R. David Lankes
The following report is based on a series of visits to the Department of Justice (DOJ), February 13–15, 2008. During these visits, several conversations took place among the researcher, librarians, and library clients within different sections of the DOJ and in several DOJ libraries. An initial draft of this report was then provided to the Department for feedback. This revised report briefly outlines the observations in each of these conversations. It attempts to highlight opportunities and provide an outsider’s reaction to these conversations given a narrow window of engagement. The emphasis in all of this is on the ability/ role of DOJ librarians to facilitate these conversations.
What emerged from the visits was the beginning of a planning process based on participatory librarianship and conversations. Although the principles of participatory librarianship have been used to present an overall vision of library systems (Lankes et al., 2007) and to develop library software (Lankes, 2008) and services, a clear method for planning and evaluating library services holistically has yet to be developed. Although this case does not directly present such a methodology, it does point to one. From the case, the approach would be to:
- Identify major participatory communities within the service community.
- Identify and describe the major conversations within and across these communities.
- Identify the services and resources provided by the library to these conversations (later this needs to be refined into means of facilitation).
- Look for gaps (where the library could but is not providing facilitation), dead ends (where the library is providing a service not linked to conversations within a community), and opportunities (where the library could provide service to a community’s conversation but is not).
In the case example below, three participatory conversations were identified. Within a key community (legal staff), a high-level conversation was identified (the “life of the law”). A basic mapping was done (figure 1). Certain opportunities to provide better facilitation were identified as well (e.g., the “In Search of” process for lawyers and the extranet for the librarians).
This initial approach was used as part of a strategic retreat process at a small academic library with some success. Although clearly great specificity and data are needed to firm up this planning process, this case study serves as a first step.
Caveats And Limitations
Several caveats are important to note. Three days and a handful of focus groups are far from adequate to capture the richness of any organization. The best that can be hoped for are initial observations and to capture broad themes and ideas. Although much of this report is written in an authoritative tone (i.e., making assertions and generalizations), that is simply a device to prompt further discussion. The idea is to prompt and provoke. This often leads to richer conversation rather than a more cautious and nuanced tone. So although there aren’t many “the research thinks,” “it might be,” or “one would guess” phrases within, they are implied.
The initial result of this visit was a chart of the “A Participatory View of the Department of Justice Libraries” in figure 118. This chart seeks to capture the different conversations occurring from the library perspective. It is far from complete, but it attempts to capture broad areas of understanding.
CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE
There appears to be four major participatory communities. These communities represent groups of people talking about similar things in similar fashions. They share processes and concerns. Certainly within the communities there are a lot of different voices with different roles (lawyers, managers, paralegals). Also, there are certainly communities not addressed in the visit (policymakers, IT, etc.). Why bother talking about communities? Why not simply use the standard breakdown of library and patrons? Because in a participatory approach, the library’s role is to facilitate communities’ conversations. They must understand the dynamics of the communities regardless of whether those interactions are with the library. Also, in any attempt to increase the quality of participation (conversations) within the communities, and thus improve the knowledge of these communities, one must respect the norms, cultures, and structures of these communities. Simply put, why would lawyers want to participate in library systems when they are part of a different community altogether? If libraries want to build effective conversations, they must do so in as close alignment to communities as possible (including building systems within the communities rather than within the library).
For example, within the legal staff, there is not much discussion or concern with how case files are managed. It seems that most lawyers keep a set of files in a series of folders on their desktops. There is no standardized way of storing these data. Clearly, how these files are stored is of great interest to librarians. From a library perspective, capturing these data, organizing them, and providing them back to customers is of high priority, but to the legal staff it is not. Thus, if librarians were to attempt to capture these data to build new services, they would find great resistance on the part of legal staff. Why? Because to the legal staff, once all of these data are used to file a formal courts document (such as a brief), the world of documents around that formal document becomes nearly irrelevant. If it is not in the brief, it is not important. If the library deems it important to capture and organize this information, it does so by having a conversation internally to its own community. If it wants to get lawyers on board, it will have to make a strong case based on the norms and in the language of the legal staff.
In the site visits, five communities became apparent:
- Legal Staff Lawyers and support staff are well versed in the formal conversations of the law. From formal filings to informal searching on databases, there is a high-level understanding of a general process: understand the legislative intent of a given law, build a brief that captures both the facts and the theory of the case, and understand the life of the law including precedents, decisions, and related legislative action. The conversations of the legal staff are in many cases formal and regulated. Not every case will include “Legislative Intent” formally. There are also many informal conversations happening between litigators.
