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The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.
– Henry VI, Pt. 2, Act 4, sc. 2.

This line, delivered by Dick the Butcher (turned revolutionary) in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, is often performed tongue-in-cheek by actors to elicit an expected laugh from the audience. The essence of the line, however, is no joke, and relates to destabilizing the rule of law by removing its agents — those who promote and enforce the law. What no one could predict, including Shakespeare himself, is the horrific precision with which such a deed could be carried out.

The 1994 Genocide in Rwanda showed this horror and more, with upwards of one million killed in the span of three months. The effect on the legal system was particularly devastating, with the targeting of lawyers and the justice sector, resulting in the targeted killing of prosecutors and judges at its outset.

Rwanda’s Justice Sector Development
Since 1994, Rwanda has done a remarkable job rebuilding its society, establishing security, curbing corruption, and creating one of the fastest growing economies in sub-Saharan Africa.

Law Library at the Ministry of Justice, Kigali, Rwanda.

Law Library at the Ministry of Justice, Kigali, Rwanda.

One of the biggest areas of development in Rwanda, and in other areas of the world, has been strengthening justice sector institutions and strengthening the rule of law. In transitional states, especially those developing systems of democratic governance, the creation of online, reliable, and accessible legal information systems is a critical component of good governance. Rwanda’s efforts and opportunities for development in this area are noted below.

From 2010-2011, I played a very small part of this development when I served as a law clerk and legal advisor to then-Chief Justice Aloysie Cyanzayire of the Supreme Court of Rwanda. Working with a USAID-funded project, I was also able to participate with legal education reform, and the development of an online database of laws, the Rwanda Legal Information Portal (RwandaLIP). In the summer of 2013 I returned to Rwanda, with the support of the American Association of Law Libraries, to visit its law libraries and understand the role of law libraries in legal institutions and overall society. After learning the Rwanda LIP was no longer updated (and now offline entirely), investigating Rwanda’s online legal presence became a secondary research goal for the trip. The discovery also highlighted the importance of legal information systems and their role in justice sector reform. Part of this justice sector reform related to changes in Rwanda’s legal system. Once a Belgian colony, at independence Rwanda inherited a civil law system, codified much of the Belgian civil code, and today the main body of laws comes from enactments of Parliament. Rwanda’s judicial system, rebuilt after the 1994 Genocide, is made up of four levels of courts: District Courts, Provincial Courts, High Courts, and the Supreme Court.
With its civil law roots, courts in Rwanda were largely unconcerned with precedent. As Rwanda became a member of the East African Community in 2007 (and adopted English as an official language), the judiciary started a transition to a hybrid common law system, considering how to assign precedential value to court decisions. With this ongoing transition in Rwanda’s legal system, an online legal information system has become a significant need for legal and civil society.

One of four computer labs, called the "digital library" at Kigali Independent University, with more than 400 computer workstations available for student use.

One of four computer labs, called the “digital library” at Kigali Independent University, with more than 400 computer workstations available for student use.

Online Legal Information Systems
In order to establish the rule of law in a democratic system, citizens must have access, at the very minimum, to laws of a government. To make this access meaningful, a searchable database of laws should be created to allow users of legal information to find laws based on their particular information need. For this reason alone it is important for governments in transitional states to make a commitment to developing online legal information systems.

John Palfrey aptly noted: “In most countries, primary legal information is broadly accessible in one format or another, but it is rarely made accessible online in a stable and reliable format.” This is basically the case in Rwanda. Every law library, university library, and even the Kigali Public Library have paper copies of the Official Journal — the official laws of Rwanda. Today, however, the only current place to find laws online is through the Prime Minister’s webpage, where PDF copies of the Official Gazette are published. The website (Kinyarwanda for “law”) was frequently used by lawyers and members of the justice sector to search Rwanda’s laws, and allowed the general public to not only access laws, but run a full text search for keywords. This site, however, was not updated after 2011, and is now completely offline. The result is no online source to search Rwanda’s laws.

Law Library at the Parliament of the Republic of Rwanda in Kigali.

Law Library at the Parliament of the Republic of Rwanda in Kigali.

Rwanda is using its growing information infrastructure, however, to create other online quasi-legal information databases. For instance, the Rwanda Development Board created an online portal for businesses to access information on “investment related procedures” in Rwanda. The government is also allowing online registration of businesses, streamlining the processes and making it more accessible. These developments make sense with Rwanda’s reforms in the area of economic development, and its recent ranking in the top 30% globally for ease of doing business, and 3rd best in sub-Saharan Africa. While economic reform has driven these changes, justice sector reform has not yet yielded the same results for online legal information systems.

Service counter at the University Library at Kigali Independent University in Rwanda.  Students aren't allowed to browse the library stacks.

Service counter at the University Library at Kigali Independent University in Rwanda. Students aren’t allowed to browse the library stacks.

Rwanda’s Legal Information Culture Despite the limited online access to laws, there is a high value placed on legal information in Rwanda. Every legal institution has a law library and a dedicated library staff member (although most don’t have formal education in librarianship or information management). Moreover, members of the justice sector, from staff members to Permanent Secretaries and Ministers, believe libraries and access to legal information is of critical importance. A common theme in Rwanda’s law libraries, however, is the lack of funding. Some libraries have not invested in library materials in years, and have solely relied on donations to add items to their collections. It is not altogether surprising, then, that the Rwanda LIP remained un-funded, and is now completely defunct as an online legal information system. One source close to the Rwanda LIP project indicated that funding has been sought at Parliament, but as of today has yet to be successful.

The failure of the Rwanda LIP is perhaps a victim of how it came to be; that is, through donor-funded development. Creating sustainable online databases requires a government commitment of financial support. Just as before it, the Rwanda LIP was created through a donor-funded initiative, and at its conclusion the LIP’s source of funding also ended. For any donor-funded development initiative, sustainability is a key concern, and significant government collaboration is necessary for initiatives to remain after donor-funded projects end. This concept is especially true with legal information systems, and is perhaps the cause for the Rwanda LIP’s demise. While created in partnership with the Government of Rwanda, it failed to adequately secure a commitment for continued funding at its outset. Sustainability issues are not unique to Rwanda’s experience with online legal information systems. The availability of financial resources is one of the key challenges to creating a sustainable online database of laws. Working with developing countries in Africa, SAFLII found that sustainability issues come from “shortages of resources, skills and technical services.” While donor-funded projects have serious limitations, others experiencing the sustainability challenge have suggested databases supported by private enterprise, “offering free content as well as value-added services for sale.” One thing for certain is that long-term sustainability remains one of the biggest challenges for online legal information systems.

