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[Guest Blog from Cindy Adams]

As research has evolved in recent years, we all have seen decreased foot traffic within our libraries. Attorneys rarely need print materials and are able to complete most tasks on their desktops. If no one comes to visit the library, is the facility, and its staff, still relevant?

In addition to the evolution from a physical presence to an online presence, our Atlanta office faced a special challenge. When the building was being designed more than 20 years ago, I begged management to put the library on a floor with attorneys. Sadly, I was overruled. So, for 17 years our Research Team has been at least three floors and two elevator rides away from our customers.

As research became an activity conducted by attorneys in their offices, we saw less and less of other people. As time went on our visitors became fewer and fewer, and requests came to us more frequently by phone, and now, via email. Over the years we were cut off, quite literally, from our customers.

Even though we were out of sight, the number of requests was not decreasing. As email emerged as the standard of communication, our work continued to grow. Using a unified Research Team approach, every research request is shared with every Team member. Research Team members, who are located in three of our 10 offices, respond to requests from people they may never meet. The library is no longer a physical location, but rather a virtual service. Our face-time with our customers was becoming a thing of the past, and face-time can be critical to building and maintaining relationships. Our research load proved that we weren’t out of our customer’s minds yet, but I knew we needed to do something to become more engaged with other people in our Atlanta office.

I didn’t want my team to be toiling in obscurity – faceless voices at the other end of a phone line—or signatures at the end of an email. How could we become more involved in daily interactions with other people at the firm? At conferences, I heard the mantra over and over – Get up from your desk and walk around. But who has the time? How could we leave our phones and computers?

Then, one day last summer, the light bulb came on! Our librarians no longer needed to be located with the print materials, which have become the least relevant part of our research arsenal. We were on the computer most of the day, rarely visiting the stacks. Why did I persist with the notion that we need to be near the books? The librarians needed to be with the attorneys, so that’s where I proceeded to send them.

First, I needed to sell the idea with all stakeholders. To get the ball rolling I proposed the idea with the librarians themselves. Initially there were reservations, but as we discussed ways to put the plan into practice, the affected team members saw how this could improve our relationships with attorneys. Each librarian is partnered with a practice group. They are the experts in a topical area, to whom other members of our Research Team turn for assistance. Each librarian would be moved to the floor with the attorney teams for which they were the expert researchers. For example, our corporate specialist would be moved to the floor with the corporate attorneys – a few steps from her best customers.

After the team began to see the possibilities of such a move, I approached my supervisor who enthusiastically approved it. I then crowd-sourced the idea with attorneys from the affected practice groups, who were excited to have a librarian accessible. Buy-in from firm management was obtained. Indeed, the most difficult challenge was finding suitable offices for the librarians. To date, one librarian has yet to move to her practice group’s floor as there is no office available.

The moves took place over several days. We sent announcements to practice group members advising them of their specialist’s new location, and sent a general email to everyone in our Atlanta office. Our three librarians were welcomed to their new floors by attorneys and staff.

My office also remains on the floor with the print collection, along with our technical services assistant. We’re here to offer assistance to persons wanting to use the books. That said, my floor has become as quiet as a graveyard.

So what was the outcome? This challenge became a huge opportunity. Our Atlanta team members are now actively engaged with attorneys, paralegals, marketing personnel and secretaries on a daily basis. They hear what’s going on while visiting the coffee machine or copier. Attorneys stop by their offices, just to visit. By being physically present, we hear what’s going on and have become more proactive in providing research assistance. We’ve seen a marked increase in live requests from attorneys. Many attorneys – including partners – have told me how much they appreciate having a research expert nearby. We are no longer on a floor far, far away. Every day our librarians are engaged with our customers. What a change!

The librarians speak with each other every day, even though we may not see each other. We hold monthly meetings where we share firm news and research challenges. In essence, our Atlanta team communicates in the same way we work with librarians in our other offices. We are truly a virtual team.

If you’ve seen foot traffic and visits to your library decrease over time, you may want to consider this nontraditional approach. Out of sight, out of mind? Not us!

  • Anonymous

    At our library, we experience the same request patterns as in Cindy's – i.e. the requests keep coming but via email (mostly) and phone, with only occasional walk-ins (and we are on a floor with attorneys). The reason we have not begun to embed librarians with practice groups is that we feel they would lose contact with each other that way, and the ability to easily bounce ideas off each other, and to share large projects. It is that cohesiveness rather than proximity to the books or to "place" that makes us want to keep our current model. I don't see monthly meetings replacing this. It's not that I don't think it's a good idea to make library staff more visible (they are terribly under-rated despite their excellent work), but I didn't see anything in Cindy's post that addressed these concerns.

