feds started it in the '80s with privatization. In the mid- and late-'90s
a number of private organizations began to outsource their library staff
functions1. Most are still using their
Why? Is outsourcing a good thing or not, and for whom?
What are the successful
outsourced libraries doing that the old ones did not do? What kinds of
services have the outsourced libraries eliminated that the old ones performed?
To answer these
questions, I researched both general library literature and that specific
to law libraries, as well as contacting library managers, outsourcing companies,
and leaders in law
I had expected
to find the following:
1983 OMB revised
Circular A-76 to add federal libraries as one of 14 functions targeted
for contracting out, or "privatization." A number of federal libraries
(including the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA], the Departments of Energy, Labor,
Housing and Urban Development, and the Bureau of Census) have been contracted
out to the private sector.
County (Va.) Public Library contracts with a vendor to provide law librarians
to work for judges at the county courthouse. Phyllis Mortenson, central
librarian and regional supervisor for the county library system says, "It
is not our problem if a staff member is sick or quits the contractor
has to work things out. I have no responsibility for training, hiring,
or firing of the staff, and the work gets done."
1995 Baker &
McKenzie dismisses the entire library staff at the Chicago office.
1995 General Electric
contracts out the headquarters library to Teltech (now Sopheon).
1997 Baker &
McKenzie hires Barbara A. Schmid, law librarian.
1997 Hawaii State
Library decides to outsource activities that included the selection of
materials to Baker & Taylor. The contract was subsequently cancelled.
County (California) Libraries and Jersey City (New Jersey) libraries follow
suit and contract with LSSI.
Madison & Sutro contracts with Library Associates to operate its San
Francisco law library operations9. The contract has been renewed.
County transfers the County law library to Duquesne University Law School.
2001 General Electric
extends a 6-year-old outsourcing relationship in which Sopheon acts as
a virtual library for the corporation.
2001 LSSI is awarded
contracts for the Fargo (North Dakota) public library and the Lancaster
(Texas) Veteran's Memorial Library.
Law libraries outsource
a great deal that does not fall within the "core mission" of a library
(the core being such user services as circulation, reference, and collection
development duties such as selection and weeding).
Law libraries outsource
for a number of reasons: cost savings, the acquisition of special expertise,
elimination of temporary backlogs and work overloads needing trained personnel,
and a project requiring specialized or expensive equipment, such as deacidification
or imaging projects.
outsourced their entire library operations would terminate their contracts
when the demand for core services that users had come to expect and appreciate
was not met by contract employees either in timely and eager
responsiveness or in the quality of information service and/or product.
I assumed that the loyalty of these workers would be to the employing service
not the users and/or management of the law firms to which they were deployed
and who constituted just one client of the contract agency.
Lawyers, asked to
do their own research, would find themselves ill-trained to take it all
on (sophisticated legal research, interdisciplinary research in other fields,
etc.), that it was a waste of their billable time to gather information
when they are best at analyzing information gathered by a professional.
Also I expected the results retrieved from the lawyers' own searches would
be less relevant or precise or up-to-date than what was needed and that
they would miss an on-site expert with whom to consult. New database services
would not be added when no one was responsible for determining the need
to expand electronic resources to meet new client and attorney needs.
Attorneys had little
time or interest in learning more advanced search techniques on legal databases
and even less interest in attending training sessions to learn new database
Law firms would decide
that client confidentiality was put at risk when contract employees were
given access to client identities and information needs, and that rapid
turnover in contract staff would make it even more difficult to maintain
Law firm librarians
could help with marketing and gather data on current and prospective clients,
unlike contract employees whose discretion with such information would
not be trusted.
Law firm librarians
could expand their reach to include knowledge management, because of their
intimate understanding of firm files, offices, practice areas, people,
and culture in converting legal work product into a legal research resource.
The law firm would
not feel it had the oversight authority or controlled the accountability
of contracting firm employees.
These were the assumptions
that my research sought to check. I found wide recognition that choosing
to outsource certain librarian tasks or functions was a judicious use of
law firm and law library resources. The decision was especially approved
when done on a short-term project basis, or when the task was nonprofessional
(loose-leaf filing, messenger services, etc.) and/or when the outsourced
task was not perceived as constituting one of the core functions of a law
library. Here are what can be considered the core activities2
of a library:
In the end, the law
firm would not save money and/or would get less service for its money than
in-house law libraries would provide.
You don't have to
sign a contract for workers to come to your library to outsource. As my
own law school library's associate director, Anne Rimmer, points out, online
reference services such as 24/73 are
a form of free outsourcing of the reference function. When a library adds
this service as a link on the library Web page, e.g., for faculty or students
seeking information when the library is closed and e-mail won't suffice,
it really outsources a library function.