- DOJ Librarians The librarians in the Department of Justice form a community that regularly exchanges information, techniques, and resources. However, although there is a clear desire to provide outstanding service, much of how this service should be delivered remains an open question. With little to no data on actual service utilization, service priorities and decisions are often based on individual success, anecdotes, and personal philosophies. This makes it difficult to truly gauge the effectiveness of services.
- Database Vendors Hein, Westlaw, and LexisNexis constitute the core databases for the legal profession and are clearly needed across the enterprise. However, each section has its own key resources. There is great competition between these vendors with little information sharing.
- Other Sources of Legal Information This disparate group consists of other law libraries, legal research centers, other law firms, and a wide variety of other players. There are some formal means of communications, such as AALL, but there are also structural issues in creating formal connections (privacy of case matters, competitive advantage, proprietary information, and billing structures).
- General Audiences This is not a formal community by any means. Rather, it is the open information environment that the Department of Justice exists within. It is constantly changing and has little coherence.
Within these communities, there are opportunities for the library to improve service and to better facilitate knowledge building. Which, if any, of these opportunities the libraries pursue is a matter of internal priorities and resources, although a few recommendations are made.
It should also be noted that it is in the intersection of these communities (and of conversations across communities) that most of the opportunities for improved library service lie. Therefore, in the discussion of the communities, special note shall be made of these cross- community collaborations.
Legal Staff (A Litigating Section)
There is an interesting dichotomy of knowledge creation and capture that occurs within litigating sections. On the one hand, there are formal processes of documenting knowledge and conversations. Legal rules of disclosure, brief production, and case filings force lawyers to make most knowledge explicit. On the other hand, there is a much larger volume of information or “research” that is gathered and created in the process of brief development. Along the process of creating a brief, there seems to be an accumulation of information until a “theory of the case” is developed. Once this is developed, materials are loosely organized into folders and subfolders. Some of this material might make it into an archiving process, but much remains in the heads of lawyers and other legal staff. It also seems that most information organization is case-oriented. All data are gathered and associated with cases with little larger topical-oriented organization.
It would appear there is a great need for an organizational system for lawyers to keep case-oriented information, plus the rich world of research around a case. Right now librarians capture some of this in pathfinders and informal files on experts but only when the legal staff comes to the library for information and assistance.
This is not to say that there aren’t some attempts at a more section- wide organization of cases and knowledge. One litigating section talked about their “In Search Of” (“ISO”) process. ISO is a means of section lawyers asking for information from others in their section. Throughout the day, legal staff send requests for information (who has dealt with topic X, has anyone used X as an expert witness, etc.) to a secretary. Twice a day, the secretary bundles up the requests and sends out a section-wide e-mail with the questions. Answers are then sent from legal staff to legal staff with no attempts to match questions with answers section-wide. Mid-level supervisors also serve as repositories of organizational knowledge/history. Another mechanism to share knowledge within a division is a “matter” database. This informal system attempts to capture cases and legal matters currently under consideration by a division.
The informality and patchwork nature of these section-wide conversations seems to be the result of several factors. The first is the need for confidentiality in the cases under consideration. Some cases and issues are too sensitive to be made known widely (indeed topics may not go beyond the lawyers directly involved in the topic). However, this need varies widely across sections, with many sections having virtually no such prohibitions. The other factor relates to the nature of the cases under consideration. Some sections work on a relatively small domain of issues where sharing information yields great dividends, whereas a section dealing with a wide variety of cases would find little overlap in lawyer knowledge.
Librarians as Investigators
It is worth noting an interesting idea that emerged in how some of the legal staff saw the role of librarians. Clearly, librarians have gained great success in specializing in research concerning expert witnesses. Librarians also appear to have a great opportunity in situating themselves directly into the legal process. Several times the idea of librarians working closely on a case—whether in terms of providing direct evidence or aiding the development of case theory—was mentioned. In these circumstances, lawyers attributed the success of cases directly to the aid of library staff. In the case of anti-trust, this even developed into real staff resources.
