A law library director is a bit like a train engineer. The future is ahead of us, on the rails on which our train runs. It is a flight of fancy to think a library can go in any direction. Funding, guild pressure, legislation. We all have constraints that make it difficult to change course and leaving the tracks isn’t an option. Like a train, we chunter along and, at junctions, make strategic choices. Is there a proactive way to create those junctions?

Sometimes we may not consider the rails; they become invisible. But there are reasons that law libraries are constrained and unable to adapt to changes around them. And, because, inside the train, we can create change, we may not wonder about those constraints. We can serve different food. We can use the train to pick up mail or not, passengers or freight or both. We assume that the overall direction we are heading can’t be altered.

Gromit the dog lays track in front of an out of control train (Wallace and Gromit, “The Wrong Trousers”)

We may not think ever get to the point about what would happen if our train reached a junction. We obviously don’t want the train to jump the track. Just as it could be for a train, that is probably an existential disaster for a law library. But it doesn’t mean that the rails are going the right direction.

How to prepare for a junction? And better, how to create one?

Recognize the Constraints

I recently had the opportunity to disconnect for a few hours and just think about it. I’d become sedentary over the pandemic but have gotten back into walking. We live near a river so the dog and I have taken to walking a stretch of it, about 20 km round trip. He looks for the next great thing while I let my feet do their thing and let my mind roam.

A bumblebee on wild bergamot, acorns, and an egret taking off from a pond near the Holland River

One of the things stuck in my head is the law librarian pipeline and how we broaden the pool of applicants. That post touches on the hurdles (the MLS, the JD, the lack of law librarian jobs) that stack up to prevent people ever joining law libraries. All of which are issues that need addressing but the one I was thinking most about was location.

This is not to mention the lawyers and others who are trying to tear up the tracks on which the law library runs. They argue for the train to turn around. Or they argue that the train should run in a direction that the tracks don’t go.

The pandemic has really brought home how a space-specific requirement for work also limits our pool. A lot of our work doesn’t need a law library; it needs access to legal information. Right now, as we adapt to pandemic conditions, we are taking a workforce developed for on-site work and starting to find ways to remove the constraints of their work.

But everyone is still on the same train. It’s a 9 to 5, Monday to Friday train because the legal profession and the courts operate from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. So, while not everyone has to sit in the same coach or compartment on the train any longer, they’re still within its constraints.

In particular, the idea of geo-neutral salary has been in my head. It seems both fair and obvious and yet isn’t apparently a common practice. We should pay for the work not for where the person does the work. It’s just as strange to me, now, as paying someone for the 7 or 8 hours in which their work is done, rather than for the work itself (however long it takes).

This is particularly true because many law libraries are in expensive places to live relative to the surrounding area. Housing in metro areas like the one in which our law library sits is priced so that, unless the person is already living in the area, it can be hard to attract other candidates.

I’m sure this is the same with law firms that are large enough to have law libraries: they’ll be in metro areas. Courthouse libraries will tend to be in population centers. Academic law libraries may be more dispersed and in affordable locations but even then, as the campus draws in population, there may be a cost-of-living difference between living close to and further away from the law library.

Laying New Track

This isn’t so much a directional change as it may be preparatory to one. There are two elements that I’d want to try to shift. First, the limitations of the 9 to 5 Monday to Friday schedule. Second, the need for all staff to commute to a shared physical space.

Altered Hours

The latter is just operations. The former may be a bit trickier. When do people use the law library’s services and how to account for potential use at the times when the services aren’t currently available?

For political reasons if nothing else, you would want to survey usage and potential usage even if you feel pretty confident. You might be surprised. You should ask your staff about current usage demands. You might measure foot fall across the day for a couple of weeks. You could ask public libraries about their peak times, especially where their hours are longer than yours.

An image showing customer usage at a nearby Walmart – not on Walmart’s site but on a Google card. Do you know your library usage that well?

I mention staff because we were just discussing eliminating hours. While there was concern about closing on a Saturday, there was universal agreement that Sundays were not worth opening for. I’ve seen plenty of surveys, especially at law schools, touching on 24-hour access or extended hours. The only way to test demand is to open for those hours and see. In our case, Sundays are not a day that lawyers head to a physical law library.

One library I worked at tested 24 hour staffed access and found very little additional use. Just as law libraries have moved away from just in case collecting, there’s no need to spend resources in speculative staffing.

