20 December 2012

The Future of (Law) Librarianship

Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 37.3, December 2012

My firm’s library partner was invited to speak on a panel about the future of law librarianship at the Private Law Libraries event before this year’s AALL conference.  As part of his preparation, he asked me for my thoughts on the matter.  I told him that librarianship is a service-based field; law librarianship is simply a specific subject specialty, no different from having a resource background in chemistry or baseball in settings focused on those fields.  I do not believe that subject expertise is required to provide high-quality service, either (which means I really hate that law-school libraries generally require the JD).  What we prize is curiosity, which is necessary for breaking down questions to see what is really required, determining how to locate that, and bringing the results together into something useable.

This means that I see librarians as information guides.  What is changing most rapidly, thanks to the ever-expanding universe of online resources, is the size of the thicket thru which we must navigate to locate whatever information is required.  Lawyers need to know the law.  We need to know where to find it.  Today, that means knowing about, and how to use, a great and ever-growing number of resources; knowing how to search efficiently, both online and within databases; and knowing how to deliver material in the most appropriate fashion.

The technology is a double-edged sword: it means we have access to exponentially more information, which is good, but that we have exponentially more information to discover, sort, process, and verify.  I no longer spend twelve to twenty hours a week updating physical books; now, though, I need to check a dozen different places to see that I’ve found EVERYTHING potentially relevant, rather than relying on a single respected title.  Yet while expert database skills are becoming a requirement for librarianship, they are far from the entirety of what the position requires—we have different expectations for a librarian and a patent searcher; the patent searcher searches databases, while the librarian provides high-level services well beyond searching a database.

The key skill I see for a law librarian (or any librarian), going forward, is the ability to ask questions.  By asking good questions, we can not only better determine what is needed, but even help clarify the original question.  This has always been the foundation of library service, and I don’t see it changing: people will always have questions, and will always need help finding answers.  New tools don’t change the job, only how we do it.  We will continue adding value by providing research assistance for legal work, freeing our attorneys to focus on understanding and interpreting the law, rather than finding it; by providing research assistance for marketing, providing background on potential clients and opportunities; by providing current awareness materials to our attorneys, streamlining their professional information and continuing education requirement processes; by vetting, selecting, learning (and training others in) new resources; and by providing an intelligent outsider perspective on questions.  It seems to me that these services would support the strategic objectives of any organization.

In short, the tools of librarianship are changing; the role of librarians is not.  Even as attorneys become more self-reliant, librarians will continue to provide value to whatever organizations they serve by making information available and answering questions; fundamentally, this is what we do.

21 November 2012

Disaster Planning

Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 34.3, December 2009

It was a dark and stormy night, which gave way to a soggy Friday morning during one of the wettest summers in recent memory.  No matter how wet I got on my way to work, though, I could not have expected to find water running down one wall of my library when I arrived.

This morning, however, I found exactly that.  I walked into a near-panicked office, where early-arriving support staff desperately moved books from the affected shelves to a drier spot.  Apparently, a bit of flashing on the roof above us had come unstuck, allowing access for that steady rain.  This was a legitimate library disaster.

The Code of Federal Regulations defines "disaster" as an unexpected occurrence inflicting widespread destruction and distress and having long-term adverse effects on agency operations, and "emergency" as a situation or an occurrence of a serious nature, developing suddenly and unexpectedly, and demanding immediate attention, usually interrupting operations for a week or less (36 CFR 1236.14).  In my case, fortunately, recovery time rather than scope of damages is what qualifies the event as "disaster".

So, what are we to do?  In library school, much was made of disaster planning--we were told it is good to have one.  We even got a bit of attention to what should be included, but that discussion consisted of one class session in an elective course.  The take-aways I still remember were 1) identify (protect, try to secure first) the most valuable/ unique/ irreplaceable items and 2) freeze wet books to deter mold.

My first thoughts that Friday morning?  The freezer in our staff lounge refrigerator isn't big enough.  Library school failed me there.

 After removing all books from harm's way, I felt guilty about not having a plan in place for emergency events.  Yet as I studied library disaster response manuals by the light of the open barn door, I began to realize why the subject had gotten so little attention in school:  for most of us, it doesn't really matter.  The comprehensive plans describing collections, facilities, and potential responses or recovery partners are, certainly, essential to any independent library entity; every public library should have such a plan in place and review it regularly.  But for most of us, such an exercise is purely academic.  We are support organizations, resident within a larger firm, college, or courthouse, and our responsibilities do not generally include facilities maintenance, insurance coverage, or media interaction.  We do need to know what collections are important, so this material can be rescued or repaired, but our greatest concern will be restoring service to our users--and the IT and maintenance departments will have as much to do with that as we do.  This makes us very fortunate, as does the fact that having so many legal resources online means alternatives are often available even if the physical collections are not.

Having survived my disaster, in which no materials were ultimately lost but my space was in disarray for three months, my advice is simple: don't worry about planning for disaster.  Instead, cultivate good relations with the organizations facilities staff, make the library's special needs in an emergency know to them, and be glad you're a law librarian.

13 November 2012

Problems with Simple Search

Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 37.2, July 2012

Talking with a Summer Associate about Firm resources recently, I was surprised to learn that his school has completely switched to WestLaw Next and Lexis Advance.  Disturbingly, they no longer cover search techniques for the traditional interfaces in his legal research classes, meaning graduates from his school do not learn how to use terms and connectors or Boolean operations for construction a search, either.  The school is preparing students for the tools they will encounter at work—something increasingly important to the industry, if recent news like the new pro-bono requirement for bar admission is any indication.