The idea of librarians as civil investigators was raised several times. Whereas in criminal cases DOJ provides investigatory staff or agents, in civil cases this is not always the case. Civil lawyers mentioned using librarians in this capacity to discover evidence and materials pertinent to the case. This seemed to go beyond expert witness research and was seen as a much closer relationship between lawyer and librarian. It seems this kind of relationship is worth special scrutiny (and promotion) in any follow-up activity.
There is a great opportunity for the librarians in the department-wide case management initiative. Although development and implementation of the electronic case management system may well be beyond the resources, expertise, and authority of the DOJ libraries, they should be a part of the overall process. By having librarians “at the table” in the development of this system, the libraries can ensure a presence in the system likely to become the most used interface in the Department. Beyond this tactical concern, librarians have a great deal to offer system creators in terms of information management and reuse. By both better understanding the processes lawyers must use, being more visible to litigators in this process, and helping ensure good information practice, DOJ librarians can have a large and positive impact on the system. One approach might be to create an institutional repository that looks like a law review journal or some other format lawyers would use on a regular basis.
Such a system would also allow for new services to provide feedback into the legal community. For example, the “Brief Bank” currently offers exemplary briefs to lawyers. It would be interesting to analyze these briefs and return the results to litigating sections. One could imagine a sort of reverse citation analysis where litigators get feedback on which items are cited the most in briefs (legal codes, cases, but more important, bodies of evidence and current thinking). Analyzing the information sources and people DOJ lawyers use might provide interesting data back to divisions. They could see what sources they depend on regularly, detect any biases in sources, learn about new resources, and identify seminal cases in the making. This might be a good partnership with the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Such an initiative also aligns to the purpose of the Brief Bank. If DOJ is concerned with consistency in approach, policy, and documentation, the library can provide a vital bibliographic check toward this end.
The DOJ librarians have an excellent reputation among the groups participating in the visit. They are proactive and engaged. They are
also clearly dedicated to service. There are, however, three areas for improvement that stood out when looking at them as a group. Librarians appear to be risk averse, manually oriented, and data poor. Once again, this is an aggregate view with individual exceptions. Let us take each in turn.
By and large, DOJ librarians are risk averse. This is a result of the DOJ culture and the nature of the practice of law. It is natural and right for all members of a legal enterprise to be acutely concerned with disclosing too much information. Librarians naturally do not want to be the source of a leak, to make their legal clients look bad, or to be accused of undermining the core litigation activities. Far from being a negative, this shows keen understanding of the culture. However, it clearly creates some conflict between librarian principles of openness and the large DOJ culture. Librarians also seem to fail to take into account that the lawyers act as the gatekeepers and either make the necessity of confidentiality clear to librarians or do not disclose confidential information in the first place. The result is that the librarians are hesitant to share anything outside of the firewall even when they have clear ability to do so. Currently, librarians default to not sharing and going outside the firewall without formally examining the issues.
These issues have been brought up in terms of sharing legislative histories, but the more interesting case might be expert witness databases. DOJ librarians have been successful in building their reputations and utility by becoming master searchers in terms of expert witnesses. Librarians scour the web, databases, and other information sources for an expert’s documents, thoughts, and profile. The result is information that then goes to legal staff. However, experts are often used repeated times or by multiple parties. One could imagine capturing all of these expert resources into a central repository for a section. A strategy might be the development of a high-level expert database that does little more than identify an expert, a general area of expertise, and a case they were associated with. This way a lawyer could quickly find out whether an expert had been used before and by whom without the risk of maintaining extensive files of citizens. However, librarians are wary to create such a database, worried that it could be requested under FOIA and might reveal legal strategy. They may well be right, but has the question ever been formally asked? By defaulting to an “If in doubt, don’t” default position, the librarians may be holding back useful services unnecessarily.
The second characteristic found was a reliance on highly manual processes. This can be most clearly seen in terms of the DOJ Virtual Library and the pathfinders on the site. These pages are static and require manual link checking, editing, and updating. This results in a lot of extra labor in maintaining the site and lost opportunities that a more sophisticated technical approach might bring (such as SDI-like services or alerts on new/changed resources for interested parties). It is ironic that some of this manual processing stems from the departmental use of PHP. PHP is a web-scripting language created for the explicit purpose of integrating dynamic elements into web pages. The root cause for this manual orientation seems to be a distrust of the IT staff and services. The IT infrastructure is seen as highly buttoned down and antithetical to innovation. This problem seems exacerbated by a near absence of a library IT authority and a previously failed attempt to build a custom acquisitions system. IT authority is not simply technical knowledge that is certainly present in the library but the ability for the library staff to directly control the IT being used. This topic is addressed more deeply in the recommendations.