View of the Kigali Public Library in Kigali, Rwanda.

View of the Kigali Public Library in Kigali, Rwanda.

Print to Digital Transition and Overcoming the Digital Divide In addition to sustainability, transition from print to digital poses its own complications, and has emerged as a major issue in law libraries, from even the most established institutions. This challenge is especially unique in the context of developing and transitional states, where access to the internet can pose a significant challenge. This problem, known as the “digital divide,” has been described as something that “disproportionately disenfranchises certain segments of society and runs counter to the notion that inclusiveness and opportunity build strong communities and countries.” This is an even larger problem in developing and transitional states, where there is far less wealth and technological infrastructure for internet connectivity, and a greater disparity in access between and among communities.

Of all countries in the process of developing online legal information systems, however, Rwanda is perhaps the best suited to succeed. With high-speed fibre-optic internet cables recently installed throughout the small East African country, Rwanda has one of the best internet penetration rates in the developing world. So, while Rwanda’s law libraries (and other libraries) throughout the country have print copies of laws, there may be a legitimate opportunity to give a large number of citizens online access. For example, the Kigali Public Library, the flagship institution of the Rwanda Library Services, houses print copies of the laws of Rwanda but also has an internet cafe giving free access to online resources. Kigali Independent University has an “Internet Library” with more than 500 computers for student use. Rwanda’s law libraries are also open and accessible to the public, some of which have computers for use by the public as well. Other libraries, including the law library at the National University of Rwanda, have increasing access to online resources to serve their users.

In Rwanda, a new access to information law (Official Gazette No. 10 of 11.03.2013) makes online legal information even more critical in the developing state, and Rwanda’s current efforts can serve as an example for the importance of modernizing online legal information. The access to information law imposes a positive obligation on the Government of Rwanda, and some private companies working under government contracts, to disclose a broad range of information to the public and press. It has been stated that the law “meets standards of best practice in terms of scope and application” for freedom of information laws. Despite the law’s conditions to withhold information under Article 4, the significant shift in policy and the law’s broad range of information available are very positive signs. This and similar laws across the developing world have created a need for the improvement of existing legal information systems, or the creation of new systems to adequately make available essential legal information. A critical component to the implementation of this law, therefore, is a reliable and sustainable online legal information system.

A view of the volcanoes in the Northern Province of Rwanda.

A view of the volcanoes in the Northern Province of Rwanda.

Lessons Learned from Rwanda’s Experience
While and the Rwanda LIP are no longer online, institutions within the justice sector of Rwanda are currently working on solutions. In the meantime, there is no meaningful way to search Rwanda’s laws online. It is possible that a stronger financial commitment at the outset of the Rwanda LIP would have solved this. In the future, long-term sustainability should be one of the primary qualifications for creating an online system.

In the meantime, there are other ways of expanding Rwanda’s access to online legal information through databases of foreign law and secondary sources. Talking with law librarians in Rwanda, I learned that there is little, if any research instruction being delivered from law libraries. Even in the few libraries with subscription electronic databases, users aren’t necessarily being directed to relevant legal resources. Furthermore, law librarians generally collect, catalog and retrieve legal materials for users, rather than directing users to relevant sources. Users of legal information in Rwanda (and elsewhere) would be well served by being exposed to other online sources of legal information. Sites like the LII, WorldLII, and the Directory of Open Access Journals offers access to a wealth of free online primary and secondary materials that could be useful to researchers. Creating research guides and offering research instruction in these areas costs very little, and opens up countless resources that could be valuable to users of legal information in Rwanda, and elsewhere. Those working in justice sector development should investigate the possibility for this, in conjunction with creating online legal information systems of domestic laws.

Directional sign outside the Law Faculty at the Independent Institute of Lay Adventist of Kigali.

Directional sign outside the Law Faculty at the Independent Institute of Lay Adventist of Kigali.

Finally, the majority of those working as librarians in Rwanda’s law libraries have no formal instruction in library or information science. Nonetheless, it is remarkable that those with little or no formal training are competent librarians. Formal training or not, qualified librarians generally do not have the opportunity to offer research training to users of legal information. Treating law librarians as professionals would open up many opportunities to increase the capacity of users of legal information, and the online resources available.


IMG_1857Brian Anderson is a Reference Librarian and Assistant Professor at the Taggart Law Library at Ohio Northern University. His research involves the use of law libraries and legal information systems to support the rule of law in developing and transitional states. In September 2013 Brian presented two papers at the 2013 Law Via the Internet conference related to this topic; one related to civil society organizations and the use of the internet to strengthen the rule of law, and another about starting online legal information systems from scratch.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.

As researchers use materials in libraries, their actions tend to generate records—research trails in digital databases, lists of borrowed books, and correspondence with librarians. Most of the time, these records are innocuous, but to facilitate freedom of inquiry, librarians generally hold these records as confidential. This confidentiality is especially important in law libraries because legal matters can be very sensitive and stressful. Researchers implicitly trust librarians with at least hints of concerns the researchers would prefer not be generally known. If researchers knew any records of their questions could become known to others, some researchers would avoid using library collections or asking librarians for advice, guidance that very well may help them find valuable information.

In her interesting post, Meg Leta points out that, despite some exhortations that information on Web lasts forever, most information now online will disappear at some point. Websites go down when their owners fail to pay hosting fees. Data is deleted, either by purpose or mistake. A file sitting on a drive or disc will, without maintenance, eventually becomes inaccessible because the storage media has decayed or because the hardware and software needed to read the file has become obsolete. Since information will tend to vanish without action on our part, Leta suggests we should instead focus on actively saving information that is worth keeping.

