Imperial Roman coin by clarita at Morguefile.com

Law Library Value

There is no reliable way to provide an adequate measure of a law library based on outputs.  This creates a tension when we are planning what we need as far as resources and understanding what has been a good investment and what hasn’t.  Law firms have opportunities that other organizations don’t, in that they are for-profit.  Resources and services provided by library staff can be monetized and measured within a system that does the same for lawyers and paralegals.  Even if the costs are waived for clients who are increasingly unwilling to pay for legal research, it can be seen as a component of whatever value the overall work generates.  Similarly, law firm marketing and information research collaborations can lead to business development opportunities that have a value.

Public-facing law libraries have a considerable challenge coming up with anything like those metrics.  Once the member leaves the building or receives the information, there is very little that can be done to measure the value of the service or content.  In fact, in many cases, public-facing law libraries share similar attributes with public libraries in this regard.  Anything additional we learn may compromise the confidentiality of a client’s matter, or, in smaller libraries, you might have both sides of the same case AND the judge using the same resources.  Capturing metrics or ascertaining value can be tricky when trying to deal with this sort of overlap.  Public-facing libraries may serve subscribers only or they may serve a mixture of the public and lawyers or others involved in the administration of justice.

The inability to show value can create a negative perception.  A recent example is the decision of the Nova Scotia Barrister’s Society to reorient its law library as an internal resource, rather than one serving external members.  Canada has a number of member-funded subscription libraries whose goal is to support the competence of the legal profession.  Unfortunately, there is no measurable correlation between the legal research services and content provided – and paid for with multi-million dollar budgets – and the rate of lawyer discipline.  There are probably cases out there where lawyers have been disciplined for poor research habits, failure to provide applicable case law, and the like.  However, throwing $100,000 at legal publisher looseleafs is unlikely to have a proportional impact on the competence of the profession.

This value issue will continue to grow because the cost of supporting law libraries continues to grow and we have not found a good way to translate what it costs to provide legal information services into a measurable value.  Anecdotes of defendants avoiding jail, of clients saved by that one case, of time-saving forms, are all heart-warming.  But this evidence is illusory because it doesn’t necessarily jibe with the paucity of data we can gather:  fewer lawyers asking questions, low use of complex electronic materials, relatively few hours of availability of research support and staff.  Our ability to expand our services is blocked by legal publishers who will not sell us online content and who develop new electronic resources that we will be unable to deliver in public-facing environments.  Our funding sources have arguably better ways to spend it, particularly in light of tax and investment interest shortfalls.

The cost of law libraries is financial and the value needs to translate back into a comparable data point.  Law libraries who appear more as charities and less as measurably valuable contributors to their underlying mandates are setting themselves up for failure.

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