The last characteristic of DOJ librarians worth noting is the data- poor environment in which they work. This poverty does not relate to the data and information sources used in the practice of librarian- ship (databases, holdings, etc.), which are vast. Clearly DOJ librarians have done an excellent job making a case for resources. Rather this refers to the evaluative data of service use. Use of data in terms of evaluation, utilization, and even size of patron base simply is not part of the everyday workings of the librarians.
Although there are many good reasons for this near absence of data (lack of time to gather statistics, absence of a circulation system, poor tools to track Web site usage), the end result is that discussions on service priorities come down to persuasiveness of personal arguments and reliance on authority. In other words, when deciding what services to enhance and which to cut, decisions are made by how well someone argues a position, not on actual use and projected impact of the services. In a collegial environment like that of DOJ libraries, these methods can work, but they can also cause friction and division in staff over time.
An example of how all three of these characteristics come into play can be seen in the current discussions around a new integrated library system. The two current ILS systems must be replaced. The question on the table is how to replace these systems. There is currently a perception that the technical service staff and the reference staff have different priorities in terms of replacing these systems. The reference staff sees a need for a different approach to holdings and feels the technical services staff is being too traditional. However, in conversations with the technical service side of the house, the exact same desires are put forth. No one sees an “off-the-shelf” ILS as ideal. They are cumbersome, lack innovation, are inherently not secure, and take a great amount of effort to maintain. The only thing that all agree on is the value of a good acquisitions system because of the universally agreed-on value of efficiently and effectively licensing resources for the entire agency (not coincidentally, the acquisitions service has the most data available in terms of usage, costs, and overall value to the agency).
In the debate on replacing the catalog, risk aversion, manual process, and data poverty are quickly apparent. There is a strong desire to buy an off-the-shelf solution by the technical staff. Not because these are seen necessarily as the best solutions, but off-the-shelf ILS solutions are the safest in terms of guaranteed delivery of functionality, support of the system, and experience. The technical staff was burned by trying to build custom solutions in the past, and that lesson still remains front and center in the consideration of a new system. In response to the universally perceived deficiencies with the current catalog solutions, librarians have been using manual processes to make up the difference. The Virtual Library is a product of manual work around an inadequate catalog. Yet there is a real question as to the true value of the catalog in the first place. Without data on who is using the catalog, for what, and how often, how can the group make a real plan? It would seem that the primary interface to DOJ holdings for lawyers is the reference librarians. Outside of a few notable exceptions, lawyers ask librarians for materials and don’t know or care whether these resources come from a collection, interlibrary loan, or, in some cases, librarians using their own public library cards. By knowing the reality of who uses the catalog versus who uses the Virtual Library, one could decide where to invest resources. If the catalog is indeed used beyond librarians as an inventory system, then using resources to enhance the underlying ILS to be more portal-like makes good sense. However, if it is primarily for librarians, buy the easiest to maintain with a good acquisitions module and be done with it.
One could make a whole host of recommendations to address some of the concerns. However, the fact is that there is a culture in the libraries, and by and large that culture seems to be working. The questions are not really about how to make libraries less risk averse, nor are they about how to gather more data on service utilization (that only helps if someone will attend to the data). What participatory librarianship tells us is that, to further a conversation, people must participate in something that has a useful context and meaning in their daily lives. So the point is to take something the community already considers important and address issues in that context. The ILS makes an interesting starting context.
First, take the areas on which there seems to be agreement. The new ILS must act more as a portal to a wide range of information beyond physical holdings. Patrons and librarians alike must be able to see a more holistic picture of the services and resources available. What’s more, such a system must provide robust backend systems for acquisitions. Further agreed on is that current ILS systems are inadequate or, at the least, represent the priorities of different library types. Current ILS systems already present a security nightmare for the Department and the librarians who have to certify and maintain them. Add to this the complexity of maintaining a full ILS system when only a fraction of current functionality is needed. Plus ILS vendors are busy adding new features in a proprietary manner that will be inapplicable to the DOJ setting, thus increasing the maintenance needs without increasing the system’s functionality.