Unfortunately, this does not teach them to think like lawyers.

The thought behind the new Wexis interface is clear: people like Google, so our product should be like Google.  Never mind that 1) Google attempts to organize the entirety of human knowledge, while Wexis provides access to a well-defined (and, presumably, well-known) finite corpus for specialized practitioners who are expected to know what resources are appropriate for which tasks, and 2) Google’s simple free-text search is great for providing possible answers to amorphous, general queries,  but doesn’t handle nuance particularly well.  From what I gather, nuance is pretty important to lawyers.

A lawyer is expected to be proficient in at least one area of law—to know and understand that law as an expert.  This requires, among other things, a knowledge of thinking about the law, as well—the commentary, analysis, and key figures discussing what the law means, and familiarity with the corpus, which includes knowing where to turn, specifically, for particular kinds of answers.  A simple search, returning all possible results, doesn’t provide this—it returns a long list of “possible” answers, which may provide the necessary information (if the searcher chooses well), or which may lead down a rabbit hole.  This chaos is compounded by what is my own greatest peeve with the systems: they return this mess of ten thousand results for any search, including a simple case or statute citation.  If I ask for a known item, I should not need to search through ten thousand results to retrieve it.  This is worse than useless, because it both wastes the searcher’s time and causes easily avoidable confusion, while suggesting that knowledge of individual resources is unnecessary.

More importantly, though, searching this way does not require, or lead to, precise thought.  We do not initially  provide New Wexis to our Summers because we think it is necessary for them to think about what they are trying to find before they go hunting.  We want them to suss out the subtleties in a question of law, learn who comments reliably on it, and how to locate material exactly on-point, rather than spend their time sifting through unrelated results.  It’s part of a belief that up-front effort reduces the total time spent on something by preparing to do the task, rather than jumping in and flailing in an unexpected mess.  And that a lawyer should be able to use the law, not just a database.

Since original publication, I have seen enhancements in the LexisAdvance interface that directly address these concerns; kudos to them for recognizing and responding to these concerns.  I certainly hope that WestlawNext has made, or plans, similar changes.

For further discussion of this topic, please see Sellers and Gragg, 104 Law Lib. J. 341.

This column was mentioned in the AALL Sectrum Blog.  Many thanks to Benjamin Keele for the kind words.

22 October 2012


Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 37.1, March 2012.

Spring is here, when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of …baseball? And more importantly, to preparing for the season’s fantasy team draft.  Now, a sports fan knows that nothing is as interesting as his fantasy team, and nothing is so boring as someone else’s team, so let me assure you, this isn’t about my team—not really. I’m writing about resource selection and strategy, which as the New York Times best-seller and Oscar-nominated Moneyball showed, is the real business of baseball, just as it is for libraries.

A bit of background, first. In fantasy baseball, players build teams by selecting rosters of actual Major League players, whose statistical records in several categories are compiled and ranked.  The top-ranked team, based on these stats at the season’s end, wins.  A great player, like Albert Pujols, can contribute mightily to several categories, while one like Coco Crisp may only contribute to one.  So, obviously, Pujols is worth a lot more—and while we all want to choose Pujos, only one can have him.  Strategy is required to make up that value in other ways.

One other note: some leagues start fresh each year, with all players available to everyone in the draft.  Mine has been together more than ten years, though, and decided long ago that for the sake of continuity, each team would be able to ‘keep’ a number of players from one year to the next.  The guy who got Pujols wouldn’t have to give him up, and would have a big advantage each year.

But how does this relate to the library?  Each season, I need to re-evaluate my roster. I need to decide who I want to keep, and who I want to draft, to build the best collection of talent, for my strategy, that I can afford.  Isn’t that just like collection development?

So how would we build a resource team now, if preparing to draft materials?   Perhaps we start by ‘keeping’ those that provide the most value: big hitters like Lexis, Westlaw or Bloomberg are all-around players like Pujols: very hard to replace, and you’ll probably only get one—then examine what else you need to provide a competitive roster within the remaining budget.  If I support a strong energy practice, maybe I should draft an energy-law newsletter this year instead of renewing the bankruptcy report that has been unused for years—that one isn’t helping my team win now.  Will it be better to subscribe to a business-development resource, or will a particular treatise in IP allow my attorney to win more cases and thus bring in new business via enhanced reputation?

And, like baseball, these competitive decisions will change through the season.  That expensive real-estate treatise we had to have for a particular matter? The case is over—canceling the updates is like dropping an injured player so he can be replaced with one who contributes now.  Constant review, coupled with a strategy for maximizing resource value, is the key to building both a successful fantasy team and a useful library.

16 October 2012

Exclusive Resources

Orignially published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 36.2, July 2011

A list-serv reader asks

“I am wondering what other Westlaw only firms are planning to do for New York Law Journal access after May 1st? …. It feels like we are being forced to sign a contract with LexisNexis.”

The question arises as the NYLJ moves from being an exclusive Westlaw resource to an exclusive contract with Lexis, and is problematic because the NYLJ website archives will only provide access to their recently-reported decisions—forcing even direct subscribers to find alternative access for backfile material.

