The Leiter Perspective: Tech Services in the Digital World

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A Look at Library Anatomy, Guts, Brains, and All

By Richard A. Leiter

Technical services librarians are the cortex of library operations. As such, they are the ones who, with their departments, do all the important stuff that keeps libraries healthy, growing, and alive. The rest of us think we’re the important ones because we serve our patrons directly and decide what to add to our collections and how to make our library buildings look nice. That’s all well and good, for vanity’s sake, but without the technical services department organizing the materials that comprise our collections; discarding those things that are obsolete or no longer needed; repairing those things that are broken; filing, shelving or binding materials that warrant those treatments; and doing so in a timely fashion, all you have is a clean, nice-looking library, willing but unable to serve its patrons.

Technical services isn’t “important” to libraries; it’s critical. But the question of its relevance in the new world of digital legal information seems to have been lost in a fog. Apparently, among many of the pundits of the modern era is a presumption that all the work that tech services departments do is tied to the physical media that libraries collect. Somehow, if we don’t have a book, we don’t need to catalog it. There is a similar foggy line of thinking that digital articles or blog posts don’t need to be indexed. Just give the digital information to the computer geeks; they’ll know what to do with it.

However, I propose that the work of technical services departments is more important today than ever before. Additionally, time is of the essence, and while standards are critical in the important world of bibliographic control, each moment that we delay work on digital information, we’re taking another step toward information chaos.

Disclaimer
I must begin this article with an apology. There are three things that will become apparent as you read this essay that will embarrass me and anger or annoy some of you. So I’d like to address these things right off the bat so you won’t have to read this and steadily boil, if at all.

First, I’m an academic library director, and I’ve been one for nearly 20 years. This means that I’ve been working in libraries for years without actually doing any “real” library work. I’ve been working at the level of policy and planning so long that, while I have deep respect and appreciation for catalogers, reference librarians, shelvers, interlibrary load librarians, circulation desk attendants, and so on, if I had to fill in on any of these jobs (except for reference librarian; I still feel my reference skills are pretty good), I’d be hard-pressed to actually do any of them.

(I have to digress here for a minute and relate a story about my friend and mentor, the late Roy Mersky, former professor and director at the Tarlton Law Library at the University of Texas. He was for many years a giant in our profession, and one day he came to work and passed the circulation desk. Pierette Moreno, the circulation supervisor at the time, was in the back room, so the circulation desk was unstaffed and a patron was waiting for help. Roy paused and asked if he could help. The patron replied, “I’m waiting to talk to the librarian.” Roy, said, “I’m the librarian.” The patron looked at him dismissively and said, “No, not you. The librarian,” and gestured toward Pierette’s desk behind the circulation desk. The truth is that from the point of view of our patrons, directors are pretty irrelevant—at least on a day-to-day basis. Directing a library, from our patrons’ point of view, has little to do with their use of the library.)

So, as I work through this essay, please cut me some slack if I don’t get some of the details correct. Please focus on the general points I’m trying to make. Even though I get some of the details of cataloging incorrect, I think I understand pretty well the bigger picture. So I beg your indulgence. As I said, I’m just a director.

Second, I will probably oversimplify the process of analysis that catalogers bring to library collections. This is because I’m not a cataloger. But while I fully understand the importance of what catalogers do, I believe catalogers themselves don’t fully appreciate the importance of what they contribute to libraries. In oversimplifying the work of cataloging and classifying library collections, I’m trying to emphasize the criticalness of the work they do.

One of the fundamental aspects of libraries beyond conversation or debate is that they are collections that are organized. It is this aspect of being organized that distinguishes a library from piles of books and that makes it useful. Whether the items in the collection are arranged in closed stacks, in an arbitrary arrangement (by size, accession, etc.) or accessible only via bibliographies or a catalog, the collection is organized for use.

In the scheme of library philosophy, the work of the organizers is most critical and cannot be understated. In this article, I argue that in the digital world, this has not changed.

Finally, I don’t know everything, especially when I try to keep up on what’s going on in the technical services world. How can someone on the outside keep up with all the developments in the “Alphabet Soup” universe? There are more initials, initiatives, and working groups in the field of technical services than in all other professions combined: RDA, AACR2, MARC, WGFBC, etc., are just a few of the acronyms and initiatives for the important work that technical services people do that makes libraries libraries. Of course, I’m being funny here. These initiatives are part of our profession; it’s not impossible to keep up, and it’s extremely important, so we must use whatever resources are available to us to keep up. This means that we directors and lay librarians must rely on our technical services folks to become involved and keep us informed.