The obvious alternative to purchasing an existing ILS is to build a custom solution, meeting just the needs of DOJ, much as the first OPACs were developed by academic libraries dissatisfied with commercial alternatives. However, past experience has shown how difficult that proposition is (in terms of building custom software for DOJ and in terms of building new library systems in general). There is a third option, and one that might work well for the DOJ setting. Because holdings information is not seen as sensitive data and can be made publically available (indeed, it already is within WorldCat), one could see a hosted solution being utilized. This system would reside outside a firewall and simply be pointed to by DOJ. The acquisitions function could remain a separate function hosted within DOJ.
Several hosted systems are worth looking into, the most notable being OCLC’s WorldCat Local. Other possibilities would be to externally host an open source ILS, such as Evergreen or Koha. However, once the idea of hosting a system externally becomes viable, the possible benefits and nature of the system become much more interesting— interesting particularly in terms of addressing questions of risk aversion, manual labor, and data poverty.
What if the librarians evaluated all of their resources in terms of what could be externally hosted? What portions of the Virtual Library, digitized legislative histories, pathfinders, whatever, could safely sit outside of the DOJ firewall? This would be done in conjunction with clearance officers to make policy and boundaries clear, lowering the risk that librarians feel they are taking by sharing information.
Once a sizable external collection can be created in terms of information resources, the infrastructure used to host this library extranet becomes wide open, outside the purview of DOJ IT, allowing the libraries to utilize their own IT skills. With the raft of hosted web solutions available, DOJ librarians could create sophisticated and interactive systems (RSS feeds, blogs, streamed instruction, multimedia pathfinders, shared bookmarks, group wikis) without the constraints of firewall-level lockdown. With today’s widely available hosted solutions and open source software, librarians can now build sophisticated web tools with minimal technical knowledge, thus mitigating the issues of manual tool building and maintenance. Further, such tools can have built-in tracking and statistical systems (such as Google Analytics) that will provide rich data on actual use.
These rich reference tools can then be combined with the hosted catalog to create a useful portal system for DOJ staff. Further, given that these resources are already cleared for public consumption, the DOJ libraries can reap the added benefits of better serving tax payers and be seen by peer institutions as taking a leadership role.
Imagine the DOJ extranet: a web-accessible service contributed to and used by law libraries across the country. An extranet is an internally focused web presence hosted outside of the organization—like an “intranet” hosted beyond the firewall. A DOJ lawyer could get onto the site and quickly search across catalog, pathfinders, and database locator materials (and using technologies such as Open URL, perhaps licensed resources) from inside or outside of the firewall. The same lawyer could set up an alert system so as to be notified by e-mail or RSS feed of new materials in their area of practice. Furthermore, law libraries from across the country could add their own pathfinders and materials because they too can benefit from sophisticated hosted solutions outside of their own firewalls. They might also add their holdings information to a true union legal catalog.
Aside from the obvious service benefits of the extranet to the DOJ lawyers and librarians, DOJ libraries take a highly visible leadership position in the legal community. It could also be spun into a great giveback to taxpayers and help address the Department’s reputation for secrecy. The project also creates a new continuing innovation opportunity for DOJ librarians. The site can be a testing ground for new services and help teach librarians about new technologies. These technologies may not be directly implemented in the extranet, but they would still have utility.
Take, for example, social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. Although it is highly doubtful that DOJ law libraries would build and run a successful social networking site for DOJ lawyers (they don’t have the time, the confidentiality of their work precludes participation, etc.), by learning how such sites work, DOJ librarians can enhance their expert witness searching repertoire and teach lawyers how information from such sites can be gathered for use in briefs. The system becomes a context for continuing education. More on this concept is detailed in “Key Recommendations” later.
Another obvious community that DOJ librarians must be aware of is the loose collection of vendors that create, combine, and sell licensed resources such as databases to DOJ. There is fierce competition among these vendors and little in terms of cooperation. The nature of this community makes it difficult for easy integration of these resources into any portal solution and will necessitate the continued role of librarians in navigating these resources on behalf of the legal staff. However, with the obvious buying power of DOJ and the ability to bring attention to issues in legal information, there may be levers that DOJ libraries can use to prompt vendors to aid DOJ libraries in their work.
The first thing DOJ libraries should do is press database vendors to provide better and more regular statistics in terms of resource use. Although “pay-for-use” databases provide clear data, flat-fee databases do not necessarily provide common and comparable statistics.