This is, of course, exactly the problem that Lexis-only libraries faced until May, and an increasingly common one in this era of “fiscal responsibility”, when we lose access to familiar resources simply because we can no longer afford them.  But this is also precisely what we have been trained to do—our job, as librarians, is to choose what resources to provide and determine how to work around what we can’t provide.

In some cases, this means finding an alternative, comparable resource.  My attorneys will often ask for a particular article from a subscription service, and in spite of our library magic, we won’t always be able to retrieve the cited item.  In these cases, we try to find something else on the subject—for news or analytical material, there is almost always something else on the subject, and this straightforward substitution, like Pepsi for Coke, is generally acceptable.

NYLJ decisions, though, allow no substitution--they are like Vernor's Ginger Ale.  They aren’t published elsewhere, and they are primary law.  They are necessary for the work we do.  But they aren’t so essential as to justify an entirely new, otherwise redundant database contract, either.  In situations like this, when an item is essential but rarely needed, it is good to have friends.  Especially when those friends also have libraries, as each of us do.

We all have some degree of access to local public, court, and university libraries, and each of these libraries has a public service mission.  Even private firm libraries are usually willing to share unique resources; just last week I received a scan of pages from a California-specific treatise held locally by only one downstate firm.  We all understand the challenges and constraints of the current resource landscape and we are all here to help.  Please, feel free to ask.

09 October 2012

Social Media

Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 36.3, December 2011

Facebook.  Google+.  LinkedIn.  Martindale-Hubble Connected.  Blogger, Flickr, Twitter.

Arrgh, enough already.  This is as bad as choosing a new telephone, but at least a phone lets us make meaningful contact with someone.  A social network, though?  While they make it easy to  make ‘connections’, meaning is entirely dependent upon us as users.

By now, all of us are probably using at least one of the above-listed websites, and many will have accounts on several.  These sites provide platforms for establishing links between their members, with the goal of facilitating sharing and communication among them, and they are extremely popular: Facebook has over six hundred million users and Twitter, over one hundred million.  But what do we, as information professionals, get from these services?

The primary, most obvious, value is that each service acts as a combination personal electronic Rolodex and phone book.  Making a LinkedIn connection with a colleague or client provides an easy way to keep track of and stay in touch with acquaintances, even if one of the parties moves or changes jobs.

This leads to the second major use for us: research.  Not only does having our contacts handy make it easy to reach out to the college friend who is now practicing in another jurisdiction about a judge there, it also lets us look for information about the judge himself.  Or a prospective client, or opposing council.  With so many networks available, it seems that everyone is on one.  Yet this also leads to the first problem with social networking: information overload.

With so many people on so many sites, each sharing what she feels appropriate for that site’s collection of connections, social network research can be very time consuming.  Worse, the sites are designed to be ‘sticky’, so we spend more time on them than planned, just reading about what friends had for lunch.  And this is the second problem: too much information.  Over-sharing is a real problem, because honestly, no one cares what someone else had for lunch.

And a final warning: these sites rely on our over-sharing.  They are really nothing but advertising platforms; they sell our information to advertisers, who in turn use it to target ads at us.  Not only is our information online, available to anyone looking for it—it is actively being used against us by the very services asking us to share, to separate us from our money.  This may be an exchange worth making—each of us needs to make that decision, in consultation with each site’s privacy policy—but it is something we cannot forget.

That caveat aside, feel free to make connections with your author on LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, Flickr, Blogger, LibraryThing, or Martindale-Hubble Connected.  I promise never to post an update about my lunch.

03 October 2012


Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 36.1, March 2011

Most of us became librarians because we love books—love reading them, buying them, discussing them—collecting them and, eventually, realizing we have too many of them.  Acquisitions are the most exciting part of librarianship, after all, and there is always something missing from a collection, but at some point we just run out of shelf space.

We encountered this problem while I was at the University of Michigan’s Undergraduate Library (the UgLi, an appropriate abbreviation if you’ve seen the building).  When built, the UgLi was intended to be a model collection for any undergraduate institution, consisting of the 100,000 most important titles.  This wasn’t an arbitrary number, but one based on the average holdings of a typical liberal arts college and meant to ensure that, no matter an institution’s size, it would provide an appropriate collection for a solid education; if a UMich student needed more, he could walk next door to peruse the five-million plus volumes in the Graduate Library.  Yet after fifty years, during which acquisition librarians tried to maintain currency and relevancy of their collections, the UgLi was now stuffed to over-flowing, with closer to 300,000 volumes in the catalog.

My assignment was developing criteria for our student shelvers to apply in an initial pass through the collection.  Books culled at this stage would get several additional screenings; only those rejected at every step would ultimately be discarded.  For the students, we wanted easy, binary choices.  We had originally selected all of these titles, so quality was no concern—but currency and usage were: we wanted only the most current, and most requested, material.  To achieve this, I built a decision tree, with any ‘yes’ answer meaning a book stayed on the shelf.

The questions: Is the book less than ten years old?  If no, open the book.  Has it been checked out in the past two years?  If no, has it been on course reserves in the past five years?  If no, place it on the culling cart for additional screening.  These three questions address the currency and perceived value of each item, bringing those which are questionable to light.

