperor

Words matter. When someone used the terms whitelist and blacklist in a recent technology discussion, I suggested we retire them for something else. We’re going to use access list and block list instead. It’s a little thing to change words to be more precise, particularly if you are creating a negative impact or impression with them. It’s something I have to work on all the time.

Who Does the Law Library Serve?

You would think this would be an obvious question: who does your law library serve? And, in a sense, it is easy to give an answer. Everywhere I’ve worked, people have been able to identify the law library or larger organization’s stakeholders. In some cases, those groups of stakeholders have been imprecise and reflected the organization’s inner challenges.

In Ontario, I attended leadership and management training with my corporate cohort. It was an interesting experiment, as it brought together people from across the organization. As a legal regulator, we had a variety of focuses. I was the only person from the law library in my cohort.

In one session, we were asked to list out the corporate stakeholders. It was a long list. Some organizations don’t know what their mandate is. The regulator, and my current law library, have statutory guidance. The regulator:

Our corporate stakeholders were a huge number of sub-groups from “the public.” As we looked at the sub-parts, it became clear (to me at least) that there were too many to be effective. When you have limited resources and lots of goals, you need to be able to prioritize. We needed someone to make a decision about which stakeholders mattered most.

It took me by surprise, then, when I was in a senior staff meeting at our law library and realized that I didn’t think we were all using the term “the public” the same, once again. It made me realize I’d never described what I meant by the term. Just as at the Law Society, we have a lot of sub groups we could potentially serve. But, just as in Ontario, we also have a large statutorily mandated audience: the public, residents of San Diego County.

Who is “the public”?

It’s the citizens of the County, obviously. And in that group, there are also those with legal professional education. The bar. And the bench. Don’t forget groups within groups: legal services groups within the bar, bar membership associations located by geography, the incarcerated, and people experiencing a specific type of legal issue (divorce, bankruptcy, and so on).

Ooooookay. I’ve talked about resource choices before: circulation, space, budgets, collection. It is easy to attempt to serve everyone and become so fractured that you are under-serving them all as well.

I let my senior folks know that I was going to sit with it for a bit, but that I thought we needed a shared definition of who we served. It’s not a criticism of anything we were doing. But our lack of a shared understanding meant that we might be pulling in different directions without realizing it.

The most obvious step was to return to a more general approach. What is the broadest definition that we can apply to our audience? This book – Creating Inclusive Libraries By Applying Universal Design – has made a big impact on me. I have generally understood universal design but not thought about it as much as I should.

When the world is designed for you, you don’t realize who it isn’t designed for unless you make an effort. Case in point: after reading that book, I noticed that all of the faucets in my apartment are for right-handed people. A left-handed person, like our kids, will have to reach across the water flow to turn the faucets on and off.

You can read about universal design all over the place, though. The book’s real value for me was how it discussed library services. You have to slog through a lot of library architecture and universal design – traditional universal design concepts – but it’s worth it once you get to the second half.

There is a pejorative to watch out for here: lowest-common denominator. We’re highly trained professionals in law libraries. There can be a tension when we try to serve a broad base that may not need that deep expertise. We might hear it referred to as “dumbing down” or “spoon feeding.”

You, baby. You want to eat? Learn to pick up your OWN spoon. No more spoon feeding.

I want to be clear: no one in my current law library has this perspective. I am fortunate to be working with folks for whom the primary goal is service excellence. There is a broad shared understanding that everyone has to start somewhere and we’re here to serve, well, everyone.

A Shared Understanding, Precise Language

We ended up landing on a general statement of our audience that was this: we will focus on San Diego County residents without a legal background. And, as with any choice, once you make it, you exclude other choices. What about the bench? the bar? the bar associations?

The through line to universal design is that a lot of what we do for people without a legal background (not “non-lawyers” – words matter) supports service to people with legal backgrounds. Everyone needs texts and databases of primary law. I have worked with many lawyers who could have benefited from a Nolo guide as a starting point or who used the lawyer equivalents (Nutshells and Hornbooks, anyone?).

This was a gradual process although it moved quickly enough. I roughed out a general concept, with examples of what I meant, and posted this to our senior staff Teams channel. I took their feedback and we roughed it out further, then posted it to the law library’s Teams channel for everyone. The final output was based on feedback from all around. I’m also watchful to see if we need to adapt as we move forward.

The other shared concept is that people without legal backgrounds are not limited to introductory legal information. At some point, someone running their own case or dealing with a legal matter is going to need to get deeper into their knowledge domain. This means that, from a collection standpoint, we are still going to collect more detailed texts, things designed for a legal practitioner. Which, again, will serve a broad audience: lawyers serving clients, clients serving themselves.

What does this look like in practice? It’s early days yet. Some of the potential outcomes:

  • shifting resources from doing CLE-qualified education to more general public legal education. CLE education is more time and resource intensive to produce. Non-CLE education can still be accessed and used by legal professionals for certification and credentialing purposes.
  • shifting resources from boutique practice areas like intellectual property or tax or maritime law and towards more general practice topic areas. This may mean dropping rarely used looseleafs or siloed content databases. The savings can be used to buy additional copies of more applicable texts, that we may then be able to push out to partner locations for branch-like collections or circulate from our own.

Note that I’m using the words “shifting resources.” This is not about cutting back. Money is tight but the precise wording isn’t about saving money. It’s about defining more carefully what we’re doing so that we can make conscious resource decisions that support it.

It’s hard to have this sort of precision, particularly if we don’t think about the impacts. I am hopeful that a shared, focused definition of who we serve will help staff make their own choices about how to support that definition. Without it, I worry that staff will themselves not be certain about where we’re going and what we’re trying to do. If you’ve ever been in a rowboat where the two people at the oars on either side, or at the rudder, don’t agree on direction, you can imagine the frustration all round. Using words carefully, precisely, deliberately and creating a shared understanding will hopefully lead to smoother sailing.