It would also be useful to include database vendors in the discussion of the extranet. By allowing vendors to participate in the project, they will gain attention and have the ability to develop general- purpose tools (such as OpenURL resolvers, web services, XML-layer exchanges) that they can use to enhance their own product offerings.
Other Sources of Legal Information
There are many sources of legal information beyond the DOJ and the database vendors. Courts, state agencies, and university law libraries are only a few examples. These examples tend to have well-established communities unto themselves and are easily discoverable. However, there are a host of less formal legal sources, many commercial, that seem to be of value to DOJ librarians in their daily work. In fact, a great deal of effort seems to be spent in locating and evaluating these disparate legal sources.
It would be worth keeping track of which external legal sources are referred to and how often. Beyond interlibrary loan requests, how often do librarians seek out these sources on behalf of legal staff? Such work is the basis of pathfinder development, but more formal examination of these sources may yield interesting patterns of use. Such patterns would be helpful in an extranet project. In this context, such sites could be described and included and also invited to directly contribute information and data once vetted by library staff.
This broad category is a loose community that in reality constitutes the open web and various disciplines from which DOJ staff draw information. It is only seen as a coherent community in that major trends, fads, and technologies emerge in this space that impact DOJ. One need look no further than the rise of large-scale digitization efforts such as Google books. Such a project creates new resources for DOJ to use, but it also creates impressions on the part of some DOJ staff that libraries are becoming less relevant. Such notions are based on a fundamental misperception of what a library is. On several occasions, lawyers raised the idea that libraries are less useful because of increasingly available digital information and the redundancy of print materials. Such cases stood out and the individuals discussed are exceptions, but it does raise the question of how prevalent this idea is beyond the core patrons the library has won over. This of course goes back to issues of measurement data in terms of patron use of resources and how wide the libraries user base truly is within DOJ.
The bottom line is that DOJ libraries are not immune from pressures, misperceptions, and fads promulgated on the open Internet. By knowing its constituency well and being seen as a player on the open web, the DOJ libraries have an excellent opportunity to proactively address and shape these pressures.
This report made several recommendations. Some are straightforward: They develop and track more usage data to better aim services and inform decision making of DOJ librarians. This includes DOJ library services (such as reference, Virtual Library usage, catalog usage), as well as external resources usage like use of vendor databases. The other recommendations are more ambitious.
DOJ librarians should look to support informal information networks within the litigating divisions. Replicating the success of the ISO e-mails and matter databases across litigating divisions cam make lawyers more successful and will allow librarians to support and insinuate themselves into these networks to provide better service.
Certainly a much more ambitious project would be to address the need for better case management and knowledge management by lawyers in the litigating sections. Such a system must take into consideration that lawyers often do not realize the utility of research that does not make it into formal briefs and should be made easy for them to use. Rather than building this institutional repository as a sort of “bit bucket,” where documents are accessible by author and/ or date, the library should look to the format and norms of law journals. Lawyers understand the format, organization, and importance of these document types.
Perhaps the recommendation with the greatest opportunity for immediate impact and service improvement would be the creation of an extranet. By creating an externally hosted and cooperative virtual library with DOJ legal resources and pathfinders (those clearly approved for public consumption), the libraries can raise their visibility, provide more innovative services to their clients, and gain an invaluable testbed for their librarians. The next section details a proposed process for such an initiative.
Building the DOJ Extranet
A librarian logs into a hosted site outside of the DOJ firewall. He or she quickly scans any broken or updated links they are responsible for. By correcting a link, it is instantly corrected in every page using that resource. The librarian can then review any outstanding questions posed by the network of law librarians around the country. The librarian can also quickly see any answers for questions he or she has posed. After a quick read of announcements, he or she uses pointand- click tools to put together a pathfinder on recent legislation. The pathfinder links to public data, a new online legislative history, and links to proprietary information that only patrons with licenses will be able to see. Once the pathfinder is complete, the librarian logs into the DOJ library blog and writes a quick post on the new resource that is put on the home page as well as disseminated via an RSS feed. Finally, the librarian checks in on the online class he or she is taking on ethics and anti-trust.
A few moments later, a DOJ lawyer receives an e-mail alert that a new pathfinder in his or her area is available. The lawyer brings up the new pathfinder and clicks through to a preformulated Westlaw query. Westlaw automatically detects the lawyer is within DOJ’s firewall and executes the query seamlessly (had the lawyer been at home, he or she would have been prompted for a password). Finding some relevant additional sources, the lawyer sends an e-mail to his or her librarian, where an ILL request will be done.