Next, subject librarians examined the culled items to insure that nothing of seminal importance, the absence of which could compromise a collection’s credibility, was up for withdrawal.  After that, students checked remaining titles against the University catalogue; any unique titles, with no other holdings, were immediately transferred to the Graduate Library.  Books still marked for weeding were then corralled in a holding pen, where selectors from other University libraries had the option of claiming them for transfer.  Only if rejected at every step of the process would a book finally make it to the University book sale, then finally the recycle bins behind the loading dock where, after dark, some sad student might go digging for treasure.

A law library—even an academic one—is of course very different from the UgLi.  For starters, most of our clients wear more than pajamas when they visit.  But the lessons are transferable: when weeding, objectives must be clear; non-arbitrary criteria must be developed to support them; all potentially-affected clientele must be considered.  The UgLi was only interested in the monograph collection; we have additional considerations, as well.  How do print materials relate to, or duplicate, digital collections?  Are we comfortable leasing information via databases, or do we need an archival print copy?  What can we afford, and what do we do about print material no longer kept current?  Each answer is part of the decision and each decision deserves consideration, because mistakes can’t be un-shredded.

26 September 2012

Statistically Speaking: Reference Stats

Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 34.1, March 2009

So far in this series, we have discussed why and how to use statistics for analyzing and tailoring Wexis subscriptions.  While this sort of collection development work is worth the time we've spent because it is challenging but can produce significant opportunities for saving money, it is not the only way we can use statistics.

In fact, what we really mean by 'statistics' is more precisely 'record of actions'.  These actions may be anything at all--the number of times we look up a pizzeria phone number for the receptionist, how much coffee we drink, anything.

Some of these, however, might be more valuable than others.  The ones we want will help us demonstrate value to our clients as part of a personal library marketing campaign.  In times of tight budgets, keeping management apprised of what we do and the value we provide is more important than ever.

The obvious starting point is with reference interactions.  Any reference desk I've worked has featured a tally sheet, where the number and type of question is recorded.  Standard categories include medium--in-person, telephone, and email questions--and duration, usually with under five-, under fifteen-, and over fifteen-minute categories.  Simply providing an accurate count of the questions we answer in a given time can make a big impression.

Beyond how the question reaches us and the time spent on it, we might also try to categorize it by type: is it a general reference question, a document retrieval (from either citation or search), or a research project?  These distinctions could, alternatively, be seen as different enough from reference to each be a unique category.  Another subset of research, such as competitive intelligence, building a business development book of potential-client background information or searching for patent-related prior art materials might be also common or important enough to break out with its own recording.

Other activities that might be tracked include time spent outside the office for library work: we record the date and duration of such visits, as well as the library visited and general purpose, whether that is borrowing a book, photocopying an article, or something else.  It may, also, be worth tracking the number of loose-leaf updates file, books re-shelved, training sessions delivered, or articles published in the association newsletter.  The purpose, after all, is to help our clients understand what we do and how that is valuable to them.

In short, anything we do at work can be recorded and used to demonstrate our value to clients.  What to track ultimately depends on circumstances, and should only reflect what is meaningful to the situation.  In fact, a job description could be a good source of ideas for tracking.  Remember, though, the intent is not to create busywork, but to provide an easy way for showing what work is keeping us busy.

20 September 2012

Mobile Reference

Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 35.3, December 2010

Once upon a time, reference librarians sat at imposing desks surrounded by stacks of obscure books waiting placidly to dispense truth to its ambitious seekers.

That was before the truth-seekers discovered Google. Upon finding the new oracle, truth-seekers stopped approaching the imposing desks, leaving reference librarians free to concentrate on important tasks like polishing resumes, or to worry that the truth-seekers might be seduced by an easy interpretation of the oracle’s response and never actually penetrate to the truth that Google might (or might not) provide, or obscure, or mis-represent.

But one brave librarian, rather than worry about being replaced or worry that truth-seekers might be led astray, decided to leave the imposing desk’s safety and actually interact with the library patrons no longer approaching it.  This librarian found that people still had questions—but thought they ought now find the answers themselves, instead of asking for help, and appreciated help coming to them.  Thus began mobile reference, which is now common in libraries of all types.  But in the past two years, mobile reference has become nearly as resource-rich as the desk-bound variety, thanks to the iPhone’s impact on mobile technology.

The iPhone (or iPod, or iPad) wasn’t the first “smartphone” device, but it was the first featuring enough screen space to make using the internet practical—and suddenly, a roving reference librarian had access to nearly all the resources available from behind that imposing desk, including the library catalogue and yes, even the Google.  The excitement, captured on film, can be seen in late-night commercials for “Reference Librarians Gone Wild”.

Lawyers, though, aren’t as easily fooled as undergraduate students; lawyers know that sometimes the Google is wrong, and expect more authoritative responses from their librarians.  Fortunately, there’s an app for that.  Apps are miniature programs designed to run on the iPhone and sold via Apple’s iTunes Store.  The concept has now spread to other smartphones as well, so while the following discussion uses Apple examples, similar products are or soon will be available for devices running Google’s Android system and Blackberrys.

Start with books; lawyers love books.  There are a number of e-reader apps on the market: Stanza and iBooks are good, while both the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook software have also been retrofitted for the iPhone.  Any of these will allow downloading full text of many titles, and out-of-copyright material is often free.  A pity, then, that so few legal treatises are available in this format: Kaplan’s Paralegal Handbook may be the only one, and that hardly counts.

