Outsourced Library & Info Services - Bad for Librarians Or Filling a Need?

If you say the word "Outsourcing" to a law librarian you'll notice a few physical reactions that take place. Watch how the hair tends to stand up on the back of our necks; how we tend to raise one eyebrow a little higher than the other; and particularly notice how both hands are clinched into tight fists while we wait to see where you're going with this "outsourcing" idea. In other words, it tends to get an immediate negative response from most law librarians. Many of us remember the Baker & McKenzie and Pillsbury outsourcing of the 1990's and those experiences have left many law librarians very defensive when it comes to outsourcing. However, does outsourcing of library and information services have to be a bad thing for law librarians? Perhaps not.

This morning I saw a press release from Integreon announcing that the 140+ attorney UK law firm of "Foot Anstey Engages Integreon for Library and Information Services." After unclinching my fists, I read through the press release and began to view this as something that may potentially have more of a positive effect on the law librarian field than negative.

Foot Anstey is what we'd call a mid-sized firm with a regional practice in the UK. Firms of these size have a difficult time justifying having librarians and legal research support staff because of the overall costs. So, as a result, these firms tend to hire one person in hopes that he or she will be able to 'do it all'. In reality, however, it tends to lead to a situation where the librarian is asked to do too much (research, filing, ordering, budgeting, etc.) and in the end, no one is happy. Now, there are exceptions to this story, and I'm sure there are super-librarians out there that can take on the role of solo librarian and fill the needs of everyone in the firm, but that's got to be an exception and not the rule. For every super-librarian out there there is the poor secretary or file clerk or paralegal that is asked to take care of the library although he or she has no idea how to run one properly.

Therefore, for firms that fit in this category, would it be better to try to manage a library and information services department in-house, or would that money be better spent outsourced to a service like Integreon offers? If Integreon is using experienced law librarians (those with Masters in Library Science or JDs or both),  and they are giving firms like Foot Anstey an opportunity to access quality law librarian staff through the use of outsourcing, then perhaps this could be an opportunity for the law librarian community. It will be interesting to see how this outsourced library and information services project works out, and if we are seeing the beginning of a new trend in mid-sized law firms.

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Anonymous said...

Having worked in an outsourced law firm library, I can say there is a huge disconnect between management at a firm and the outsourced library staff. That is to say, we were treated as second class citizens - did not get invited to company parties or events, did not participate in firm meetings discussing floor plans, office moves, and worker ergonomics, and did not even exist in the staff phone list. We had to go out of our way to show attorneys the firm we existed. Furthermore, because we were paid by a library outsourcing company, our salary was well below average, while the outsourcing firm was making a nice tidy profit off of us. All in all, the experience did not seem to benefit anyone but the library outsourcing company. Not sure how this could be a good thing.

Greg Lambert said...


Those are interesting comments. I'm going to try to speak with the folks at Integreon to see what they think are the pros and cons of this type of outsourcing.

My thoughts on why it might be a good thing is that if a firm doesn't have any professional library staff to begin with, and then can use something like Integreon's outsourced staff, then there are jobs for professional librarians that wouldn't have been there otherwise, while at the same time not displacing current professional librarians from their current positions. For a lot of my collegues that lost their jobs last year and couldn't find another position, this would be welcomed news.

I sincerely hope that Integreon doesn't treat its staff in the way that you've been treated by your outsourcing company. As for the way the law firm treats outsourced staff, I'm afraid that it probably isn't an unusual situation. You wouldn't be a part of the firm (no more than if the mail room staff were from an outsourced provider.) There are a number of Employment Laws that prevent outsourced staff from participating in certain activities of the business. So, I understand the law firm's reasoning from excluding outsourced staff from attending firm events or participating on management planning.

Lisa N. said...

I am a solo librarian at a medium sized firm in the SF Bay Area. Trying to get my firm to hire another (much needed) librarian has been near impossible. I tried outsourcing a part time reference librarian, as well as part-time filing staff. I found I spent a lot of time training/hand holding with outsourced librarians - usually outsourced staff last around 6-9 months, or until they find full time permanent positions (or complete library school). I'd often receive requests from attorneys to "check their work" as well, since there is not the level of trust or accountability you'd get with someone in-house. Simply not worth my time - I'd rather just work through lunch instead. Outsourcing filing staff was actually more expensive than hiring a paralegal who had some free time each day to do that job (filing staff often put books back in the wrong places as well). The "need" for outsourcing seems to be generated by outsourcing agencies trying to sell a better, cheaper deal to firm management. Fortunately, upper management at most law firms don't have time/patience to listen to a sales pitch by a library outsourcer, otherwise we'd all be in trouble.

Deb S said...

As a law librarian and the president of LAC, a company that has several successful outsourcing contracts, including the one at Pillsbury that is now in its 11th year, I am well aware of the fear and skepticism that many feel about outsourcing. But misconceptions abound particularly the one about salaries always being below market (not so), that there are no opportunities for advancement or professional challenges -again not so, and that outsourced staff are treated like second class citizens. Again not so in our experience. The work force is changing all around us - and serial employment on projects and contracts is not unusual anymore in any profession. Being a part of an outsourcing assignment can be an opportunity to be part of exciting projects. But like anything else there are some assignments and environments that are better than others. Being outsourced doesn't have to mean you will be a nameless worker excluded from the client phone list and activities.

Marjorie Jassin said...

We have been providing outsourcing services to mid sized law forms for over 30 years and have enjoyed wonderful relationships with our law firm clients as well as stability in our staff. We are competitive salary wise with law firms and are included in all staff related activities. We are careful about what law firms we serve as outsourcing is not for everyone, but we match the firm with the appropriate staff quite successfully. It offers firms that would otherwise go without professional librarians on board an affordable and practical alternative. If done right, it works beautifully.

Gwen said...

I have worked for a library outsourcing agency. My salary (and salary of my colleagues) was below normal. Plus, benefits were weak so was worker morale. Would never recommend anyone work at a library that has been outsourced unless nothing else is available due to weak economic conditions (i.e. desperation). It's not so much an "exciting opportunity" as it is a pit of desperation or holding tank until a better job with an employer who respects librarians and libraries is found.

Mikhail K said...

For another angle on this, take a look at my article on membership law libraries as a form or type of outsourcing, in the current issue of PLL Perspectives. There is also a distinction to be made between full outsourcing versus keeping an in-house function, and "externalization" of some tasks and services. The bottom line here is, libraries have always outsourced...and have always argued about outsourcing, so in general, this is nothing new...

- Mikhail Koulikov
New York Law Institute

Anonymous said...

I agree with Gwen. I worked in an outsourced library for a software company in Redmond. It was one of the worst work experiences of my career.
My salary and benefits were weak and DRAMATICALLY less than our non outsourced conterparts.
We were treated as second class citizens and the whole experience was very demoralizing.
Having said that, some work is better than no work, so it was better than unemployment, but IMO only useful as a stop gap measure, until you find a real job or if you are just looking to punch a clock and collect a check. If you have career aspirations, a desire to succeed and make a contribution to a company that is appreciated, an outsourced library is not the place for you.


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