06 October 2014

In case you missed it...

I have a new job. I am now, temporarily, working at the Library of Congress as a Metadata Technician. What does that mean?

Take a look at the interview linked below.


This is only a 120-day assignment--the work of reading old laws is tiresome enough that the Library expects, and plans for, burnout. It is, however, a chance to see the Library workings from the inside, and to begin exploring for my place in it.

25 August 2014

The Card Catalog

Another version of this column first appeared in the ALLUNY Newsletter: http://www.aallnet.org/chapter/alluny/2014-02summer.pdf

“The catalog doesn’t exist any more.”

I was shocked to hear the librarian, at a public special library, say this, since I was asking how to access location information for print material in their collections.

Of course, she didn’t mean that the library no longer maintains an organized record of holdings—do away with that and the library stops being a library. What she meant was that there is no longer a physical record. The catalog is online now. And this was the problem: accessing collection information required computer access, and computer access was restricted—making it impossible for me to simply find and copy the article I needed. Lesson? There should always be at least one terminal dedicated exclusively to unencumbered catalog access.

It wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, hulking cabinets containing cards that described the collection held prominent reign over libraries, and our searches were limited to the title, author, and subject fields. I had a part in the change, too. My first library job, at the public library branch down the street, was transcribing catalog records from those cards for inclusion in a system-wide union catalog on CD-ROM. And I love both the convenience and utility of a good OPAC, which can provide much faster, more targeted results—from my couch—than the old drawers of cards ever did. Still, removing those old cabinets made the library feel a little less magical.

So when I learned that Syracuse University was making the sixty-drawer Gaylord Brothers catalog cabinets from their Science and Technology Library available a few years ago, I jumped at the chance to get one. It has lived in my living room ever since, storing small house-hold items and reminding me of the hard work underlying the magic of what we do, as well as the magic that hard work makes possible.

But my wife and I came to Central New York so she could pursue a Ph.D. Well, she caught it, and has now taken a faculty position at the University of Maryland. We moved to the DC area this summer. Our new space is much smaller and the catalog would not fit, so it has found a new home. I will miss its magical bulk, even though everything it once contained is now available online.

11 August 2014

Marketing Practices

Once upon a time, legal publishers made their money by selling books. That all changed when databases became everyone's preferred means of accessing information, but publishers were loath to let go of that print-based income. This sometimes led to innovative marketing techniques among some publishing firms. What follows is my response to an unsolicited delivery from one of these.

Fortunately, I have not seen this sort of nonsense in several years. Let's hope letters like this aren't needed again.

8 June, 2009

Dear Customer Service Department,

Please refer your marketing staff to the following website, which describes the approved vendor practices of the American Association of Law Librarians (which comprises your primary market):

Principle 3: Fair Dealing. Publishers should engage in fair dealings with their customers.

3.1 Customer consent. Publishers should obtain the customer's consent prior to making a shipment or initiating a transaction, unless such shipment is part of a standing order or subscription to which the customer has previously consented.

3.1 PRACTICE TO AVOID 1: Without prior customer consent, a publisher mass mails a new product to customers who have previously purchased an existing product.

3.1 PRACTICE TO AVOID 2: Without prior customer consent, a publisher ships a free unsolicited newsletter to a customer and then later sends an invoice for the title to the customer.

3.1(a) Where the content of a new product or supplement that is published as part of an existing subscription or standing order bears no direct relationship to the content of the standing order or represents a substantial expansion of the topic or purpose of the original subscription or product, the publisher should seek customer consent prior to shipment.

3.1(a) PRACTICE TO AVOID: Without prior customer consent, the publisher of a subscription service ships to subscribers of the service a pamphlet that includes content that has not previously been supplied as part of the subscription, where that content is not specific or closely related to the topic of the service, and charges customers for the pamphlet.

3.1(b) Where a new product or supplement is published as an addition to more than one existing title or subscription, the publisher should seek customer consent prior to shipment.

We are returning the unsolicited supplement received 5 May 2009 for the following reasons:

1)         Said item is deceptively packaged as part of a series--a subscription service.  Such materials are assumed by the customer to be part of the service for which we have already paid.

2)         Said item does not list a price, anywhere.  In fact, the packing slip--like all other subscription updates--indicates Total: $***** .  This is also deceptive, as the statement 'Invoiced Separately' again echoes other subscription updates--which are, of course, invoiced upon subscription, rather than when the updates are supplied.

3)         Said item is shipped in brown paper.  All documents except the deceptive packing slip described in 2) are packaged INSIDE this brown paper.  These documents, then, instruct that if item is to be returned, it must be shipped in the packaging which was NECESSARILY DESTROYED in locating the documents.  If not deceptive, this is certainly disingenuous.  We are of course ignoring your request to return the item in its original packaging.

While this shipment may not violate the letter of the American Association of Law Librarian's vendor guidelines (though I would argue that it most certainly does), it is clearly an effort to SELL an item for which no real market exists by making it seem like part of a series for which we have already paid, not providing the price of the material, and then making its return more difficult than paying for the unwanted item.

