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.