Law Librarians of New England Fall Meeting: Ken Withers' Presentation
November 15, 2002 by Ken Withers

Ken Withers is a research associate at the Federal Judicial Center (FJC) in Washington DC, where he concentrates on issues of technology and the administration of justice. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the FJC or any other agency of the United States Courts. Your questions or comments are welcome, and you may reach him at

Ed. Note: Time constraints prevented Ken from delivery his presentation as it was originally drafted. He was gracious enough to provide us with the text which, besides offering more content and detail, allows him to use words like "disintermediated."

Today's panel is about training, which as we all know, is an important function for professional law librarians. I am coming from a unique prospective and a unique institution, because the Federal Judicial Center is not a law library. It is the research and education agency of the United States Courts. We research issues of the administration of justice and publish our findings. Perhaps that's what we're best known for, books like the Manual for Complex Litigation and our scientific evidence handbook for judges. We also produce educational programs for federal judges and court personnel, from conventional seminars and workshops, to training videos and talk shows aired on our closed-circuit television network, to our interactive CD-ROM on bankruptcy procedure. Of course, in the process of producing our research reports, books and manuals, seminar materials, videos and audio tapes, we are assembling an ever-growing library and making it as accessible as we can to federal judges and court personnel across the country.

This puts us in the position of being simultaneously a legal publisher house, continuing legal education provider, and law library. In the past several years, Congress has made it clear through statutory initiatives and the budget process that we are to wean ourselves away from paper-based publishing, in-person teaching, and our physical library collection. So in addition to keeping up our substantive training and education programs on everything from ADR to Voting Rights, we must experiment with new methods of delivering that information and, in the process, train our 20,000 patrons on how to use those new information delivery systems.

When we started this a few years ago, I think we had the same knee-jerk reaction as many of you. "Let's convert everything we can into digital form," we said to ourselves, "and make it available on a big web site." We began converting books into .pdf files, converting audio and video recordings into RealPlayer downloads, and creating digital libraries of research reports. We simply assumed that by putting things on the Web, they would become magically accessible. People would naturally know how to find the resource they needed.

We were mistaken. We started hearing reports that our patrons did not like our web site. They could not use it to find what they wanted. We were thinking in terms of collections of training materials and programs that people would access by general topic or title, when what people actually want is not "training" or "education," they want answers to questions. A magistrate judge does not want to wade through a civil case management treatise, online or otherwise, to find a sample trade secret protective order. A deputy clerk does not want to spend three hours viewing an online tutorial to find out how to save a Word Perfect document as a .pdf file.

It became clear that if we continued down our current path and migrated hands-on, live educational programming to the web as well as publications, we might have more problems with access and useability. Instead of organizing our online resources to reflect publication media, bureaucratic structure, or IT infrastructure, and training our patrons to navigate that, we needed to understand how our patrons seek out information to solve problems, and create access points, navigation tools, and (dare I say it) training programs reflecting that reality. We needed to view ourselves not as a repository of videotapes, books, training seminars, CD ROMs and other "stuff," but as a repository of useful answers to a wide variety of problems.

In the good old days of law librarianship, the reference librarian played an important mediation function, converting the library patron's problem first into specific information needs, and then into appropriate resources to answer those needs. In this online, "disintermediated" world, librarians present patrons with a bewildering range of resource location devices from keyword searches to tree structures to drop-down menus, but have ignored the fundamental question of how people actually formulate their problem and seek information. The increasing level of frustration people voice, often in terms of "information overload" or inability to find what they need, should tell us something.

So before we invest any more of the taxpayers' money fulfilling a vague mandate to "go digital," we plan to research a fundamental question: what is the information-seeking behavior of judges, court clerks, pretrial services and probation offices, and the myriad of other patrons we serve? How can we spend our limited resources more intelligently?

While we step back and ask these fundamental questions, we do not need to reinvent the wheel. Studies of information seeking behavior are a well-established part of the information science literature.

Professor Marija Dalbello of Rutgers University provides us with a definition of information-seeking behavior. It includes:
· Activities a person may engage in when identifying his or her own need for information
· Searching for such information in any way
· Interactions between information-searcher and information-provider
· Using or transferring that information

Library and information scientists have gone before us and developed models of information-seeking behavior for a number of professions and social groups. The late Alfred Chapman pioneered this research with her studies of female prisoners, retirees, janitors at a major university, and patrons of a skid-row liquor store. Law librarian Donald Case of the University of Kentucky got us thinking outside the box with his measurements of the height, density, and distance from the desk that piles of papers and journals found in academic offices. The literature is rife with studies of doctors, nurses, architects and clergy.

These studies have had important consequences. They have identified and highlighted such concepts as
· informal networks
· the "invisible college"
· individualistic methods of searching
· personal systems of organization
· the importance of perception (visual cues, spatial relations, etc.)

They have had practical application in the
· physical redesign of libraries and information centers
· reconsideration of cataloging and indexing systems
· layout and use of color in print publications
· design of web sites

Oddly enough, no one has yet, to our knowledge, published any study of the information-seeking behavior of judges or court personnel. The online legal publishers have constructed studies of how lawyers and law students use their databases, but these studies are quite limited and assume that the user already has formulated a narrow information need.

What we have to start with are some models of behavior derived from the literature, and our task over the next year or so will be to design research that will help us formulate information-seeking behavior questions and hopefully answer them.

The first models we looked at helped us visualize information seeking as a behavioral process-- either as a series of stages or an evolving series of evolutionary activities. These models may help us identify points where we can ask valuable questions. But information-seeking behavior is really much more complicated, and not linear at all. You perhaps know intuitively, or from your own experience, that it is a series of branches and feedback loops. We will go one step further and base our research methodology on more complex models that incorporate the variety of work roles legal professionals perform. A judge, for instance, may seek information about the law to reach a decision on a case, but is also a case manager who needs information on workflow, a computer user trying to figure out PowerPoint, a supervisor who needs information on employee relations, an instructor who needs to create a lesson plan, and a grandmother who needs information on retirement planning. The structured and formal behavior that the judge may or may not demonstrate in legal research may or may not carry over, or even be appropriate, for these other professional information needs.

Over the next year, the FJC plans to conduct a series of focus groups, interviews, and perhaps surveys exploring the information-seeking behavior of legal professionals in the courtroom environment. Our primary research will be with judges, court clerks, pretrial services, and probation officers. But law librarians will be important in helping us design the research, acting as advisors, a sounding board, and a reality check. We hope that in the end, perhaps in 2004, the research will not only help us at the FJC provide a much better publications and training programs, but will be useful to all of you in evaluating your own library programs. We invite your comments and participation.

Next: Training as Performance

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