Leta makes an excellent point, but I’d suggest that in addition to thinking carefully about what information needs to be kept, legal professionals also should consider whether certain types of information warrant purposeful destruction. I’d also suggest that for law libraries, patrons should be given the ability to retain, either through the library or themselves, records of their use of library resources.

Leaving Breadcrumbs Along the Research Trail

Just as most web browsers keep a history of websites visited and search engines retain logs of search terms, law libraries and their vendors maintain records of some researcher interactions with library resources and staff. A very thorough researcher could generate records by using web browsers on library computers, writing to library staff, borrowing books, and accessing databases that require individual user accounts. Many of the major legal databases, such as Westlaw, LexisNexis, and Bloomberg Law require users to log in and maintain individual research trails.

Just as Leta said, most of these records will be destroyed over time through the library’s and vendors’ normal procedures. The library computers probably are set to erase their browser histories every so often, and most integrated library systems delete circulation records once books are returned. Legal databases keep research trails, but generally those trails eventually expire. However, the vendors also keep server logs and track users with cookies; those records probably are deleted at some point, but probably later than when users lose access to their research trails. Any written records the librarians keep of patron interactions might be covered by an organizational records retention schedule; if not, they are kept at the whim of the librarian.

So this appears to be the present situation: law libraries and their vendors collect a variety of records about their patrons’ research. Through normal business processes, much of those records is eventually discarded. Depending on the researcher’s circumstances, the records may be sensitive, and librarians generally strive to keep all such records confidential as a matter of professional ethics. Is there anything in the status quo worth changing?

Retaining Information has Risks and Benefits

Almost all the records libraries keep about their patrons have a purpose. Circulation records are kept so libraries do not lose materials and to make usage statistics. Vendors keep research trails so researchers can retrace their steps and know how their products are being used. After a certain period of time, these records are generally not needed for those reasons.

While records are needed for important reasons, keeping them also involves risk of harming researchers. The most serious risks are that a researcher’s sensitive legal research records will be revealed to others who should not have that information and that the records will be used for a purpose different from the one for which the information was originally collected. I imagine law libraries are not high-priority targets for criminals and government agents, but then again, library databases and email systems are probably not equipped with state-of-the-art security. Certainly the longer records are retained, the more opportunity there is for security to be compromised.

It is easier to imagine a scenario in which library records are used for a new purpose. Database vendors could decide to use research histories  to market products to researchers. This seems possible for law students and attorneys. Publishers could seek to use library or database records to help track researchers committing copyright infringement. I have not heard of any recent attempts by law enforcement to obtain law library records and it is hard to fathom what relevance the records would have to any investigation. On the other hand, the government has sought library records before.

These risks that library records might be wrongly disclosed or misused exist while the records are useful, but the beneficial intended uses of the records outweigh the risks. Once that need has ended, though, there is no justification for keeping the records. The minimize risks to patrons, libraries should determine how long they need certain types of records and then destroy the data as soon as it is not required.

On the other hand, records of research activity can be used to benefit patrons. Surely many researchers could use a list of every book they have borrowed, or a research trail that covers multiple databases. Perhaps software could be developed that would analyze research histories to help make data-driven collection development decisions or recommend new books and articles to faculty and students. Services like this might require keeping patron records for quite some time.

Librarians thinking of future historians might suggest that patron records should be kept in some form so on ancestors can have a better understanding of how we conducted research and to look into the thought processes of significant legal scholars.

Giving Patrons Greater Control of Their Records

How these risks and benefits weigh against each other depends to a great deal on the researcher’s circumstances. For many faculty and students, the privacy of their library records is not a matter of great concern. For attorneys and private citizens (and faculty and students when conducting research on their personal legal matters), privacy is very important, and if they knew of a risk that their records might be used in unexpected ways, they may reduce their use of library resources, or be deterred from using the library altogether.

I suggest law librarians seek to give researchers greater control over their library records. Records should be retained for the absolute least amount of time needed for providing the services for which the data was collected. After that time, the records should be rendered totally irretrievable or reduced to anonymous statistics that cannot be traced to any individual. However, before the records are destroyed, they should be easily accessed and saved by the researcher for her own use. Researchers that choose this option can then keep their records as they see fit, just as they can download bank statements and export their financial transactions to personal money management software.

Below are suggestions for how this might be done.

Make a privacy policy and records retention schedule — Each library should publish a privacy policy that describes how the library collects and retains records of patron interactions. Each library should also make a records retention schedule that details how long each type of record is kept and how researchers can obtain a copy of their records before they are destroyed. Many researchers may choose not to download their records, but in that case the data will be destroyed as soon as it is not needed. The default option is most protective of patron privacy.

Make records easy to obtain and use — Researchers who wish to save their records should be able to more easily obtain them in a format that is compatible with software that organizes, searches, and retrieves the records. For instance, borrowing histories and database research trails could provide citations of accessed materials that are compatible with citation management software like Zotero, citeulike, and Mendeley. Since most integrated library systems and journal databases are provided by vendors, the best librarians can do is urge vendors to add these functions and subscribe to products that allow privacy-protecting defaults while also giving patrons access to their records.

Convince vendors to do the same — Libraries license most of the systems used to catalog and provide access to their collections. Protecting researcher privacy and providing patron access to their records will require the cooperation of vendors. Librarians should ask vendors to publish privacy policies that tell researchers what records are collected and how long they are retained, and encourage development of software that will give patrons copies of their records that are compatible with leading research management software.

For further reading on records destruction and privacy, I suggest Daniel Solove’s Understanding Privacy (Harvard University Press, 2008) and Viktor Mayer-Schonberger’s Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (Princeton University Press, 2009).

Benjamin Keele is a reference librarian at the Wolf Law Library of the William & Mary Law School. He earned a J.D. and M.L.S. from Indiana University. His research interests include copyright, privacy, and scholarly publishing. His website is



VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed. The information above should not be considered legal advice. If you require legal representation, please consult a lawyer.

[Editor’s Note] For topic-related VoxPopuLII posts please see: Meg Leta Ambrose, Accounting for Informatics in the “Right to be Forgotten” Debate.