Other apps make up for this, though.  Lexis and Westlaw both have free apps that will allow account access; the Lexis version will pull or Shepardize a citation (My firm doesn’t have Westlaw, so I can’t comment on that app).  FastCase has an even better option; it retrieves cases and statutes, for free.  OpenRegs tracks Federal rulemaking, with access to proposals recently opened or closed for commenting, regulations by agency, and more, also free.  Both LawBox and LawStack provide archives of Federal and State Code and Rules, with individual titles for sale within each app at reasonable prices.  Finally, Black’s Law Dictionary is a pricy app, but Nolo’s Law Dictionary is a less-comprehensive free alternative.

There are other fine and valuable apps for legal reference; Vicki Steiner at the UCLA Law School Library maintains a running list.  With resources like this in hand, even staid law librarians should feel free to step out from behind the desk on occasion and take the reference out to find questions in the wild.

15 September 2012

The Tie-brary

Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 35.2, July 2010

Last time, we discussed how LibraryThing can make cataloging a small collection more practical.  Most of us already have cataloging software or services, though, and don't need a way to process our print material.  But what if books aren't the only things we collect?

My firm has adopted a business-casual dress code for the summer, but still expect attorneys to dress appropriately for client meetings and court.  Sometimes, one will forget an appointment and arrive at the office without a tie.  This leads to a frantic search for someone who 1) has a tie 2) that matches and 3) doesn't need it.  How much easier would it be for the forgetful attorney to simply walk over to the library, select a suitable neckpiece, and check it out for the day?  This lending collection is a tie-brary, stocked with donations from our attorneys.

Any collection requires cataloging, which simply creates a descriptive record allowing for inventory control, but most catalogs are only build for books.  Not even LibraryThing can help us here, so how can we keep track of all these pretty bits of silk?

Fortunately, fifteen years ago some folks realized that the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules were not particularly suited to describing networked resources.  They met in Dublin, Ohio to develop simple standards to facilitate finding, sharing and managing information and came away with a set of fifteen descriptive elements call the Dublin Core.  These basic metadata are broad enough to apply to almost any object or item because, well, who knows what we might want to find, share and manage?

A Dublin Core record for neckware, for instance, might look like this

Fields                          Metadata

Contributor                  Everett Wiggins (tie donor)
Coverage                     (branch office holding tie)
Creator                        Jerry Garcia (tie designer)
Date                            (date added to collection)
Description                  gray, with swirls (color & pattern)
Format                        silk (material)
Identifier                      8 (item ID number)
Language                     n/a
Publisher                     Jerry Garcia (manufacturer)
Relation                       n/a (points to other relevant items, e.g. matching sport coat)
Rights                          (denotes use restrictions)
Source                         n/a (if inspired by/ derived from something, note here)
Subject                        n/a (a controlled vocabulary field)
Title                             Junglescape (designer's name of tie/ pattern)
Type                            necktie

As you can see, these fields capture descriptive information about the physical item and its creation, as well as how it came into the collection and how it may be used.

Unfortunately, I do not have an easy way to incorporate Dublin Core records for non-book items into a standard OPAC system.  I get around this by creating a simple spreadsheet, using a column for each record field, with each individual item record on a new row.  While this doesn't give me a friendly end-user view, it does let me lock the document against changes and post the inventory to our company intranet, where attorneys can then access and sortable, searchable list of available neckties should the need arise.  I use the same system at home to catalog my DVD collection; Dublin Core provides a fast, easy way to develop records for almost any things you might wish to make available for borrowing.  Even neckties.

09 September 2012

The LibraryThing

Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 35.1, March 2010

As library students, most of us probably took a course in cataloging.  As librarians, that course was probably the extent of our cataloging experiences; even if our institutions do original cataloging (and it seems that only major academic libraries do, now), it is usually done by specialists--catalogers, who do nothing else.  For the rest of us, copy-cataloging is the way to go.

Most libraries of any size have processes in place to address this, with services providing OPAC platforms, subscriptions to OCLC for catalog records, and the like.  But we're librarians, and even if we don't want to do original cataloging, we do want the access and inventory benefits of a catalog for our own books as well as those of our employer.

Enter LibraryThing, a Web 2.0 project that uses the same Z39.50 protocol as OCLC to import metadata from the Library of Congress, Amazon, and other resources, allowing users to add their books, either using a barcode scanner or by typing the ISBNs, and create a personal catalog.  To date, nearly a million members have used the site to add over 47 million books (more than five million unique titles).  More than just a catalog, though, LibraryThing provides a book-based social networking arena like Facebook or LinkedIn, with subject-specific groups like "Law Librarians" and "Librarians who LibraryThing", discussion forums, book give-aways, and live local events.  Members can see who else has a book, contribute or read reviews, add descriptive tags to entries, and get recommendations based on their collections.

Among these features are a few worth specific mention.  Once a catalog is created, users can control how the books are displayed; there are several views available, including lists that sort by author, title, or Library of Congress call number.  Books can be displayed as a list, or by using their covers to identify them, and each item carries social metadata as well as standard cataloging information: it shows how many other users have uploaded the title and whether reviews are available for it.  Even more fun, though, is the material under "Zeitgeist", which aggregates statistics about the entire LibraryThing collection to show what titles, tags, and authors are most popular; what is currently being read or wished for; and even published authors who also use LibraryThing.  Additionally, the LibraryThing Local feature, which includes a free iPhone app called "Local Books", directs users to libraries and bookstores, or book related events, in their area--making it that much easier to interact with other nearby book lovers.