But the pace of progress for many of these initiatives and their relative densities makes the last ice age seem like it moved at the speed of light. What’s more, the important work of all these initiatives involves so much attention to detail that for the lay person it seems there is a real danger of nothing ever getting finished, a twist on Zeno’s paradox in which if every detail is discussed to its fullest, the conclusion can never be reached.

This is not to say that these matters of description standards, record format standards, etc., do not warrant full discussion or shouldn’t be fully vetted. They must be, but the consensuses much be reached and the standards decided upon, at least on some interim basis, so they can be preliminarily implemented before the new formats of legal information get so far advanced that the standard of the future becomes the standard of no standard, built by technologists and system administrators who work for institutions, vendors, and computer makers.

In other words, time is of the essence.

The Heart of the Matter: Does Format Matter?
OK, enough excuses for my deep ignorance. What’s going on? Where are the technical services librarians in the midst of the digital revolution?

I think the crux of the matter, in many ways, is that we misunderstand libraries’ role in the new, evolving digital world. It is true that many of the processes and practices that libraries have cultivated over the centuries were developed when libraries were primarily comprised of collecting, curating, and storing physical materials. This presumption presupposes that the work of libraries is wholly dictated by format. But if we look at this presumption closely, particularly with respect to legal materials, we can see that format has little to do with the most important work of law libraries; that is, collecting, curating, and storing legal information.

After all, what is legal information? Is it cases, statutes, regulations, and articles? If you consider this question carefully, you will realize that the law is actually invisible and the documents that law libraries collect and curate are actually prima facie evidence of the law. The documents themselves hold little importance. For example, when a lawyer cites a United States Supreme Court case in a brief or oral argument, the court hearing the argument doesn’t insist that the actual case be brought into the matter to determine the proposition for which it’s cited; a mere citation to the case is sufficient, and, absent the legal communities’ slavish devotion to the Uniform System of Citation, any one of about a dozen citations will get the judge to a reliable version of the case. But the work of libraries is about collecting the appropriate versions of the case; ones with sufficient usefulness and pragmatism as to serve our patrons. We collect Supreme Court decisions in several print formats, including loose leaf, pamphlet, and hard-bound volumes. Most academic libraries also own backup copies in microfiche or microcards (even if many of us have forgotten we even have them!). We also make available to our patrons many online copies in the form of Westlaw, Lexis, Fastcase, Casemaker, LII, Justia, etc. Each version is reliable evidence of how the Court decided a particular case and what it said by way of explanation of its reasoning.

The point is, the work of libraries isn’t only about format, it’s about collecting material for use. The Bluebook, budgets, space, and nature of the patrons we serve all have an extremely important impact on what we collect and how we do it, but the fact remains: We collect information, not books, databases, or microfiche.

If you accept this fact, it’s easy to see that all the processes and procedures that have served us so well for centuries merely need to be adapted for use with new formats. Even if those formats don’t resemble a book, pamphlet, or sheet of fiche, libraries are responsible for doing what we’ve always done: Learn what our patrons want/need and then acquire those resources and organize them into a useful collection.

What Can We Do?
Ranganathan’s five laws specify, correctly, that the business of libraries is to create useful collections of information resources. Libraries by their nature are to be dynamic, always growing in ways that best respond to our patrons’ needs. The process naturally presupposes investigating and becoming knowledgeable about the interests of our patrons. We need to be aware of when our firm or law school develops a new interest or practice area. We evaluate the materials available on the topic and then acquire those services that will be of most benefit to our firm or law school. This is common sense.

But simply acquiring the materials is not enough. It never has been. Libraries have always been acutely aware of the fact that in order for a library to be useful, it must be organized: Users need to be able to find the materials we’ve collected. This is the heart of the matter. If the material in the collection can’t be found quickly and efficiently, it isn’t useful and has failed. Again, this is common sense, but it is also practical sense. It is also what libraries are good at: organizing materials. It should also be noted at this point that we’re good at organizing materials that contain information, but we’re not necessarily experts at organizing the information itself.  That is what publishers and writers do. For instance, libraries don’t collect their own demographic information, but we can answer any question that arises about population growth of metropolitan areas; that’s because any reference collection worth its salt will have ready access to the Statistical Abstract. Admittedly, the distinction between writers, publishers, and libraries is beginning to blur, but this is a red herring with respect to defining what libraries’ roles are in collecting, curating, and organizing materials.