Much to the dismay of several family members, I majored in anthropology in college. For those of you not up on your social sciences or Greek roots, anthropology is the study of all aspects of human existence, from the human genome, to cultures, to evolutionary history, to our primate cousins, and many things in between. Much to every one’s surprise, however, I couldn’t have picked a more useful major to help me navigate the ever-changing landscape of modern librarianship and legal information.

Besides analytical thinking and general research skills, my anthropology classes taught me how to make connections between seemingly divergent ideas, to dispassionately observe human interactions, and to respect differing cultures. Although they were not directly related to my career goals, I loved my primatology courses the most. Observing primate social networks allows one to distill the essence of a relationship without the confusing trappings of cultural artifacts. As an added bonus, monkeys are really cute.

LorisMy favorite non-human primate is not a monkey, actually. It’s the genus Nycticebus, more commonly known as the Slow Loris. They are absolutely adorable! Lorises are nocturnal, tree dwelling lower primates. They split off from the human evolutionary chain about 50 million years ago and haven’t evolved much since then. They don’t have many natural predators, but when they do need to defend themselves they rely on poisonous saliva or by curling up in a ball and hiding. Due to the lack of predators and their widely varied diet, they tend to move very slowly and cautiously through the trees.

You’re probably thinking to yourself right about now, “Well, this is nice and moderately interesting, but why is she writing about lorises in an legal information blog?” Well, if an overly cautious, slow moving, non-evolving primate that responds to threats by a poison tongue or hiding and pretending the threat isn’t there didn’t remind you of anything, well then I guess you haven’t spent much time around librarians.

What’s Wrong with Librarians?

Oh, everyone calm down. Put away your pitchforks. While no one loves to play “Poke the Bunhead with a Stick” more than I, that is not the point of this essay. Rather, I am here to answer the question, “What is wrong with librarians?” As a librarian who spends a significant amount of time discussing legal information issues with non-librarians, I am often asked this very question. Many times with some colorful adjectives thrown in for good measure.

Here’s the short answer: There’s nothing WRONG with librarians.

Libraries and librarians have different cultures and missions than other players in the information business, and thus place what may seem to be an unreasonable emphasis on certain attributes of an information delivery mechanism, or require characteristics of it that may seem unnecessary. Frankly, we think you’re pretty weird too. However, automatically labeling beliefs and actions different than yours as “wrong” creates unnecessary divisions between groups that must collaborate. Everyone – librarians, computer scientists, legal publishers, government bureaucrats, etc. – needs to work towards a greater cultural understanding of the other players so that mutually beneficial and important projects – for instance, – are not lost to petty infighting and simple misunderstandings that devolve into huge clashes.

Now for a slightly longer answer…

Libraries, as a cultural institution, have existed for millennia. Through that time their collections transitioned from clay tablets to papyrus scrolls to codices to printed books. It is only relatively recently – about one percent of the time of their existence – that libraries have been confronted with digital media. This means that library culture primarily evolved during a time span in which information containers were tangible objects. Furthermore, during this time libraries’ mission has been mainly to preserve and protect the information for the long-term good of the civilization, even at the cost of preventing contemporary users from accessing it. Finally, libraries have existed for the most part without competition in either resource collection or distribution.

Law librarians, in addition to the library enculturation, have often received legal training. If you’ve not had the pleasure, suffice it to say that respect for the rule of law, adherence to social order, and an obsession with order, ritual, and formality are just a few of the many benefits that one receives from an American legal education. (Other benefits include nightmares about Contract Law finals, an inability to watch courtroom dramas without pointing out the inaccuracies of the script, and a competitive streak that would put most Olympic athletes to shame.) The informally educated are very similarly situated.

So, here we have a group of people used to being in control of tangible objects that they would rather preserve than use. Additionally, these people put the legal system and its laws up on a pedestal and rigidly cling to its structure and hierarchy. Is it any wonder, then, that the idea of accepting an electronic version of a law hosted by a private organization without a stamp of government approval sends them into a bit of a tizzy?

Let’s go back to our furry friend the loris.

As I said, the lorises move slowly. Glacially, even. I mean, I’m talking sloooooooow. Why is that? Well, they don’t have a physical impediment keeping them that way. Nor should it be assumed that they are lazy or have some other character defect (as if one could assign character defects to wild animals.) As a matter of fact, when they choose to catch live prey they can move quite quickly. They operate this way because when one is creeping along small jungle branches high in the air in the middle of the night and not running from any particular predator, it pays off to take one’s time and be cautious.

Similarly, librarians don’t cling to print materials out of some romantic notion of the superiority of books, nor do they make repeated demands for stable, authenticated archives of electronic materials just to make you crazy. When one is tasked with the preservation of information – on behalf not just of those looking for it ten years from now, but also of those looking hundreds if not thousands of years from now – and no one else is really in the information distribution or storage business, it pays to take one’s time and be cautious when determining what container to put that information in, especially when what you’ve been doing for the past 1,000 or so years has been working for you.

You Say You Want an Evolution…

A major factor in the loris’s being able to move slowly is that it has few predators or competitors for resources. At least until recently, that is. A primate by the name of Homo sapiens has hunted the loris right onto the endangered species list.

Like the loris, libraries are no longer the sole occupiers of their niche spot in the environment . . . and what a rapidly changing environment it is. No longer are libraries the sole gatekeepers and preservers of information. Information is also coming from new providers and in different containers than what libraries have been used to.

While I said above that they are not “wrong,” that does not mean that libraries and librarians couldn’t do some things better. Librarians, as a species, are very risk-averse. If I had to guess, I’d say it had something to do with being the only information gatekeepers for so long. Now, generally, there’s nothing wrong with being a little cautious, especially when there’re no do-overs (as is the case with lost information.)

But with librarians this risk aversion has grown like a cancer and now manifests itself as a fear of failure. This fear has become so ingrained in the culture that innovation and progress are inhibited. Contrast that with the tech sector – home to many future library partners – where trial and error are encouraged and participants have a freedom to fail. It behooves librarians to embrace this culture of innovation and develop a respect for failure lest they become completely stagnant and, as a result, obsolete.

