A quick web search will retrieve stories about how spending on luxury services and product continued despite the recent recession. We talk a lot about naming ourselves and our places in law libraries. This isn’t really a post about naming, although that comes into it. More broadly, I wonder how a law library can become a prestige brand to act as a keel against funding crises and other foul weather.
If you’re looking for answers, I don’t have anything more than thoughts. This is just thinking out loud. If I had answers, I’d go into consulting and respond to money spinners like this Canadian government RFI on artificial information and legal research.
Some of this is easy. I once worked in Ohio at a courthouse library. A number of people, who either used the library or supported it, referred to it as a charity. Subscription or membership libraries are already take-it-or-leave-it options in nearly all jurisdictions. If we were viewed as an expense, but not necessarily a value, it made me concerned that our membership could soften in hard times. Or if we raised our dues.
Even prestige brands struggle with this. Burberry cut back on its licensing arrangements because it felt that its desired customer wasn’t attracted to the products. By refocusing, they were able to regain footing and prestige.
Keep the Spirit
I challenged the use of the term charity in relation to the law library, but it was a mindset change. And it’s the word, rather than the spirit, that I wanted to have people change. A long-standing law library can be seen as a social good, and people may want to support it. They may support it:
- because everyone else does
- because the (legal profession) community expects them to
- because they don’t want to be responsible for something that’s been around 100 years suddenly disappearing
The one reason for support that needed a bigger place was:
- it provides me with value
even if it was in addition to all of the other reasons.
Consider the Name
A law library will smell just as sweet even if it’s all or mostly silicon-based. But the term law library is pretty specific as something we think about. And it’s not necessarily something prestigious.
At least we know an entire law library might amount to “several hundred volumes.” And because academic law libraries, and probably many non-law firm law libraries, have been driven in the past to maintain volume counts, our stock photos look like this.
Even I have used those sorts of trope-ish, library porn style photos. [That link is to Flickr. Do not search for library porn on the open web. Wowzers!] Like the gavel, it has become a symbol and shorthand. This has been helpful to developers who need something to quickly resonate when they’re marketing a law library in your pocket.
We’ve talked a lot about what we call ourselves. Some people have decided to change their organization’s name too, taking out the law library to refer to something more marketable. I’d be curious as to whether making that change has altered the information team’s trajectory in those places: better support (money, people), better alignment, &c?
Like Coffee for Libraries
There are lots of luxury brands but I often think of Starbucks when I think of law libraries’ potential. Like law libraries, they sell something that’s pretty common and – between law libraries – not especially different in quality or scope when it comes to content. A book here, a book there, but anchored by large commercial databases.
So why do people buy Starbucks coffee?
This analysis of why Starbucks closed its online store was interesting since it seems backwards. But as law libraries have moved towards remote access delivery, you can see how attempting to funnel people into a physical space might work. If we’re gatekeeping remote access, and hurting our foot traffic (footfall), is that something we want to change?
I realize that might sound like self-harm. But if you’re offering a remote access service that’s used by only a small portion of your users, it may be worth analyzing. When I go to Starbucks, I usually get a coffee. Price-wise, it’s comparable to McDonalds.
If I splurge for a latte or something, it can easily double the price. Would putting remote access into a premium tier have the benefit of (a) recouping the cost from the users benefitting while simultaneously (b) redirecting those who don’t pay into the law library operation and increasing service interactions?
Is there a reason that we can expect to pay more for a latte but we can’t expect to charge more for things that are business overhead?
Unlike coffee, data I’ve seen indicates a majority of Canadian lawyers have a paid license to one of the two major legal publishers. In the U.S., many lawyers will have access to a mid-tier legal publisher like Fastcase as well, through their bar membership.
That’s a bit like having an espresso machine at home. You may not make it as well as a barista (law librarian), but you can make something drinkable. Law libraries will always need to assume some portion of their community would rather do legal research on their own.
But sometimes I wonder if we’re even selling the equivalent of coffee, or are we mostly just selling the beans? I touched on this recently, but we may not be able to reach a prestige level if all we’re doing is selling the raw materials.
What is the legal research equivalent of a little heart in my latte foam?
I’ll know we’re closer on customer service when I stop hearing law librarians talk about refusing to spoonfeed lawyers. Not only is it pejorative, but that’s how we get babies eating on their own, so why not new researchers?
One thing that has to be there is a solid customer service foundation. That has remained surprisingly unsteady – based on personal experience – both in ability to serve and the courtesy with which service is provided. Perhaps library school should add a segment served up by a training group like Zingtrain.
Next, I think I’d focus on building a network where friends tell their friends. And so on. And so on. Only because I don’t recall ever seeing a Starbucks ad, but perhaps their ubiquity in certain places does double duty.
Do we give every visitor, every time, the equivalent of a napkin? A reminder that, if they can’t make it next time, they can call – email – visit our web site? Do we show them we care that they came in – that they’re important to the library – by greeting them, and building those personal strands?
There’s no single change that will make a law library a prestige brand. But it seems to me there are lots of small changes that could be made, by a team that was dedicated to making the change all together. And that these changes could start to change the perception – from books to services, from space to information – about what we mean when we talk about a law library.