Such vendor practices are entirely unethical.  If one must resort to deception to sell one's wares, one ought leave that business immediately.


Everett Wiggins
Reference Librarian

20 April 2014

Deselection, again

Originally published in ALLUNY Newsletter (39.1),

In my last column, I wrote about the law library as a social space.  Before that was even published, I got word that not only would we not be getting comfortable chairs, we would be moving the library to a much smaller space.  This is a drastic, but reasonable, change for our firm.

A law firm library is unlike other law libraries.  We collect for a specific purpose—to support the practices of our attorneys—rather than in a comprehensive way.  History does matter, but not much: for what isn’t available through our database subscriptions, we rely on others, with more archival missions, to collect.  And finally, we are subject to the profit motive.  This isn’t to suggest that the library is a profit center, but we must be mindful that our space costs money, our books cost money, multiple copies of books costs even more money, and our databases allow for billing back usage costs to clients.

My job as a private law firm librarian is to provide timely access to accurate information in the most convenient, cost-effective way possible.  With multiple offices across several states, that means databases.  They are updated immediately, allow multiple concurrent users, and don’t require multiple copies for each office.

So the management committee has determined that our space can be better utilized as additional offices and conference rooms.  Our new space would be approximately one-third the current arrangement, and this would allow far fewer materials to be shelved.  I needed to begin culling my collection immediately.

Some of the decisions were easy.  Most of the deselected items hadn’t circulated for at least five years, and many hadn’t been updated in that time.  Large sets, like the NYCRR, which 1) cost a lot to maintain, 2) take lots of space, 3) are available for free online, and 4) can never be truly current, were among the first to go—along with shelves and shelves of New York case reporters that were housed in the basement.  Old hornbooks, outdated treatises, and back issues of periodicals were next.  The US Code and FCR, both available from the GPO website, freed another full run of shelves.  Digests, the NY Juror 2d, and a second set of McKinney’s Consolidated Laws also disappeared.  All told, the books we discarded left a stack of circulation cards nearly six inches high.

What did we keep?  Practice materials, mostly. Treatises, formbooks, and specialized case reporters from CCH. Historical material that is otherwise not online, like our Session Laws, Attorney General opinions, and Comptroller opinions collections. Local laws. Titles directly related to our current practice areas, or with particular enduring value. And some not available from our database provider because they’re published by the other vendor.

I am a librarian by trade, and an archivist by nature.  Tossing thousands of dollars into a dumpster is not my idea of fun, but I am better positioned to make these choices than anyone else in the firm.  I  know what materials we have online; I know what materials my attorneys actually use (as opposed to what they SAY they use); I know that keeping dated materials on the shelf so the shelf looks full will tempt one of them to use it without checking its currency, leaving him open to malpractice.  Clearing these shelves is an extinction event: the books are gone, and there is no bringing them back. Our library is now, of necessity, a lean, mean, internet using system, and our attorneys will need to adjust. On a more positive note, though, all that free shelf space has allowed me to start a DVD lending collection—so even in a reduced space, more people have reason to visit the new library.

14 February 2014

The Library as Social Space

This post was originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 38.3,

The public library has a special place in popular culture as a safe, if somewhat un-cool, place for young people to meet and ‘do homework’.  It is public and supervised, but offers discretion and privacy; a place where we could sneak away without getting into trouble and spend time with someone special, even if all we could do was sit quietly at the same table.  This isn’t accidental, it’s just a fortuitous unintended consequence of the library’s mission to serve the community.

Law libraries don’t have quite the same cultural cachet, but we still have a mandate to serve our user communities, be they a Court, university, or firm.  So long as we have open stacks, we will have users in the space—which means that we have a social space.  This creates a wonderful opportunity.

Law school libraries are the most obvious example of this, because they are almost always full of students.  They come for the books, sometimes, but they often come for the quiet space between the books—law students spend a lot of time reading and writing.  Yet they also come because the library has group study rooms and here, the library becomes a social space.  The groups could meet anywhere.  They choose the library.

Court libraries doesn’t have such an obvious social component, but they are often the largest contiguous space in their buildings, which makes them good places to host parties and events.  They also provide space for impromptu meetings and conversations that would otherwise take place in hallways.

Firms lucky enough to have a physical library, likewise, will see its space used for informal meetings, for events, and for work that requires more space than an office desk.  Additionally, as print collections shrink, we will have more space to utilize in a social fashion.  This could mean adding a conference table to support large projects, individual study carrels for using the print resources, or even a couch and lounge space for more comfortable work.  Any of these might drive additional traffic into a more socially-welcoming environment.

None of this matters, though, unless we take advantage of the opportunity this social environment creates: people can meet in a conference room.  Why should they meet in the library instead?  The library as social space brings in potential users and creates goodwill; their presence allows us to unobtrusively promote our resources and services, and the chance to make new friends—friends who, in turn, can promote the library to others.  And it can all start with a comfortable place to sit.