Doing More is Played Out

A repeated refrain in the library world is having to do more with less.  I suppose it is common almost everywhere when the financial conditions tighten.  I’ve even contributed to the discussion.  At a recent conference, the speaker mentioned this trite phrase and it struck me that perhaps we shouldn’t.

I’ve already mentioned the self-awareness that law libraries have to have.  We need to look at what we do and what we shouldn’t be doing.  At one point it was fashionable to say that we were asking the Yirka question.  But there still seems to be a steady accretion of work that we take on – the doing more part – in spite of asking what things we shouldn’t be doing.  Things like information literacy, training, and so on.

The reality is that doing more with less isn’t what we’re actually doing.  It would be more accurate to say we’re doing more, poorly, with less.  This is because we aren’t really giving up anything we did before.

I read a blog post recently that essentially distinguished the library from the librarian.  Good.  That makes sense.  But the post swung back and talked about the next library, placing the librarian back within the library as the service point.  All of the great ideas about what librarians should be doing were there, but still with the physical leg-irons.  As I was reading it, the author talked about how the library has already lost to the mall.  It seems to me that perhaps the entrepreneurial librarian would be better off at a booth in the mall, next to the perfume and phone sellers, if the people need librarians and data but not libraries.

Access to justice often gets rolled up in the future of law libraries.  Many law libraries are inaccessible to the public.  Where we don’t actively block people from coming in, we do it implicitly by limiting our hours, strictly interpreting unauthorized practice of law statutes, and in other ways.  If we situated ourselves in malls – imagine a self-help kiosk or two, a computer terminal for detailed research and an Espresso-type book printer for on-the-spot purchases rather than collection maintenance – we could address the access issue far better than we can from within the walls of courthouses.

There are probably law libraries who have tried this sort of thing.  But it is seen as a branch, not the trunk.  We remain in our fortresses of solitude and no matter how busy we are, we do not eliminate our lower traffic sites and collections in favor of higher traffic options.  We try to blend them but that may not be the right direction.

Instead of doing more with less (or, at best, the same), it may be time to do less with less, but make that less more meaningful.  We may never get to a point where we have a really good measure of the value of a law library’s services outside of a private law firm.  A radical shift away from the physical library could enable us to think differently about what service we are providing  and to whom.

I suppose this is primarily about subscription or membership libraries.  In the vast majority of cases, we cannot justify our value based on voluntary revenue streams.  We are funded by mandatory levies from membership or supported by government funding through court filing fees and the like.  The cold reality is that without forced revenues, our libraries wouldn’t exist.  I hear the word charity and tradition too often in relation to these sorts of libraries and why the funding continues and not enough about value and necessity, at least not from the member’s side.

I read recently that newspapers with paywalls were focusing on the 15% who would be willing to pay, rather than the rest of their readership who (like me) were freeloaders.  It made me wonder if we could even get 15% of our dues paying membership to voluntarily pay for the services and resources we provide.  Not only does it assume they would but that the amount the 15% paid would continue to support services and resources for which they would want to pay.

We continue to do more with less and will do so for the foreseeable future.  But the model is played out.  Our print collection budgets are unsustainable but we do not have the will to pull away from the archival buttressing we use to support our existence.  Our costs are now going to rapidly surpass any potential value arguments we can make.  When we do more to justify our existence with fewer resources and no appreciable change in the value we offer, we’re doing ourselves, our organizations, and our members a disservice.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.