How Do We Apply Old Principles to New Materials?
The single most profound thing that makes the new legal materials different from the old is how libraries acquire them and, when acquired, how they enter our collections.

Electronic materials generally enter our libraries in three ways: by subscription (i.e., Lexis and Westlaw); by discovery (i.e., Fedsys & Govtrack.us); and by creation (i.e., digital commons, blogs, etc.). But libraries exist for the use of our patrons, so the simple question is: How do we organize, classify, and otherwise curate digital materials for our patrons?

A basic question that we all must answer is, do our patrons even use our libraries any more for discovering legal information? This is a deceivingly complicated question with an equally complicated answer. Anecdotal evidence suggests that more patrons are using libraries than ever before. But what are they using them for? Much of the evidence suggests that as libraries remodel and build more comfortable spaces with wireless internet access, ample power outlets, and better lighting, patrons are using libraries as studies. They also use them as places where they can use their computers to access all things digital: social media sites, email, web pages, and online databases.

Much of the digital world is accessed by patrons via Google. This is for two reasons: Google is the default search engine built into most browsers, and it is, quite simply, effective and easy to use. It is also very quick. Is there anything that libraries can do to make their own digital materials quick and easy to use? Well-designed library websites can make patrons comfortable using web pages as aggregator sites.

But the kind of design that we can apply to digital materials should go beyond simply providing a clean page with links to Blackboard, Lexis, BNA, Intelliconnect, Westlaw, and all the rest. We’ve always kept detailed records of all materials that we receive from various vendors. Our government documents departments have, for years, kept almost obsessive track of every scrap of information coming from the federal government’s many branches. Why is it that because Fedsys and Thomas are such wonderful websites, we leave it at that? Should we still be tracking the new materials that are being released through the GPO’s many online sites? They’re not necessarily publishing more material than they were before—it’s simply in a new format. I’m not necessarily suggesting that tech services departments should start keeping digital Kardexes for digital government publications, but, perhaps, we should be doing more with the information that’s being published.

Is there any reason that a library can’t have a link to, say, “Senate Reports,” and provide links to these reports published on Fedsys, Thomas, Westlaw, Lexis, BNA, Intelliconnect, and so on? It’s a fact that a decade or two ago, there were only a few sources of any federal government documents. Today there are a dozen or more sources. Patrons may think things are getting easier—Google gives them this sense—but the fact is access to government materials is actually getting more complicated, the choices more numerous than ever before.

Born Digital Materials
Born digital secondary materials, such as blogs, digital commons, and various self-help websites, present special problems. The quality of these materials is increasing every day. The content is getting more useful, and the usefulness of the sites is continually improving. But many surveys of this material reveal that the indexing, in the computing sense of the word, is very lean. For instance, as law reviews convert their past volumes to digital format, volumes published from the 1940s are tagged with metadata that indicates the date that it was put online as the date of creation. Often, there is no other metadata included in these materials.

Shouldn’t libraries be examining and analyzing these materials with an eye toward placing more useful metadata in them to make them more useful and accessible to our patrons? Metadata can be used to tag articles with cases discussed, statutes analyzed, issues considered, and much more.

If we don’t take control and index these materials, computer technicians with little knowledge of how the materials are used or their function in our system of legal bibliography will (through no fault of their own) ignore the potential of many useful ways that the materials can be indexed, enhancing the materials’ use.

One useful thing to think about when we consider how catalogers may improve the quality of these materials is to think about the way we dealt with materials in the “old days.” Many publishers of old published multiple treatises on multiple topics. Our system of classification placed the publisher pretty low on the list of important attributes of the materials. For example, we classified Wright and Miller’s Federal Practice and Procedure by author, title, and subject as the most significant attributes of the title. Today, because the title is available through Westlaw, we tend to think of the publisher first and the title attributes second. Suppose we forget the service by which we obtain access to the title and continue to classify it as a title, as we always did, and then provide the link to Westlaw? Does this fundamentally change the way we look at digital titles in our collections?

So, What’s the Big Deal?
It seems to me that we librarians need to start seeing digital materials not as something that threatens our existence but as merely a new format of the kinds of things we’ve been collecting all along, applying the same skills and thinking to them that we always have. Sure, things will be different; for one thing, with digital materials we won’t have to agonize over what kind of foil-backed labels to use on spines! But this doesn’t mean that we don’t have to track, describe, and classify them. Let’s take control over these new formats, not let the formats control us.

Richard A. Leiter (rleiter@unl.edu) is director at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln Marvin & Virginia Schmid Law Library.