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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!