Unlike the loris, libraries are operated by sapient beings that can adapt to changes in their environments. Libraries need to choose to acknowledge these changes and model some – but not all – of their behaviors after newer and perhaps more successful members of the ecosystem. As it stands now, librarian participation in a multidisciplinary project is often regarded as more of a hindrance than a help.  If librarians don’t change, they will eventually stop being invited to the conversation.   Ideally these other ecosystem members will be patient with the process of evolution and appreciate the qualities the libraries posses and the values that librarians bring to a discussion.

One way to develop this mutual respect is to interact professionally and demonstrate one’s knowledge, skills, and willingness to collaborate. Unfortunately, up until now most interaction between librarians and other information industry members has arisen out of conflict – librarians wagging their fingers, telling someone that they’re wrong or complaining that librarians are being persecuted by the mean old vendors. Another important factor in gaining professional respect is the ability to give and receive constructive criticism without resorting to petty snipes or retreating to salve wounded egos.

Get in the Goddamn Wagon

A few weeks ago, I was sent a link to Peter Brantley‘s blog post, “Get in the Goddamn Wagon,” an inspiring call to action for newer librarians to become involved in future planning for libraries. It’s a good read and worth a look, but I bring it up here for two perhaps non-obvious reasons. One, it’s notable for who sent it to me – none other than Thomas R. Bruce, Director of the Legal Information Institute.

Tom has been a valuable friend and mentor to me. He is not, however, a librarian. Still, because I know he respects me while perhaps not always understanding the reasons behind my actions – and vice versa – we have been able to forge a cooperative professional relationship. Because of this mutual respect, when he offers a suggestion on how libraries might change, I listen and consider his suggestion instead of automatically discounting it because he’s not a librarian.

The other reason that I mention that blog post is that it introduced me to the William Faulkner quote, “Them that’s going,” he said, “get in the goddamn wagon. Them that ain’t, get out of the goddamn way.” I wish I could say, “Librarians . . . computer scientists . . . legal publishers . . . let’s all hold hands now and sing kum-bay-yah!” However, while I am hopeful that cultural differences between these groups can be diminished and a feeling of amity develops between them, I am realistic.

So instead I say, “Get in the goddamn wagon or get out of the goddamn way.” I imagine at times the ride will be about as comfortable and collegial as a bunch of children crammed in a station wagon for a family vacation road trip. There is no ultimate “Mother” authority to keep us all in line with the threat of turning around, however. For these collaborative efforts to be successful, no constituency or person gets to be “in charge” all the time. It doesn’t matter how many millions of dollars in grant money one has, or how many thousands of members in one’s organization; everyone’s expertise needs to be used and respected. It won’t be easy and it won’t feel natural, but we all must make a conscious effort to work together.

How will this happen? We could start with meetings on neutral ground (physical or virtual) designed for the express purpose of ironing out differences between the camps. (Perhaps a Festivus airing of grievances?) Ideally, though, I’d love for it to happen more organically. More multi-disciplinary organizations, conferences, and publishing platforms (like Vox PopuLII) need to be created so that we can learn from each other. Until such time that these exist, more trips into the other camp need to be made – attend their conferences, publish in their discipline’s journals: anything that will start to put human faces on the monolithic titles such as “librarian” or “publisher” so that we can get past the distrust and the disputes and move on to the more important work.

The projects that we can (and should) be collaborating on are new and different and will completely change the way people access their law. As such, they will be met with resistance and suspicion and push-back from commercial vendors and government agents. Presenting a united front and creating a system that benefits from all of our areas of expertise from the beginning will go a long way towards legitimizing our cause. We have one chance to make a first impression, one opportunity to make free law an accepted resource in this generation. Don’t mess it up.

[Editor’s Note: For other ideas respecting collaboration between law librarians and members of the legal informatics community, please see our earlier post, A Law Librarian Looks at Legal Informatics Scholarship.]

Photo credits:
Loris: 1887 Engraving of Slow Loris
Librarian: Of unknown origin
Librarian in stacks: The Bookworm by Carl Spitzweg
Horror and Agony, from Darwin’s Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals
Wagon: Harris & Ewing, Wagon and US Capitol (altered by author)

Sarah Glassmeyer is the Faculty Services and Outreach Librarian at the Valparaiso University School of Law in Valparaiso, Indiana. When she’s not putting the fear of God and court clerks into first year law students, she writes about the intersection of legal information, libraries and the Internet at SarahGlasmeyer(dot)com.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editor-in-chief is Robert Richards.

Kangaroo BoxingIt’s been a rocky year for West’s relationship with law librarians.

First, the company declined to participate in this year’s American Association of Law Libraries Price Index for Legal Publications. This led AALL to return West’s sponsorship check for the 2009 AALL Annual Meeting. For attendees, this decision was somewhat academic, as West still occupied a large space in the Exhibitor Hall and once again hosted a well-attended Customer Appreciation Party.

Shortly after the conference, West issued an email promotion to customers that asked:

Are you on a first name basis with the librarian? If so, chances are, you’re spending too much time at the library. What you need is fast, reliable research you can access right in your office.

Many law librarians felt publicly insulted by West, expressing their outrage on listservs, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and anywhere legal information professionals could be found that week.

Most recently, West released a video of University of California, Berkeley professor and law librarian Bob Berring explaining the advantages of “free market” premium legal databases over free legal information websites run by “volunteers:”

It’s not like legal information is going to the Safeway or to buy food. You’re not buying a packaged thing. If you say I need to find statutes about this, or what’s the administrative regulations on that, or have the courts spoken about this, you have to go find it. And just saying it’s all out there — I mean, the ocean is all out there, but you need a map, and you need a compass, and… you need a GPS system now. You need someone to tell you how to get there. That’s why librarians are even more important now, because they’ve got the GPS system. But you have to be working with organized information. The value added by folks like West, where the information is edited as it goes in, and it’s classified, and the hooks are put in — easy hooks for the people who I think are sloppy researchers just playing around on the tops, really sophisticated hooks for the people who take the time to learn how to really use the system and understand it. You just can’t say enough about those kind of things, because to say to the average person, “Well, it’s all out there, the law is all out there,” well, it’s a big bunch of goo.