Individuals can join LibraryThing for free, but these accounts are limited to 200 books.  An annual subscription allows adding unlimited books for $10/ year, but $25 will get an unlimited lifetime account.

This likely appeals to us on a personal level, but what does LibraryThing do for us professionally?  Two things, or one thing if the organization already has a catalog and another if (the horror!) it doesn't:  LibraryThing is available at an organizational level, allowing a small firm to create a library catalog, and can also be integrated into many existing catalog systems, bringing the interactive benefits of tagging, recommendations, and user reviews to patrons simply by adding a few lines of HTML code.  Best of all, organizational subscriptions cost the same as personal ones; a lifetime account for up to 5000 books is just $25.

You are welcome to begin exploring LibraryThing by starting with my own catalog.

26 August 2012

RSS Compilers

Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 34.2, July 2009

First, I want to thank all of you who have joined my exploration of usage statistics throughout the past year.  My wife, who helped revise the curriculum for a graduate-level stats class this year, was highly amused by my default status as "expert", because the only statistics I really understand are on the backs of baseball cards.

So this year, I want to write about something I know a bit better.  I'll start by sharing a tool I've been using to compile and distribute web-based content for my attorneys.

By now, I'm sure we are all familiar, not only with the value of internet resources (including blogs), but also with Real Simple Syndication.  RSS feeds allow us to visit a website once, click a button, and have new material delivered directly to us.  Given how many different sites publish relevant material, RSS has become essential for staying on top of almost any field.

We all know this by now.  But once we establish an RSS feed, how can we further disseminate this material to a broader group, which looks to its librarian as an information provider and filter?  New tools, designed to turn our lists of RSS feeds into print-ready newsletters, offer an easy solution.

Feedjournal is "the newspaper you always wanted."  Users create a free account, which requires only a valid email address, then add URLs for the feeds to be compiled.  This product offers a fair degree of content control: users can choose a period from one day to one month, and Feedjournal will pull posts from a feed into the interface.  From here, users will be able to select posts for inclusion, decide whether or not to include pictures, and then generate a PDF which can be printed or saved and emailed.

Caveats about the Feedjournal service: it will pull at most eight posts for a period--so an active feed may not be completely captured--and it will not retrieve the entire post if its original publication does not display the whole text.  Finally, it only allows one newsletter or set of feeds per email address.

The latter point is problematic, because I follow collections of feeds for a number of different practice areas.  Fortunately, Tabbloid offers essentially the same service.  Like Feedjournal, setup is simple and free (and limited to a single newsletter per email address).  Tabbloid does have two advantages over Feedjournal: instead of requiring a user to visit the site and  manually create each issue, once feeds and preferences are set, Tabbloid compiles them automatically and emails a print-ready PDF to the specified address.  And Tabbloid will pull every post to a feed, unlike the eight-per-feed limit on Feedjournal.

I use both of these services, as a means of tracking news for different practice groups at my firm.  This allows me to point out current developments and take advantage of the wide-spread discussions available online to keep my attorneys up-to-date, providing them the benefits of constantly monitoring a large number of resources in a once-weekly, easily scanned format.  They get more, more current information, and spend less time looking for, more time looking at, what is important.  Reaction has been uniformly positive, and it is an easy way to demonstrate value coming from the library.

I would encourage everyone to check out these tools, even if only to create a daily compilation of articles on the local baseball club.  If you want to see an example of the newsletter results before signing up for one of these, or if you have other new tools you'd like to see discussed, please feel free to contact me in the comments.

Unfortunately, neither of the products discussed is still free.

20 August 2012

Public access to the Law

Last week, one of my lawyers asked me to find a copy of a nearby county's law.  This should be an easy task; for the public to follow the law, the law must be public.  Yet the county laws in question were not available, either on their website or at the local courthouse.  Thanks to the county attorney, and his staff, this ended well--they have agreed to provide us a copy of their laws, which I will keep on file for future reference.

This is illustrative of a serious problem, though: no one can be expected to follow a law that cannot be read, and application of such law appears arbitrary and capricious, which undermines public trust and government authority.  In short, to quote Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, if a law isn't public, it isn't a law.

Carl Malamud of Public Resource has made publishing the law a national cause, and is having some success at the national level.  We need to support this effort, and see that it extends through all levels of government, because we are only as free as our knowledge of the law that binds us.

14 August 2012

Book Review: Micropublishing in the Library

Originally published at When I Finish This Chapter, http://whateverettreads.blogspot.com/2012/07/walt-crawford-librarians-guide-to.html

Walt Crawford, The Librarian’s Guide to MicroPublishing. Medford, NJ: Information Today, 2012.

Crawford defines micropublishing as using print on demand services to produce copies of a book as required for a niche market. This definition is too narrow; micropublishing is ANY content creation, print or online, for a niche market—publishing, being the act of making public, is not limited to any particular format. What Crawford means to suggest is that libraries can and should be involved in community content creation, because libraries are their community information centers, and can inexpensively utilize print on demand processes to assist interested authors.

What Crawford give us is a how-to manual for producing a polished physical manuscript—the content development process is out of scope here. He provides templates for laying out a manuscript, step-by-step instructions for making the text look good, and details for navigating the interaction with a print on demand vendor. The goal is to enable anyone to create a good-looking physical book, using only common software. Crawford assumes access to MS Word and the internet; with only this basic equipment, anyone should be able to follow the steps he lays out and, without too much difficulty, have a reasonably-priced object for sale.

