When we describe to decision makers what law librarians do, it hopefully involves metrics. The measurements can show activity but, on their own, they invite comparisons that may not be accurate. In particular, I tend to think that measuring reference activity often lacks the context of capacity.
Because we were working so efficiently, he thought we weren’t doing anything.
It’s a reminder that a lot of what law librarians do is relatively invisible to decision-makers, even if it’s crystal clear to the person receiving the service. That’s perhaps more true for the technical services and IT sides of the law library. We don’t always see their contributions until something breaks or isn’t findable.
What we make visible with measurement is the activity, and I’m going to use reference service activity as the example. But it applies to any time we are trying to translate library statistics into library stories. This can be particularly important in an environment where law library oversight changes periodically, as with government or board-guided law libraries.
The challenge is to move beyond trying to let the data speak for itself. For me, it represents health. Growth might be possible, but a downswing in usage may be meaningless. This can be difficult though, because upward trends are generally more positive than down.
It’s Context, Not Labels
One way to measure reference service is by trisecting it into easy, medium, and hard interactions. When we make a distinction between directional assistance and deep research, we can help others to see why longer interactions may occur less frequently: because they’re longer.
When we focus too much on the labels, however, we can miss an opportunity to discuss what the labels mean. They can become a distraction from the underlying issue. This was made clear to me in a governance discussion about library activity.
The topic of activity came up and I started to discuss how the reference team was responding, what the interactions were. The first goal was to give them context around our numbers: to the extent other law libraries share that information, I focused on how other libraries had similar experiences. Not equivalent numbers, but that the easy questions tend to be more numerous in many law libraries, and the hard ones fewer.
Another participant in the meeting – a law librarian – interjected that my labels weren’t correct – the context was off – because my easy level wasn’t the same as another library’s easy level. That may or may not have been accurate. It’s hard to be sure with subjective measures of difficulty like easy, medium, and hard.
More importantly, it was beside the point. It was arguing about the so what of the data. Okay, the reference team has completed X easy, Y medium, and Z hard. So what? As I posted before, that just gives a comparison point against last year’s numbers. There’s no inherent value in merely knowing that some number has or hasn’t gone up.
Capacity is the Question
What does 5 more hard reference questions mean? Or 100 fewer directional? Law library circumstances will vary. If you can eliminate things like construction closing the library for a week, or other service disruptions, one of the places to look is the reference staff.
The math is pretty simple. You can handle as many reference interactions as you have staff. It’s one reason the staff-less library doesn’t make any sense. A law library with 3 staff will have more capacity than a sole law librarian. No surprises there.
But it’s more nuanced than that. For example:
- seasoned staff may answer fewer questions because they’re working on deeper interactions;
- less seasoned staff may answer more questions that are high value to the recipient but, marked as easy, may not constitute high value for the funder.
I’ve heard law librarians discount other staff’s work as merely pulling cases for lawyers. From the viewpoint of the seasoned subject matter expert, that may be well-nigh clerical work. But I did it when lawyers asked me for help, when they lacked capacity themselves.
At the same time, it’s important to consider that decision-makers may have similar value assumptions – case pulling is low value – but ones that differ from the person who is getting the cases. We need to be able to explain that:
- everyone is doing work that our researchers value
- everyone is working at the level that is appropriate to the top of their expertise when possible
Sometimes that work is answering questions and guiding research, and sometimes it is helping that lawyer get her work done more efficiently. And sometimes that means our overall interaction count will go down.
Softening the Swings
It will vary at any library but there is probably a way to determine the right number of reference staff. At some point, you can add more people and no more interactions will be handled, so you hit over capacity. Another reality: I’m not aware of any law library that is funded to have an excess of people.
One thing we can do is assess where process can reduce interactions, to free up staff to take on other, potentially higher value-to-the-researcher interactions. That could mean:
- better signage for in-library wayfinding, and understanding that researchers may understand neither Dewey nor LC cataloging
- better technology so that staff aren’t constantly rebooting PCs or otherwise supporting hardware. Maybe this requires an investment in a system-freezing software to limit lawyers who want to personalize library computers with wallpaper or sync the PC with their firm’s OneDrive account (true story)
- simpler interfaces so that researchers can find things on the library web site or on in-library PCs more intuitively. For example, start PCs in kiosk mode and use a web page (perhaps one that’s also available on the library’s web site), rather than desktop icons. Also, not Libguides.
- collection shifts to put highly used materials in highly visible space, whether that’s books on shelves or deep linking to databases.
An additional approach is to do a better job of re-using reference questions and answers. Law libraries that have – or make – the time to identify good questions and answers can create an in-house resource that broadens the capacity of less seasoned staff.
As I started, reference is just an example. There are a large number of library operations that are invisible to decision makers. Some won’t even have a good method of measurement and visualisation. Each one should be picked over by the library manager to make sure they’re prepared to talk about the value – which may not be growth or increases – which may be counter-intuitive to decision-makers.
People are expensive. And there are decision-makers who do not value the people as much as they should. It is better to minimize and to be prepared to answer usage fluctuation in advance, rather than leaving it to the data on its own. The data should help you to tell the story, not to be the story.