Adding value to the goo

Unfortunately, the West/Lexis duopoly doesn’t provide consumers with the expected advantages of a free market economy. Neither vendor uses price as a marketing strategy, and both negotiate electronic database contracts with customers rather than charge a flat rate. Considering that West has increased its own annual profit margin to 30% or higher in recent years, while raising the cost of supplements at a rate far exceeding inflation, prices are hardly being driven by free market trends, making a price war seem unlikely. (This doesn’t mean consumers aren’t hopping mad about the price of legal information. They are.)

Instead, at least in the database market, both companies rely on content and features to market their products. Each July at the AALL Annual Meeting, both Lexis and Westlaw use their exhibitor space to educate attendees about whatever new databases and customer conveniences will be rolled out in the coming months.

Thomas Edison and carI often compare these annual feature introductions to the evolution of automobile engines, thanks to a childhood spent watching my father work on the family cars. At first Dad knew every nook and cranny of our vehicles, and there was little he couldn’t repair himself over the course of a few nights. As we traded in cars for newer models, his job became more difficult as engines became more complex. None of the automakers seemed to consider ease of access when adding new parts to an automobile engine. They were simply slapped on top of the existing ones, making it harder to perform simple tasks, like replacing belts or spark plugs.

Lexis and Westlaw also add new components on top of the old ones. To generalize, Lexis tends to add new features in the form of tabs (think “Total Litigator”) while Westlaw adds them in sidebars (think “Results Plus”), to the point where once clean interfaces are now littered with disparate elements sharing adjacent screen real estate.

Finding fault with filters

In a talk at last year’s Web 2.0 Expo in New York, author Clay Shirky stated that the fundamental information problem is not “information overload,” but “filter failure.” Shirky summarized this position in a recent interview with Yale Law School’s Jason Eiseman:

As I’ve often said, there’s no such thing as information overload. It’s filter failure, right? From the minute we had more books to read than the average literate person could read in a lifetime, which depending on the region you’re talking about happened someplace between the 16th and 19th century, from that moment on we’ve always had information overload. That’s the modern condition. What’s happening, I think, to our sense that we’re suffering acutely from information overload now is that the old professional filters have broken. They’re simply not adequate to contain a world in which anyone can put material out in the public.

Whether or not you agree with Shirky’s assessment, it provides an interesting framework with which to view the Lexis/Westlaw information problem. If the primary legal information within these systems are “a big bunch of goo,” then secondary resources, headnotes, subject-specific organization, and other finding aids are the filters necessary to cope with information overload.

For West’s “Are you on a first name basis with the librarian?” promotion to work, Westlaw has to provide the “fast, reliable research you can access right in your office” that it advertises. Assuming for purposes of this essay that the presence of relevant content isn’t an issue (an assumption with which many will quibble), this means the system’s filters need to provide reliable information quickly.

There’s no question that both West and Lexis provide an abundance of subject-specific organization, particularly for case law. Headnotes, topics, digests, tables of authority, citators and cross-references to secondary resources all go above and beyond what researchers find in most freely available resources. But these add-ons, or filters, are only effective if presented in a usable manner.

Bridge CollapseFor an assignment in one of my legal research classes this semester, I provided a fact pattern and asked students to perform a Natural Language search in Westlaw of American Law Reports to find a relevant annotation. In a class of only 19 students, six of them answered with citations to resources other than ALR, including articles from American Jurisprudence, Am.Jur. Proof of Facts, and Shepards’ Causes of Action. The problem, it turned out, wasn’t that they had searched the wrong database. Every one of them searched ALR correctly, but those six students mistook Westlaw’s Results Plus, placed at the top of a sidebar on the results page, for their actual search results. Filter failure, indeed.

On another assignment, students were expected to find a particular statutory code section using a secondary resource, view the code section, then navigate to the code’s table of contents to browse related sections codified nearby. This proved nearly impossible for most of them, as the code section they accessed loaded in a pop-up window with no sidebar, thus providing no visible link to the table of contents. The problems didn’t stop there. Even once I told them to click the “Maximize” button at the bottom of the pop-up window, which reloads the code section into the main window with a sidebar, upon clicking the TOC link, anyone using Firefox for Windows loaded a blank page. (To resolve this error, you have to right-click on the frame where the TOC should’ve loaded and select “This Frame -> Reload This Frame.”)

While completing another portion of the statutory code assignment in Lexis, nearly half the students in the class became confused because numerous clickable links throughout the system display as plain black text which only appear as links when the user hovers over them. Also, within statutory code sections, the navigation links provided within the case annotation index routinely loaded an error page rather than navigating to the proper section further down the page.

This doesn’t even address basic usability issues such as broken back button functionality, heavy usage of frames, lack of permanent document URLs (Lexis and Westlaw each have external workarounds for this), and reliance on pop-up windows (something blocked by default on most browsers). In addition, Lexis still doesn’t support users accessing the system with Firefox for Mac.

The wide availability of secondary resources, annotated codes, and numerous other value-added content provides a clear advantage for Lexis and Westlaw over free and mid-level legal information services, and that’s why everyone continues to pay their steep prices. But so long as the systems themselves don’t provide usable access, each still suffers from filter failure.

Is there an incentive to improve?

VAB Under ConstructionThere is evidence that the companies have the expertise to provide a better user experience. West has two electronic versions (one for desktop computers and one for the iPhone) of Black’s Law Dictionary available that offer more intuitive functionality than what’s provided for the same text in Westlaw. Don’t expect a price break, however. The desktop version of Black’s has a list price of $99, while the iPhone version costs $49.99. By comparison, the print version of Black’s Standard Ninth Edition, which likely has substantially higher production costs than the electronic equivalents, carries a list price of $75, meaning iPhone users receive a slightly lower price while desktop users pay even more. Worse still, both electronic versions as well as the content in Westlaw contain the text of the outdated 8th Edition.

Lexis also has an iPhone app, and it’s a free download that requires an existing Lexis password to function. Substantially simplified from its traditional web interface, the user experience is clean and easy to understand. Yet while one can retrieve both primary and secondary documents, as well as Shepardize documents, none of the documents in this interface contain links, only plain citations that must be copied and pasted into the search form to be retrieved.