How to get there?

Many law libraries have a stable staff. A lack of turnover can be a healthy sign for an organization. But it can also be an impediment to changing coverage hours, because most law libraries don’t tend to have a lot of staff positions. It means you face the choice of transitioning the people you have or making space for the change.

Once you have your new coverage scope sketched out, you can start to figure out how to fill the time. This can be tricky unless you have regular or periodic turnover in your staff. You’ll have to:

  • determine if staff who were hired for Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 are willing to shift – permanently – to a different set of hours. This might be one person shifting a schedule or shifting to rotations. I’d lean towards a shift, since rotations build in a lot of extra scheduling maintenance.
  • create roles that can be redeployed to the new times. This might mean letting current staff go – which, at least in Canada, would involve notice and severance – to create spaces since most law libraries are not expanding.

You could also do this with part-time staff. I’m loathe to use part-time roles in the law library because, as we’re seeing with the entire candidate pool and housing, we are not always in a place where a part-time role’s compensation meets the cost-of-living.

The least disruptive would be to take your future schedule and slowly fill it as staff openings allow. For example, if you have a M-F/9-5 opening, repost it as noon-9/T-Sat or whatever fits your optimal service delivery schedule.

Altered Spaces

Altered hours are one way that we may be able to reach additional candidates. But I think the real opportunity is to let them stay wherever they are and work remotely. Just like hours, you may need to create space for this to happen. Otherwise, take advantage of each staff opening.

Some companies have concerns about the cost of managing staff spread across multiple tax and health-and-safety jurisdictions. Even if you could open your staffing to a single jurisdiction (US state or Canadian province), you’d be broadening your pool. People in the same state or province would normally share a time zone and be near enough to participate in face-to-face activities if they were necessary. It could be a similar approach as many online library school programs take, where the cohort meets in shared space once or twice during the completion of the degree.

I was talking to someone recently whose company is struggling to wrap its head around a more flexible work force. This person will be required to work within a reasonable commute of their physical space. This decision leap frogs the question about whether the work needs to be done in the physical space.

At the moment, I’m leaning towards the concept of creating roles that are 100% remote and distinguishing them from other roles. Both might be reference librarian in title but one would be entirely away. The pay would be the same, as would the expectations. But it would create an opportunity for someone to be permanently remote.

This is me thinking out loud, but if you had everyone 100% remote – even within a single category of role, like reference librarian – you’d also need to be able to ditch the train. A law library’s physical space can be a bit of an albatross in this way. It is a constraint on change.

This can be a big mental shift. What does a reference interview with an entirely remote person look like? It could look like our current chat or email reference interactions. Neither of those need people to be physically adjacent.

If you wanted more, this is my vision:

  • a kiosk or desk where someone could interact with a video screen. It could just be a typical PC with a Windows screen and web cam. I still like the idea of telepresence robots that would allow the remote person to move through the physical space. The video screen would allow for a face-to-face reference interview. Unlike a virtual meeting, where the loss of peripheral vision is noticeable, this sort of interaction wouldn’t suffer from that.
  • headphones to enable the conversation to be as private as possible for the participant.
  • a small document camera that would allow the researcher to display a paper court form or document for the remote librarian to see or provide guidance on.

The interview container – the technology to link the researcher to the remote librarian – could be placed anywhere. Not just in a law library, but wherever we think legal information access is needed. And we could move it, like a “justice bus” to where need exists but on a more permanent basis than a literal vehicle.

The Ohio Justice Bus, funded by the Ohio Access to Justice Foundation in 2021

It flips the concept a bit. Why move our staff around to meet need when we can move the interface for information access? Why would we move our staff or put them only in a physical space when we know remote database access is so popular? A remote librarian might actually be able to serve multiple locations at once, which could optimize the time resource in the law library’s delivery approach.

The biggest hurdle that I can imagine is the making the organizational commitment to let staff work where they live, and not where the law library is. The tools they use are the same ones we’re using now, even if we only live 10 blocks from the law library when we’re remote. As in so many cases, it’s not a technical challenge to broaden the pool. It’s a political and cultural one.

Our re-entry to our workplace isn’t a good time to attempt this change. We are already adapting to a lot and I don’t want to overload the change by also starting to shift schedules. But, now that our organization supports remote work, the next open position I have will be a good opportunity to see if we can reconstitute a position for someone to work from where they are.