Espresso Machines are Lousy Substitutes for Law Library Leadership

Image [cc] Cory Doctorow
A fellow law librarian pointed me toward a Daily Report article yesterday entitled "Kilpatrick Transforms Library Into Modern Collaboration Hub—With Latte." The story is a well-worn tale of how the law library space was cut and transformed into a collaborative space with workstations and high-end espresso machines.

These sort of articles don’t really bother me anymore. I, as a law librarian, read it more as the library material and the space that houses it is superficial, not the service and research provided. The way I interpret it is that the firm is really saying this:
We had allocated 3,000 sq ft of space to house books that no one needed, but we were too afraid that someday, someone, somewhere, might need one of these books, so we spent $60K+ a year in rental as an insurance policy… so to make us feel better about it, let’s cut that to 1,500 sq ft and serve lattes and pretend it’s a collaboration space. Problem solved.
However, a non-law librarian, especially law firm leaders, and consultants who are brought in to guide these types of spacial decisions, may take articles like this and pull out key passages like "little-used," or "she didn't know where [the law library] was," to mean the library, as a service, is irrelevant. That approach is something that I stand against and will argue is short-sighted and will have damaging long-term effects.

If you have read anything I've written in the past decade, you know I'm not a library space guy. I'm a service-first, people-oriented, space-as-needed, law librarian. My largest office has no central library space. None. We went from around 6,000 sq ft of space in the old location to zero by embedding the collections into the practice areas.

The primary reason? Attorneys do not leave their floors. (We even have fancy coffee machines, and attorneys that have never used them because the machine is one floor away.) Therefore, we put the relevant material close to them, and focus on the research services and people skills that we provide. Instead of creating a space and attempting to lure people to the library, we turned that around and put the library people in the lawyer space. For us, it works very well and solidifies our approach of people and knowledge first, and information and resources second.

One of the biggest issues I have with this article isn't what's in it, but rather what's missing. Someone from the Law Library explaining how this enhances the services we provide by moving the focus away from the space, and toward the service and people. Not a single word. Now, granted, this is a piece focused on collaborative space, not about law libraries, but I would think that someone at Kilpatrick would want to stress that this is a win-win for collaboration as well as how they share knowledge and information.

From what I am hearing, the probably reason for omitting this part of the story is something that we are seeing too much of lately. A long-time law library leader has left/retired, and no succession was established to replace this leader. These leadership voids for the evolving law library service are becoming more and more visible, and many firms are wasting opportunities to embrace a new style of law librarianship and research/information services. It feeds into the narrative of law libraries are irrelevant, and in my opinion, will come back to bite these short-sighted firms in the end.

Law Librarianship is not about the number of books on the shelf. It is not about turning shelves into collaboration spaces or coffee bars. It is about positioning the firm in a manner that aligns resources, internal and external; human and information, in a way that puts the firm on a better competitive footing. It's about risk-management. It's about negotiating the best deals with very expensive vendors. It's about evaluating what is, and what is not needed to support the practices of the firm. It takes a strong leader, one with vision of where the law library fits in the strategic goals of the firm, in order to guide the firm on the correct path. Leaving these leadership positions empty, or eliminating them altogether may have short-term financial gains, but long-term repercussions that will plague firms for many years to come.

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