The preceding scenario is within reach of the DOJ. Using open source software, existing web services, and minor development effort, such a system can be put in place without substantial investment into custom software development. Further, such a system can be built in conjunction with a number of high-profile partners. What is required? An organizational effort on the part of DOJ libraries, an experimental philosophy, and some resource investment.
The necessary components of such a system would be a hosted open source infrastructure outside of the DOJ firewall. A university would be an ideal home for such as system, but AALL might also provide a home or some other noncommercial, nonadvocacy institution. In any case, it would require a supported piece of hardware with adequate bandwidth and backups.
The DOJ libraries would need to review their existing Virtual Library for a substantial base of resources that could initially populate the public site. Significant work would also need to go into specifying and implementing a hosted inventory/catalog system for the DOJ collections.
The whole project would be presented as an ongoing experiment, seeking reliable service, but stressing innovation over fortification (key documents and resources could be duplicated as static files within DOJ for unexpected downtime). Once this initial base of resources and infrastructure is in place, partners should be sought out to be part of the experiment. States, universities, and other non-commercial legal entities could be prioritized, with vendors being invited to develop new products to enhance and integrate with the public site (much like PubMed).
To explore the possibility of the extranet, a few initial steps should be taken:
- Technical Readiness In most cases, technology should follow needs assessment and concrete planning. However, in the DOJ case, librarians need a better sense of what technical capabilities exist in the open web environment as a means of stimulating their brainstorming and thinking. Technical readiness will both expose librarians to the possibilities of new technologies as well as establishing their confidence in using and incorporating these technologies. They need to be more at ease with technology development. This could be done online, but perhaps a series of intensive one-day hands-on workshops would be a better idea. In these workshops, they would build technologically enabled pathfinders, blogs, and full-blown sites, increasing their confidence.
- Brainstorming After technical readiness, librarians can spend time thinking about conversations going on within the library (and externally where applicable) and come up with a vision and mission for the extranet.
- Inventory and Policymaking With vision in hand, librarians can scour the existing Virtual Library and other library resources to determine what can and cannot reside outside the firewall. In parallel, work needs to begin on implementing a hosted solution for DOJ holdings.
- Experimentation With a mission in place, a project team can begin work with an external partner or partners on developing functional prototypes of the extranet. These implementations should show the advantages and disadvantages of a hosted open approach. It will also give library staff and clients real systems to react to.
- Implementation Once prototyping determines the baseline of the extranet, DOJ and partners can go about building and previewing the system. Librarians should be an integral part of the building process, not simply clients consuming someone else’s work. They should be given time to work as part of the development team.
- Ongoing Education Once the system is in place, librarians exploring new or existing technologies and service models can learn and build within the extranet.
While the priorities and realities of the DOJ will dictate the actual timeline, the above steps could be accomplished in 12 to 18 months.
The DOJ clearly enjoys great library service. The librarians are skilled, dedicated, and committed. However, they are also constrained in their abilities to innovate by a chasm between the services they provide and the tools to provide them. Good librarians, no matter their titles, are
tool builders. Pathfinders, ILS’s, databases, and even standing files are tools. The current IT environment makes it difficult for librarians to build effective tools. This, more than an environment of confidentiality, is holding the libraries back from innovation. To this point, it is the librarians who sense this frustration, and they have been able to shield lawyers from this reality through a lot of manual effort.
The good news is that, in participatory library terms, DOJ libraries are exemplars. They have a strong understanding of the communities they serve and are facilitating and improving them. However, it is difficult without better evaluative data to say how far that support extends within the DOJ organization. If DOJ does nothing more than document its successes, it is in an excellent position. However, if it wants to continue to be a leader and be seen in that leadership role beyond DOJ, it must come to terms with the technical tools available to it. By using hosted solutions in the guise of an extranet, it can provide better service to its clients, solve its immediate ILS problem, feed into the current library staff’s thirst for innovation, and position itself in the larger legal information community.
Lankes, R. D. (2008, January 12). “Scapes” OCLC symposium on reference and social networking, Philadelphia, PA. Message posted to http://quartz.syr.edu/rdlankes/blog/?p=459
Lankes, R. D., Silverstein, J. L., & Nicholson, S. (2007, December). Participatory networks: The library as conversation. Information Technology and Libraries, 4.