Of course, the bigger problem with these progressive moves is that they don’t address any of the existing problems in the web interfaces for either product. No one is redesigning the engine, so to speak. These are simply variations of the now traditional roll-out of new features and functionality on top of existing ones that still have the same significant issues.

This is the problem with a duopoly. There aren’t enough producers in the economy to assert significant pressure on either to improve usability. Consumer power is also limited because multi-year contracts prevent easy product substitution, and there’s only one true product substitute available. The producers dictate the competition, and thus far they have dictated a content competition (“The Tabs and Sidebars War”), rather than a usability one — or even a price one.

There are events on the horizon that could impact this stalemate. Bloomberg continues to develop its own legal research product, allegedly designed to be a Westlaw/Lexis competitor. Perhaps this third producer will see value in using price or usability to gain market share. Lewis & Clark law student (and VoxPopuLII author) Robb Shecter recently introduced, a free repository of Oregon law that currently features the entire Oregon Revised Statutes and a legal glossary. The site’s simple, logical navigation reflects current web usability norms more accurately than either Lexis or Westlaw, and for a “micro-fee” users can bookmark code sections for quick access and save unlimited “human readable” research trails. And, of course, Google Scholar just added “Legal opinions and journals.” It’s far too early to know if it will become a true player in legal information, but Google always has the potential to be a game changer with anything it does.

What can legal research instructors DO?

Despite the presence of these interesting new projects, consumers can’t expect a quick usability turnaround from Lexis and Westlaw, nor the sudden presence of a competitor with the same depth and breadth of content. History doesn’t support such an expectation, leaving legal research instructors in a precarious position.

Many schools leave Lexis/Westlaw training solely in the hands of the companies’ representatives. While a company rep will be knowledgeable about the system, he will also paint the product in the best possible light for the company, glossing over usability issues and emphasizing new features. After all, law students are future customers, so this instruction is part of a long-term sales pitch.

In order to provide a balanced picture of these systems, legal research instructors need to provide their own Lexis and Westlaw training. This can either be in place of or in addition to what’s provided by company reps, but students need to hear the voice of an experienced researcher who doesn’t rely on either company for a paycheck. Some may see this as an implied institutional endorsement of the high-priced systems, but the reality is most students will end up working with one or both of these systems on a daily basis after graduation. Ignoring this would be an educational disservice. Any sense of endorsement can be addressed through thorough coverage of the usability limitations and a short education on the price realities. Instructors can also discuss the availability of lower priced databases for lawyers who simply want access to primary legal materials.

If the market is going to change, it won’t be because Lexis and Westlaw spontaneously decide to improve products that generate significant profits already. Until then, legal researchers need to be better educated on the limitations of these systems so that their work product isn’t compromised by over-reliance on a duopoly disguised as a free market.

Tom BooneTom Boone is a reference librarian and adjunct professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He’s also webmaster and a contributing editor for Henderson Valley Eggs, a “themed information collective” website covering law library issues.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt

Where the culture of assessment meets actual learning about users.

These days, anyone with a pulse can sign up for a free Surveymonkey account, ask users a set of questions and call it a survey. The software will tally the results and create attractive charts to send upstairs, reporting on anything you want to know about your users. The technology of running surveys is easy, certainly, but thinking about what the survey should accomplish and ensuring that it meets your needs is not. Finding accurate measures — of the effectiveness of instructional programs, the library’s overall service quality, or efficiency, or of how well we’re serving the law school’s mission — is still something that is very, very hard. But librarians like to know that programs are effective, and Deans, ranking bodies, and prospective students all want to be able to compare libraries, so the draw of survey tools is strong. The logistics are easy, so where are the problems with assessment?

Between user surveys and various external questionnaires, we gather a lot of data about law library stackslaw libraries. Do they provide us with satisfactory methods of evaluating the quality of our libraries? Do they offer satisfactory methods for comparing and ranking libraries? The data we gather is rooted in an old model of the law library where collections could be measured in volumes, and that number was accepted as the basis for comparing library collections. We’ve now rejected that method of assessment, but struggle nevertheless for a more suitable yardstick. The culture of assessment from the broader library community has also entered law librarianship, bringing standardized service quality assessment tools. But despite these tools, and a lot of work on finding the right measurement of library quality, are we actually moving forward, or is some of this work holding us back from improvement? There are two types of measurement widely used to evaluate law libraries: assessments and surveys, which tend to be inward-looking, and the use of data such as budget figures and square footage, which can be used to compare and rank libraries. These are compared below, followed by an introduction to qualitative techniques for studying libraries and users.


There are many tools available for conducting surveys of users, but the tool most familiar to law librarians is probably LibQUAL+®. Distributed as a package by ARL, LibQUAL+® is a “suite of services that libraries use to solicit, track, understand, and act upon users’ opinions of service quality.” The instrument itself is well-vetted, making it possible for libraries to run it without any pre-testing.

The goal is straightforward: to help librarians assess the quality of library services by asking patrons what they think. So, in “22 items and a box,” users can report on whether the library is doing things they expect, and whether the librarians are helpful. LibQUAL+® aligns with the popular “culture of assessment” in libraries, helping administrators to support regular assessment of the quality of their services. Though LibQUAL+® can help libraries assess user satisfaction with what they’re currently doing, it’s important to note that the survey results don’t tell a library what they’re not doing (and/or should be doing). It doesn’t identify gaps in service, or capture opinions on the library’s relevance to users’ work. And as others have noted, such surveys focus entirely on patron satisfaction, which is contextual and constantly shifting. Users with low expectations will be satisfied under very different conditions that users with higher expectations, and the standard instrument can’t fully account for that.

Ranking Statistics

The more visible or external data gathering for law libraries occurs annually, when libraries answer questionnaires from their accrediting bodies. The focus of these instruments is on numbers: quantitative data that can be used to rate and rank law libraries. The ABA’s annual questionnaire counts both space and money. Site visits every seven years add detail and richness to the picture of the institution and provide additional criteria for assessment against the ABA’s standards, but the annually reported data is primarily quantitative. The ABA also asks which methods libraries use “to survey student and faculty satisfaction of library services”, but they don’t gather the results of those surveys.

