Shift the Digital Membership Library

Research often plunks all libraries into a single bucket but there are differences between those with open populations and others and the types of services they can offer.  Membership libraries – where you pay for access – have a closed membership and, like academic libraries, primarily (sometimes solely) provide services to those paying the fees.  Unlike corporate or law firm libraries, though, with similarly closed audiences, the membership library isn’t serving a corporate body.  The members have offices, and possibly infrastructure, of their own.  The latest announcement from LibreOffice sent me off on a tangent about the types of digital services a membership library could spin up to support its fee-payers.

Many North American law libraries outside of the government, law firms, and academia are membership libraries, even when they serve the public.  But there are plenty of other membership libraries out there, serving niche audiences.  My thinking centers on law libraries but I think some of these ideas would work in academic environments as well as other membership locations.

I’ve talked about technology in law libraries before but I’ll say this again:  providing digital services that store user information requires care.  The open source tools I mention below are all free to acquire and easy to implement but need to be properly hardened.  A library wouldn’t want a lawyer’s personal work to become public.

Which is one of the reasons this topic is so interesting.

Shift from PC to Server

When you walk into a library of nearly any kind, you’ll find a computer terminal.  In most cases, you can create content and search the internet or subscription databases.  Both activities leave traces.  Public libraries will use system freezing and cleansing apps but they’re not foolproof.  I don’t use a library PC for anything but catalog searches but I have the luxury of having my own PC.  If you can move some of these activities further away from a public PC, behind a password, you can freeze more and perhaps worry less about privacy.

At the same time, anything you can shift off the public PC is something that is potentially accessible from the user’s own device.  A membership library – with a known body of users – may be able to get out of the PC business and rely on user’s bringing their own hardware.  It then becomes possible to shift resources from maintaining PCs to spinning up networked resources.

Digital Law Library

Discussions around digital law libraries usually focus on content access.  But we’re just gatekeeping someone else’s product in that discussion.  There are services we could deliver that could enable lawyers to rely less on our physical space, that can be used in or out of the library, and to better leverage the work we are already doing.  Here are some ideas:

  • RSS using Tiny Tiny RSS.  I won’t belabor this one because I’ve written about Tiny Tiny and teams elsewhere.  If the membership library has a specific topical focus (law, science, medicine) then creating a core RSS feed for all members is easy.  But you can create more specific sub-topic RSS feeds as well and, potentially, even personal ones.  I’m assuming the library has already cracked the topical e-mail discussion list, because this would be a nice alternative or complement to that.
  • Document storage with Owncloud.  When I see documents on a Windows desktop, my skin crawls.  You’d think lawyers would understand that public PCs are, well, public.  There are plenty of ways for a lawyer to use their own cloud options or even a USB key.  However, Owncloud provides a file storage and synchronization service similar to Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive.  Each member could have a personal account and store what they need in it.

    But wait!  That’s not all!  In fact, that’s not anything!  Why replicate what is already being done by someone else.  Instead, picture the ability to upload document delivery scans or other supporting documents to a lawyer’s personal Owncloud.  That upload then immediately synchronizes to the lawyer’s PC, wherever she’s working.  Now you’ve got an ability to break document delivery out of the email cycle and give the member a document repository of past research.

    It doesn’t even have to be a document delivery alternative.  Upload the answer to a reference question instead of sending an e-mail.  Now the lawyer is able to store research knowledge with research, outside of an e-mail system.  There is also the collaboration benefit, where a document in Owncloud can be shared with other lawyers.  If someone asks a colleague a question that you’ve already answered, think about the value you add for that lawyer who can now share your professional advice without having to maintain the email.

  • Online document creation with LibreOffice Online.  This is the app that kicked off the idea behind this post.  Why send your members off to G Suite or Microsoft Office Web apps when you could provide the same online editing environment?  If, as I’m sure is more common than we care to admit, our public PCs are in fact the lawyer’s office PC, they may not be able to store their content anywhere else.

    I’d envision a lawyer working on an online document in LibreOffice – hosted on a server run by the library – without ever having to put it on the PC.  Because it’s “in the cloud” (not), it can be accessed anywhere the lawyer is.  It’s not a Microsoft Word replacement any more than the other web productivity suites are, but it’s a substantial productivity tool.

    Something like LibreOffice supports features like digitally signing documents, generating PDFs from the text documents.  It can even be integrated with Owncloud or using Nextcloud and Collabora.

One reason I’m thinking about the library as provider is because I think there are a lot of solo lawyers who could use similar resources.  But they may not have the resources to create them themselves.  Membership law libraries that have a large solo audience or want to attract one, since they’re the most numerous law firm size, could meet these needs within the research support role.  These also scale, so a library could collaborate with other libraries to create a shared service and spread the costs.

Another reason I like the idea of the library as provider is that it takes the member out of their e-mail box.  Like marketing, it creates the opportunity for them to interact with library resources more, as part of their workflow, rather than only when they ask a question and receive a reply.

Open Source Preferred

The easiest way to do this would be to license Microsoft Office 365 and just pay for the service.  Or you could run your own Terminal Server and create a similar, in-house environment.  I think both of these are poor options in the long run.  Most membership libraries are not funded at a level to support paying for an enterprise cloud product.  Even if they were, the library is then outsourcing the responsibility for knowing where that content is, which is critical to some audiences, like lawyers.

Similarly, something like a terminal server environment is delivering far too much technology, including a virtual desktop.  Open source apps like the ones listed above are free to acquire and hosting for most membership libraries, even with thousands of members, would be nominal compared to the licensing and maintenance required for terminal servers.  You would need to hire expertise – from your host or a third party, or on your own staff if you’re large enough a library – to harden the systems and configure integrations.  These ongoing costs are, I think, manageable to the extent they reflect new value provided to the members and enable a shift of resources from other fixed, in-house technologies.

I do not fall into that group of people who think law libraries in particular should veer off into service delivery for the sake of having something to do.  But there are opportunities for the library to provide services that enhance the value of what we are already doing.  These are probably scratching the surface but I think fall within the financial and technical resources of many membership libraries.


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.