  • Anonymous

    I've heard the argument against embedded librarians (that the library manager/director will lose control of them), and understand the issue. However, I wonder if the trade off for a little less management control is that they are valued more by the attorneys that end up using embedded librarian, who would otherwise not use them if they are back in the library bouncing ideas off of one another on how they could be used??

  • Joelle C.

    Our library team members are located in three different offices, so we were already using monthly meetings and video conferences to connect with each other. The switch to a unified reference system moved us from a location-centric service model to a team-centric service model. The move to embedding seemed to be the next step in the process. When we need to bounce ideas off of each other, we can email each other on our group reference email, or pick up the phone, or actually GO chat with the other librarians on their floors. I've made it a point to "get out of the tower" to go see my Atlanta colleagues on a weekly basis. It's a welcome break from my PC-centric work day. I don't believe that the other library team members across the firm even noticed a difference when the embedded librarians went forth.

  • As a law librarian who works remotely full time, I can attest that library team cohesiveness can be retained without physical proximity between its members. I'd say that since my library instituted a unified reference desk across all of our offices, we've come together much closer as a team. I'm more comfortable working with librarians in other offices, and do so MUCH more frequently than I did when we were existing on separate office library "islands".

    In fact, I believe that developing virtual library team skills are only going to become more vital in the future (a topic that is undoubtedly worthy of its own discussion). But forming bonds and raising our profiles with our attorney/clients can be more challenging, which is why embedding library teams among their users can be so valuable. Providing valued services is the ultimate goal. To that end, library team cohesiveness must be a given, whether teams are located in the same room, floor, building, or across the country.

  • Great idea – that is if you have multiple librarians on staff. But what if you are the only librarian? Guess that means one has to make the time to walk around!

  • 1) To retain library cohesiveness and actually build that unity out to national and global scales, institute iPhones and iPads and use "face time" connections to see your old local colleagues and to see your cross country, cross ocean colleagues…2) Librarians are professionals, the management control by proximity is so stereotypical of old school thinking…move forward, please. Respect and trust your worker bees and you will be rewarded with the same. 3) Install multiple 40+ inch flat screens in the physical library for virtual meetings (Skype, iPad, iPhone, telepresence what have you) and for training sessions for attorneys, paralegals and staff, and use those flat panels for dedicated purposes: to allow access to practice groups or industries groups to particular databases or knowledgebases right from the main screen in lieu of a process of 10 clicks through a high level intranet page – get rid of screen projectors in the process. 4) Project your library space using "with it" technology instead of a stack of dead trees wrapped in covers. Librarians are more needed than ever to organize and present and analyze information…kudos to Cindy Adams…bravo! -J.O. Wallace

  • T. Chan

    As a solo librarian managing two locations in different states, the same-floor concept is simply not feasible.

    Face time has its value but people also want convenience. They prefer getting answers and their work done without having to leave their office– unless they really want to use the paper CFRs in the library or see you in your office but only if you're next door. Time is precious so I only attend non-virtual face-to-face meetings when I have to.

    Instead, I take the "wildcard" approach to alleviate staff count, cohesiveness, proximity, or face time issues.

    I build rapport through common denominators (things that EVERYONE comes in contact with). And not surprisingly the common denominators are billing and technology. Together they create an opportunity for the library to combine/leverage content delivery, user convenience, and get involved in firm business matters.

    Contact opportunities:

    Got tech skills? Use it on the IT front. Become an extension of web development by working with practice groups to build/enhance their websites and work through content delivery/governance issues.

    IT's more than happy to put some code-writing/content building on your plate IF they trust you to handle it. After all, librarians are the "I" in the IT. And when you're also the "T", you become the consummate legal technologist!

    Got curiosity & rigor? Help Marketing to research business intelligence. The CMO will be impressed with your investigative skills.

    Like problem-solving? Become an automation specialist by collaborating with Accounting/Records depts. to streamline workflow and cost recovery. Faster collections and better bottom-line for the firm.

    I'm on the same floor where the library is and still see people everyday in my office, hallways and the lunchroom.

    Out of sight, out of mind? Not me!

  • Such a great post about screen projectors for sale. Keep on posting!