The ALL-SIS Statistics Committee has been working on developing better measures for the quality of libraries, leading discussions on the AALLNet list (requires login) and inviting input from the wider law librarian community, but this is difficult work, and so far few Big Ideas have emerged. One proposal suggested reporting, via the ALL-SIS supplemental form, responses from students, faculty, and staff regarding how the library’s services, collections and databases contribute to scholarship and teaching/learning, and how the library’s space contributes to their work. This is promising, but it would require more work to build rich qualitative data.

Another major external data gathering initiative is coordinated by the ARL itself, which collects data on law libraries as part of their general data collection for ARL-member (University) libraries. ARL statistics are similarly heavy on numbers, though: their questionnaire counts volumes (dropped just this year from the ABA questionnaire) and current serials, as well as money spent.

Surveys ≠ Innovation

When assessing the quality of libraries, two options for measurement dominate: user satisfaction, and collection size (using dollars spent, volumes, space allocated, or a combination of those). Both present problems: the former is simply insufficient as the sole measure of library quality, and is not useful for comparing libraries, and the latter ignores fundamental differences between the collection development and access issues of different libraries, making the supposedly comparable figures nearly meaningless. A library that is part of a larger university campus will likely have a long list of resources paid for by the main library, and a stand-alone law school won’t. Trying to use the budget figures for these two libraries to compare the size of the collection or the quality of the library would be like comparing apples and apple-shaped things. There’s also something limiting about rating libraries primarily based on their size; is the size of the collection, or the money spent on the collection, the strongest indicator of quality? The Yankees don’t win the World Series every year, after all, despite monetary advantages.

The field of qualitative research (a.k.a. naturalistic or ethnographic research) could offer microphones.jpg some hope. The techniques of naturalistic inquiry have deep roots in the social sciences, but have not yet gained a stronghold in library and information science. The use of naturalistic techniques could be particularly useful for understanding the diverse community of law library users. While not necessarily applicable as a means for rating or ranking libraries, the techniques could lead to a greater understanding of users of law libraries and their needs, and help libraries to develop measures that directly address the match between library and users’ needs.

How many of us have learned things about a library simply by having lunch with students, or chatting with faculty at a college event, or visiting another library? Participants in ABA Site Visits, for instance, get to know an institution in a way that numbers and reports can’t convey. Naturalistic techniques formalize the process of getting to know users, their culture and work, and the way that they use the library. Qualitative research could help librarians to see past habits and assumptions, teaching us about what our users do and what they need. Could those discoveries also shape our definition of service quality, and lead to better measures of quality?

In 2007, librarians at the University of Rochester River Campus conducted an ethnographic study with the help of their resident Lead Anthropologist (!). (The Danes did something similar a few years ago, coordinated through DEFF , the Danish libraries’ group.) The Rochester researchers asked — what do students really do when they write papers? The librarians had set goals to do more, reach more students, and better support the University’s educational mission. Through a variety of techniques, including short surveys, photo diaries, and charrette-style workshops, the librarians learned a great deal about how students work, how their work is integrated into their other life activities, and how students view the library. Some results led to immediate pilot programs: a late-night librarian program during crunch times, for instance. But equally important to the researchers was understanding the students’ perspective on space design and layout in preparation for a reading room renovation.

Concerns about how libraries will manage the increased responsibilities that may accrue from such studies are premature. Our service planning should take into account the priorities of our users. Perhaps some longstanding library services just aren’t that important to our users, after all. Carl Yirka recently challenged librarians on the assumption that everything we currently do is still necessary — and so far, few have risen to the challenge. Some of the things that librarians place value on are not ours to value; our patrons decide whether Saturday reference, instructional sessions on using the wireless internet, and routing of print journals are valuable services. Many services provided by librarians are valuable because they’re part of our responsibility as professionals: to select high-quality information, to organize and maintain it, and to help users find what they need. But the specific ways we do that may always be shifting. Having the Federal Reporter in your on-site print collection is not, in and of itself, a valuable thing, or an indicator of the strength of your collection.

“Measuring more is easy; measuring better is hard.”
Charles Handy (from Joseph R. Matthews, Strategic Planning and Management for Library Managers (2005))

Thinking is Hard

upside down toddler

Where does this leave us? The possibilities for survey research may be great, and the tools facile, but the discussion is still very difficult. At the ALL-SIS-sponsored “Academic Law Library of 2015” workshop this past July, one small group addressed the question of what users would miss if the library didn’t do what we currently do. If functions like purchasing and management of space were absorbed by other units on campus or in the college, what would be lost? Despite the experience of the group, it was a very challenging question. There were a few concrete ideas that the group could agree were unique values contributed by law librarians, including the following:

  • Assessment of the integrity of legal information
  • Evaluation of technologies and resources
  • Maintaining an eye on the big picture/long term life of information

The exercise was troubling, particularly in light of statements throughout the day by the many attendees who insisted on the necessity of existing services, while unable to articulate the unique value of librarians and libraries to the institution. The Yirka question (and follow-up) was a suggestion to release some tasks in order to absorb new ones, but we ought to be open to the possibility that we need a shift in the kind of services we provide, in addition to balancing the workload. As a professional community, we’re still short on wild fantasies of the library of the future, and our users may be more than happy to help supply some of their own.

Doing Qualitative work

Could good qualitative research move the ball forward? Though good research is time-consuming, it could help us to answer fundamental questions about how patrons use legal information services, how they use the library, and why they do or don’t use the library for their work. Qualitative research could also explore patron expectations in greater detail than quantitative studies like LibQual+, following up on how the library compares to other physical spaces and other sources of legal information that patrons use.

It’s important that librarians tap into resources on campus to support survey research, though, whether qualitative or quantitative. When possible, librarians should use previously vetted instruments, pretested for validity and reliability. This may be a great opportunity for AALL, working with researchers in library and information science to build a survey instrument that could be used by academic law libraries.

Stephanie DavidsonStephanie Davidson is Head of Public Services at the University of Illinois in Champaign. Her research addresses public services in the academic law library, and understanding patron needs and expectations. She is currently preparing a qualitative study of the information behavior of legal scholars.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt