The Evolution of Digital Information and Legal Resources
by Amber Boedigheimer and Sophia Guevara
Today, digital information is delivered to us in many forms, through databases, ebooks, social media, virtual reference services, and the like. The collection and management of and negotiation for these types of resources have changed the expectations of self-help litigants, as well as the job of law librarians working with digital information: the collection and management of it within the digital library. This article discusses the development of digital information and the challenges that going from print to digital can present for law librarians in both the cost and management of legal information services.
Building Digital Libraries
The evolution of information services has enabled humans to access, share, analyze, and produce communication in a variety of forms. Where we access the internet and how we choose to use resources are constantly changing. Thus, practitioners of digital information have the enormous duty of filtering through sources of online data to decipher what information is most accurate, useful, and applicable to their delivery of information services. Whether or not they’re working at academic, law, medical, or public libraries, information professionals in general have the responsibility of navigating through what seems like a whirlpool of data available online via the simple taps of a keyboard.
The term “digital library,” which is still fairly new, is often used to describe content that is collected and pooled together for user groups or communities. Changes in storage and access of these types of resources meant that librarians had to institute new practices when compared to the management of print resources. The development of the digital lifecycle helped better explain the process shared between those who conducted collection development and resource negotiation and those who sold the resources. The digital content lifecycle, according to Tamar Sadeh and Mark Ellingsen’s 2005 article in New Library World, included the following steps: discovery, trial, selection, acquisition, access, and the decision to renew or cancel (emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/03074800510595823).
Oftentimes, data from other library services such as interlibrary loans helped librarians discover new resources to invest in and examine for potential trials, selection, and acquisition. Also, law librarians and the libraries they serve have invested in electronic resource management systems such as Onelog to gather vendor-independent usage statistics to help with the decision to renew or cancel (see Barbie E. Keiser’s “Law Library Management and Legal Research Meet Artificial Intelligence” in the September/October 2018 issue of Online Searcher). So while users ended up benefiting from better access to resources that could be used outside of the library, digital content and the collection management associated with it changed the way that information professionals approached their work (see slides from the presentation “User-Focused Digital Library: A Practical Guide” at the 2010 SLA annual conference at slideshare.net/sophiaguevara/user-focused-digital-library-a-practical-guide).
Digital resources are often provided through licenses that define what the appropriate use of the information is and for how long it may be used or accessed (see Kim Guenther’s “Building Digital Libraries: Making Smart Licensing Decisions” in the June 2000 issue of Computers in Libraries; infotoday.com/cilmag/jun00/guenther.htm). For example, purchasers may choose to limit content they subscribe to toward a particular physical site, only to certain computers, or only to those in a potential user community, such as members, students, or academic staffers.
The cost of negotiating and managing online content subscriptions for the dissemination and repackaging of legal information for self-help litigants can be challenging. Buying access to digital resources requires law librarians to muddle through complicated licensing agreements, evaluate the digital resources, and consider the cost, quality, and scope of digital products. For example, does the product work with the computer equipment available in the library? Does the product offer online tutorials, end-user training, and easy-to-use and value-added features such as email alerts and delivery options? Are the resources needed available only as a bundle? How complicated will it be to manage the licensed e-resource, and how much staff time is required to manage and market it? If a product trial is being conducted, would the library’s resource negotiator be surprised by the purchase price when many patrons have fallen in love with the product? Are the resources being investigated for potential inclusion in a library’s collection?
According to the University of Michigan–Flint’s Frances Willson Thompson Library, primary sources are “the original documents of an event or discovery such as results of research, experiments or surveys, interviews, letters, diaries, legal documents, and scientific journal articles. Primary sources are also records of events as they are first described” (libguides.umflint.edu/idinfosources/primarysecondary). Secondary sources “offer an analysis or a restatement of an event or discovery described in primary sources. They interpret, explain or summarize primary sources.” With that being said, what best fulfills the needs of patrons?
Once a resource is negotiated for and included in the collection, what happens to access once the subscription has ended? Does the law library lose access to the content it had made available to patrons before? Does the vendor provide limited access to content that has been made freely available to the public, but continue to charge for access to legal resources by placing them behind a paywall? These are all important factors to consider before purchasing digital content.
Librarians are struggling to keep pace with the production of digital content. According to “Digitizing for Success: ‘Better than Free’ Generative Values,” an article in SLA’s Information Outlook, “We are fully immersed in an ‘expectation economy,’ and while some feel overwhelmed by simply trying to keep up, libraries with a strong digital strategy embody several time-sensitive values: serving users efficiently, engaging their users and communities, and anticipating needs rather than reacting to them” (sla.org/learn/information-outlook/digitizing-for-success-better-than-free-generative-values; registration required).
In Gary Marchionini’s article “Research and Development in Digital Libraries,” he discusses the changing expectations of patrons when it comes to digital technology (ils.unc.edu/~march/digital_library_R_and_D.html). He writes that because of high expectations from patrons, libraries often have had to make changes to their policies when it comes to service: Digital libraries “may provide services that assist users in developing and maintaining profiles.”
With the development of digital content and more sophisticated platforms to deliver it, self-help litigants have indeed created profiles that let them access content via alerts, often sent regularly and directly to their email inbox and sometimes without a law librarian’s intervention. Examples of this include the Lexis Advance alert option that allows users to get information sent to them based on their legal research (bit.ly/2RnRvm5).
Digital content is great, and when it comes from a trusted, reliable source, it becomes even more powerful. Having access to digital content, however, has its ups and downs. Maintaining original materials in a law library’s collection is just as important as offering new versions. Understanding the depth, quality, and breadth of content that a subscription provider is willing to offer online is invaluable. This is why it is important for librarians to understand and be able to negotiate the terms of a subscription contract. According to the SLA article, it is time that law librarians take advantage of opportunities for funding and collaboration so we can better meet the needs of our current and potential users (sla.org/learn/information-outlook/digitizing-for-success-better-than-free-generative-values; registration required). With that being said, law librarians can consider becoming part of a consortium or network that encourages resource sharing.
Connecting self-help litigants with the resources available to them is always a challenge, and the question is, how do we better connect people to the resources that already exist while staying apprised of new information being produced? Perhaps the first person to ask is the vendor you are working with. Law librarians may find that they get the most value from the product they are buying by partnering with the vendor to make the subscription price worthwhile. Law librarians may also want to ask vendors for ideas and if they would be willing to provide free or low-cost instruction for their product on-site or online if a library’s users are spread out.
Connecting People to Resources
Here are a few ideas to better connect the people being served with the resources that exist:
- Think about adding a message to your organization’s intranet or your library’s website to promote the resource to your patrons. Identify your patrons’ needs and develop the message in a way that is most attractive to them. Perhaps you can create a message tent for the tables in your library or a small, colorful message designed with a tool such as Piktochart (piktochart.com) to draw more attention to the resource(s) you believe will help your patrons the most.
- Be proactive and provide training to those who may find the resource helpful. If possible, make use of tools the vendor can provide to cut down the time you will need to develop training materials. If you have to create the materials on your own, think about holding free resource training events. If possible, consider making use of presentation tools such as SlideShare (slideshare.net) to make the presentation available to anybody who may need the information. This allows you to help patrons remotely instead of having to schedule a training event. In addition, think about using screen capture and recording tools to provide tips for potential users that can be accessed whenever and wherever they may find the need for them. Examples of screen capture tools include TechSmith’s free Jing (techsmith.com/download/jing). Used in conjunction with TechSmith’s Screencast (techsmith.com/screencastcom.html), you can provide access to up to 2GB of content with up to 2GB of monthly bandwidth for up to 12 months.
- Develop research guides that allow users to explore research tools that best fit their needs. For example, the University of Michigan Law School’s Law Library offers helpful research guides developed for legal professionals and law students (libguides.law.umich.edu/?b=g&d=a).
In conclusion, while the evolution of information from print to digital presents new conundrums for both self-help litigants and law librarians, these challenges can be overcome. Digital information in its many forms is crucial for the development and dissemination of knowledge, and maintaining original materials in a law library’s collection is just as important as offering new versions.
Even though law librarians are struggling to keep pace with the production of digital content, we must recognize that digital content and the collection management associated with it are changing the way that legal information professionals approach their work. Being able to confidently negotiate the terms of a subscription contract and find new avenues for delivering information in a quick and efficient manner are key to the dissemination of legal information. The future of the digital lifecycle remains to be seen, and legal information professionals must continue to develop and enhance their abilities to negotiate complicated licensing agreements, better evaluate digital resources, and heavily weigh the cost, quality, and scope of digital products before purchase.