What Does the Library Do?

If it wasn’t confusing enough about what to call people who work in libraries, it’s far more confusing to evaluate what a library is.  I’ve been watching developments in other libraries as the idea of what a library is or isn’t shifts.  Many of the roles that public or academic libraries are adopting wouldn’t necessarily apply to a public law library, but the underlying concept is the same:  what is it that the library does?

I was thinking about it again after reading a recent article on the homeless and public libraries.  In San Francisco, a new library branch is being designed using defensive architecture.  Whatever change is made makes one side feel as though the library is off limits to them.

Fundamentally, if you tell someone you’re a librarian, they will almost certainly link you to a vision of books.  Other services libraries provide are often secondary, even though, in law libraries in particular, much of what we do revolves around electronic information.  Unlike other libraries, law libraries have tended to remain pretty close to that core perception of what libraries do.

The challenge for any library, though, is how to continue to qualify for funding while adapting to our changing environments.  Academics have shifted towards information commons, to utilize massive space for research rather than for collection storage.  Public libraries are lending things that are not information containers – seeds, tools – or making things with 3D printers and in maker spaces.

When I think about what a law library does, it revolves around that core information mission.  We provide photocopiers (and charge for them) but as a means for people to save their research.  We provide a wireless network that people use to check e-mail or watch Youtube videos, but it’s purpose is to enable people to research from their own devices.

I’ve often heard lawyers say, “wouldn’t it be great if the library provided [X service]!”  And maybe it would, particularly in a membership library where the subscribers pay to keep the lights on (for the most part).  But the question I always think is the same one they would probably ask if they heard it from a client:  is the law library really the best provider?

A lawyer who wants to stay in business isn’t going to become an accountant at a client’s request just so that the client can get 2 things done in one place.  She’ll find a way to get more clients.  That might mean relocating her practice, choosing a different practice area, or changing the types of services she provides.

A law library should really come at the question the same way:  is there a new service we can provide?  And if there is, is it related to what we our core operation is or is it distinct?  And if it’s distinct, what is it’s purpose?

In my mind, distinct services can potentially dilute what the law library does because it means you’re taking resources from the core.  One example is to purchase video conferencing technology, which I did at a previous library.  That’s not what I would consider a core service.  In a membership library, though, it enabled lawyers to have meetings with clients in prisons without traveling, to pipe in national CLE video casts, and, in one case, for a court to use the library to bring in a witness who was prohibited from entering the country.

That sort of a service can increase foot traffic or solidify the value that a subscriber gets from the library.  I wouldn’t necessarily do it again, due to changes in technology.  But when I look at some of the services libraries have started to provide, and their applicability to public or courthouse law libraries, there seem to be better suited providers for many of them.  Public libraries are really the better information commons, and coffee shops are better food providers than a law library and better for networking as well.  Office supply stores are better situated to provide business services.

All libraries need to make their space usage and funding defensible.  If they can’t – and it’s not a value judgment, in most cases, it’s a money one – they may experience change.  The question becomes at what point do the services or activities provided to justify the space start to detract from the core purposes of a library.  It’s a zero sum game unless funding is unlimited.  And as funding is justified for services further from the core, does that jeopardize the core itself?

I think that it does.  In which case, it may be necessary to re-focus on the core, or to change what the core service is.

The public courthouse law libraries in the U.S. are a great example.  Massachusetts has separate law libraries and legal resource centers to service the public.  Maricopa County (AZ) has both services rolled into one, in the same building.  Harris County (TX) provides space but other people provide the legal support services.  All of them have determined that services to self-represented litigants are important, and each has chosen a different way to deliver those services.  As a result, each law library has a different role in that delivery.

When you change that core service, though, you may be fundamentally changing it from a library to something different.  It’s not just about what label you affix to the library.  Making that change should be conscious because the need to justify the space and funding isn’t going to go away.

Not all libraries will define themselves the same, although I expect we’d all agree we’re providing access to something.  I think the homeless dilemma for some libraries is tricky, regardless of where they fall on the spectrum from treating them like any other patron to providing special services just for them. Providing a service doesn’t just impact the people benefiting from it; it impacts the entire library.

There are lots of roles that a law library can fill.  Each one takes people, time, and money.  As we make choices about where the law library is going to go, it’s important that our choices are strategic for a future law library, and not just as a justification of the space and money we have today.

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.