While Crawford sees this as most applicable for public libraries, where writing groups and local history or genealogy students may produce content of interest to a small or local audience, his methods are equally useful for a self-publishing fiction author or even an open-access academic imprint that wants to make an archival copy available. This book’s value, though, comes from its detailed layout instruction; readers are encouraged to apply these skills to their own imaginative ends. After all, the goal of micropublishing is to produce a high-quality content carrier, cheaply. Crawford shows us how to do exactly that in this book.

09 August 2012

Usage Statistics: What and Why

This article was originally published in the American Association of Law Librarians' "The CRIV Sheet", 31.2, February 2009.  Reporting methods for the vendors discussed below have doubtless changed since publication, but the need for reliable information on product use has not.

Usage Statistics: What and Why

Librarians are not generally considered the most mathematically inclined group, since our ranks feature a high percentage of liberal arts types.  However, we do have a very real interest in statistics, or at least the statistics describing our vendor-supplied database use.

To be clear, we are discussing the two main legal database vendors, Westlaw and LexisNexis.  While we have other vendors, the bulk of our spending is usually with either West or Lexis simply because of the sheer volume of material these giants bring together.

In all fairness, both vendors try to provide their clients with sufficient usage information.  However, the information they make available is geared to the billing process.  Invoices show how much time, and money, was spent on a particular client—essential for cost-recovery purposes, and something the academic environment where I spent the last four years simply does not require.  These numbers are for the accountants, and while we appreciate them, they do not really help us make decisions.

Making decisions is, after all, the reason we need information.  Which specific databases should we subscribe to?  Which ones actually get used, or get used enough to include in a package rather than accessing at full price when needed?  How can we save money without compromising our service?  As professionals active in our offices, we have an intuitive sense and anecdotal evidence to support our choices, but hard data is really what we need.  Statistical use analysis is an important part of collection development, and is not particularly well supported for law librarians now.  But take heart—it can be done.

While at the University of Michigan, I did statistical analysis and reporting for the Electronic Resource group.  The method varied by vendor, but always involved checking a handful of key indicators, reported either via a secure vendor website or delivered directly to us in spreadsheet form.  Every vendor made this information available, and it would be irresponsible for a subscriber not to monitor how the product was used.  What we wanted to know fell into two categories: how often was a database used, both the number of individual sessions and the total number of queries made, and how good were the results, both by number of results returned for the searches and, perhaps a better indicator, the number of results actually viewed or downloaded.  Based on these numbers, as well as coverage overlap or uniqueness analysis, we could then determine whether our community was deriving sufficient use from a particular database to justify continued subscription.

As law librarians, we naturally want access to the same kind of information our academic brethren have to help control our own costs.  Unfortunately, West and Lexis do not, yet, provide this kind of information routinely.  The Lexis PowerInvoice system only reports on two categories: LexisNexis Legal Services and Matthew Bender Treatise Services.  These categories are simply too broad to be meaningful.  A library might subscribe to a number of separate Lexis libraries, like Nimmer on Copyright, Chisum on Patents, and so on, but the PowerInvoice categories lump these together under Matthew Bender Treatise Services and tell us nothing about how much each is used, so we are in the dark as to how efficiently we are spending.  If no one is using one of those libraries, we could re-allocate the funds to address other information needs—if only we knew!

Westlaw similarly provides billing-oriented invoice information.  However, their system does allow further exploration of individual product use.  This isn’t especially easy, so we will walk through the process in the next section.

Usage Analysis for Westlaw

Now we're going to look more closely at the Westlaw reporting system, QuickView+.  This secure website (www.quickview.com) is a service for estimating usage charges (the results do not reflect discounts that may be part of the user's plan).  Access requires login with a Westlaw password, and must be requested from one's Westlaw representative by the account's administrator.

Once we've logged in, the first thing to note is that QuickView+ is primarily a tool for billing.  Since we are not concerned with that now, we can skip over most of what is here.  Instead, select "View Database Information" from the drop-down menu in the upper right corner.  This view is intended to let us verify what databases were used on a given day so we aren't surprised by our Westlaw invoice.  Our purpose is slightly different--we want to see everything we're using (and, by extension, everything we're paying for but not using).  To begin, let's examine the various report settings.

Account/ Account Group
If we have multiple billing groups, either physically separate offices or separate practice areas within a firm, this allows us to either view the entire organization's use, or the use by a specific subset.  Our concern is the overall use; this is reflected by "account group".  Select the "Account Group" button and ignore the “Select Account Group" drop-down menu.

Select Date Range Type
Our choices are Daily, Monthly, and Month-to-Date.  Westlaw makes their usage stats available back to January of the prior year.  Daily reports will let us see any use on a given day in that time; Monthly will show all use from a chosen month; Month-to-Date shows use for the current month.  For our purposes, select Monthly, then chose a month from the "Select Usage Date" drop-down menu.

Select Sort Options
Here, we can choose whether the results are displayed according to the client for whom the work was done, or according to the attorney who used the resources.  Select user; knowing who uses which material can be valuable to us (like when looking for acceptable alternative resources).  Clients come and go; database use patterns may be indicative of important tendencies.

Select Special Offer Charges
Finally, we choose what charges to display: only material included in our subscription; only that excluded; both, separately; or both, combined.

Since our underlying goal is to see how our subscription compares to actual use, we will need to see both included and excluded materials.  Letting the report separate them saves us a step later.

This report also offers to calculate tax on use for us, which doesn't matter for our project.

To recap: we've set our report to include the entire Account Group on a Monthly basis, sorted by User and separating Included and Excluded charges.  Choose the most recent completed month under Select Usage Date and click Submit.

The next screen presents a drop-down menu listing everyone who used Westlaw in this month: Westlaw is giving us the information we need, but they aren't making it easy to pull together.  Select the first name and click Submit.  Now a report for this user comes up, allowing us to see specifically which databases were used, as well as how much each was used on a given day, whether it is included in or excluded from any special pricing plan, and the total cost for use.

We will need to repeat this process for each user listed, so it's time to start recording information.  Westlaw does provide options for this, allowing a report to be downloaded or emailed, and also allowing us to view results as either a printable HTML page or Excel spreadsheet.

Creating a spreadsheet is a good plan, since a spreadsheet will allow us to manipulate the data and facilitates analysis.  However, we will be running this same report for every user in each month of the past year, so it will generate a large number of reports to manage and ultimately compile into a single file for analysis.  It may be more efficient to start from scratch, especially when we consider how much data in this report is not relevant to our analysis.

While it does require greater up-front effort (like typing), I prefer setting up my own spreadsheet (This may be easier if we select 'view full printable HTML report' and then print the results, instead of trying to copy them from the screen).  My column categories are User (a last name or initials--this is optional, but lets us see who uses what), In/Out of Contract, Number of Transactions (searches) for a particular database, and Number of Documents Returned for the search (Docs/Lines).  Each database this person used during the month gets its own line.  This means that a frequently-used database may have multiple entries in a given month because several people use it.

Having recorded this information for the first user on the list, use the report tool's Back button and repeat the process for each of the others.  We will then have a complete record of databases used during that month.  Now we're ready to do it again, for the month before.  Eventually, we will have a list of what is actually used, which can then be compared to, and used to bargain for, special pricing in our subscription negotiations.

Usage Analysis for LexisNexis

While it is not easy, Westlaw allows us to see which specific titles are being used, how much, and by whom.  For LexisNexis subscribers who want access to this information, I have good news and bad news.  The bad news: Lexis does not give us a way to retrieve usage stats.  The good news: this means it takes a lot  less work to get usage stats for Lexis than it does to get them from Westlaw.

Lexis has an online statistics site, PowerInvoice (www.lexisnexis.com/powerinvoice).  However, this site is only valuable for billing purposes: the full extent of product breakdown is two categories: Lexis Legal Services, and Matthew Bender Services.  Most of us subscribe to a number of separate Lexis 'libraries', such as LexisNexis, All Public Records, our different states' cases, and individual databases for various treatises.

Given that we generally subscribe to, and want information about, a number of separate titles, the two categories available are much too broad to be of any value in determining what our clientele is actually consulting.  What we need to see is a title-by-title account of what is accessed, by whom and how many times.   Instead, all we can see is a total number of transactions and their cost.  These are of course important for billing and cost recovery, but are not much help in determining what a user was doing to run up the charges: is she struggling to use the system properly (if so, we want to arrange training), or looking in the wrong place (we'd like to point her to the correct resources)?

This sort of information, of course, would also allow us to determine how to most effectively use our subscription resources.  By showing us which databases get heavy use, which do not get sufficient use, and which out-of-contract resources get used anyway, we can fine-tune our subscriptions and better provide for our attorneys.  I want to stress that the goal is not to reduce our spending with Lexis, but to increase our usage by targeting resources that are needed while reducing coverage of areas that are not accessed.

But if Lexis does not make this information available, where is the good news?  The good news is that, while Lexis doesn't allow us direct access to the statistics we need, the numbers are available--we need only ask for them.  A polite written request, made to our regular Lexis representative, should get us what we need for effective collection analysis.  The key point to remember in this request is that we need these numbers to plan appropriate database spending--not to cut spending, but to re-allocate it effectively, so we get our monies-worth, instead of spending wastefully.  Isn't that good news?  It should be much easier to write this letter than to compile comparable stats from Westlaw.

In Conclusion

It is important to remember that this is not an adversarial relationship.  We need what our vendors offer, and they obviously need us.  While statistical analysis has the potential to save us money, that should not be the only goal.  Instead, this is about spending our limited resources efficiently and appropriately, based on evidence from our actual product use.  This will let us see the value we get from our subscriptions as well as showing what, outside the subscription, gets used, whether we should subscribe to that as well (or instead), or if it is more cost-effective to access a product at full price because it is rarely used.  It is about truly partnering with the vendor to provide the best possible information access to our clients—the attorneys or students we serve.

Usage statistics are important to us as law librarians: knowing what vendor-supplied resources actually get used in our offices can allow us to better manage our subscription spending so we can tailor our subscriptions to match our needs.  This involves tracking the individual database titles accessed, and is much trickier than collecting the billing information that Westlaw or LexisNexis makes available for cost-recovery purposes.  However, both vendors recognize our need for this information and do make it available, through different methods, if we are willing do make an effort.  In this age of dwindling resources, the effort is worth making.