(especially selection and weeding, which require an understanding of the
user community and their needs)
Law Library Functions
Here is a list
of library functions identified as having been outsourced by law libraries
or their organizations10:
Web page design/hosting
The market for
outsourced services to remote users appears to be growing. Jones' e-global
library, developed at the library of Jones International University, "decided
to broaden the concept of the Internet-based library and create an enhanced
service of value to all institutions supporting online students.... We
felt the library would help two distinct providers. The first and most
obvious group was made up of those who wished to extend and expand the
reach of their on-campus library services to online students. The second
group consisted of those organizations that did not have an existing library,
such as other virtual universities, professional associations, corporate
universities, and other nontraditional providers of education programs."4In
discussing working with existing on-campus libraries, Jean Heilig noted,
"One of the biggest challenges they face is designing programs to meet
the needs of off-campus online learners, and doing so quickly and cost-effectively.
library helps meet this need by enabling academic libraries to extend the
reach of their services beyond the campus borders." The service offers
electronic databases, courses, and research guides on electronic research,
on-call reference librarians, and document delivery. And, unlike other
outsource companies, "From its inception as a stand-alone product,
library has been designed to complement existing libraries by extending
their reach to their online students. However, we obviously did not do
a good enough job of clarifying this point for the community of academic
librarians, many of whom expressed concerns that Jones' e-global
library was attempting to do away with their jobs.... We understand that
digital solutions enhance, rather than replace, the critical role of librarians."
One could ask,
is anyone safe from being outsourced? As Larry Smith, editor-in-chief,
Counsel,pointed out, "Outsourcing may or may not be the burning practical
issue of the day for librarians.... Is outsourcing a prominent option for
law firms in areas outside the library? Of course it is. In fact, temporary
attorneys now a megamillion-dollar industry represent,
in many ways, the outsourcing of certain forms of the legal practice itself,
not just backup or back- office functions."5
Mark Estes, former
President of AALL, stated6:
is really not the biggest issue facing law librarians. It is, however,
an easy focus for fears and frustrations related to the lack of recognition,
rewards, and job satisfaction felt by many law librarians, compounded by
the fear of change or the seemingly overwhelming number of challenges facing
us.... The state library of Hawaii has outsourced all of its book selection,
technical processing, and collection management to Baker & Taylor so
that the library can focus on face-to-face interaction (in person or on
the phone) with the customers. In explaining his decision, the librarian
said that the organizations that fail to deliver quality customer service
will fail. In other words, how do we deliver the highest-quality customer
service for the lowest cost? Reallocating resources as the state library
of Hawaii is doing may be one arrow in our quiver.
As a matter of
fact, Mark has done his share of outsourcing tasks in his library
including research and using a local library service company to enhance
training capacity in Internet research. "We've outsourced document retrieval,
cataloging, and loose-leaf filing for years with no problems. We've selectively
outsourced research projects when we didn't have the time to complete the
project within the time constraints. [Our] library staff reviewed and added
some of our own thought to the summary/cover memo for each project." The
only downside? "Minor time lags for the research projects. It worked because
I expected the same level of service from the provider as I expect from
my staff. I communicated my expectations to them in the same way as well.
For filing, we went further and wrote into the contract the specifications
for when material would be filed, i.e., how quickly after receipt of the
update, and we specified the 'high-priority' items that must be filed within
a shorter time span. [You just need to consider] business purpose, client
service, profitability/productivity, e-allocate staff resources."
president of AALL, also noted that communication was a key to a good outsourcing
As part of the
retrocon project we hired a temporary cataloger/independent contractor.
She worked in-house for about a year. We've also hired temporary catalogers
for other projects, most notably a massive microfilm cataloging project.
Again, they worked in-house and were considered independent contractors,
but we treated them in all respects like regular personnel, down to having
birthday parties for them! These were very satisfactory arrangements, probably
owing as much to the personalities and temperaments of the people involved
as to anything else. And it helped that we knew they were temporary; no
one had any illusions about what was going on. We were very upfront with
everyone from the beginning about the details of the arrangements, including
the time period covered and the expectations we had of the outside employees.
... That said,
I think outsourcing can be tricky. We've been lucky. We were never under
any threat of losing personnel when we hired outsiders, so we never had
the tensions inherent in a workplace under fire. No one felt threatened
by the temporary staff, and our temporary staff members were wonderful
people who became part of our team. But my guess is that while you may
be fortunate to establish a long-term relationship with the employees of
a smaller temporary-services operation, such as we've experienced, the
larger the part of your library work you outsource, the less collegial
the relationship can become. The independent workers owe their allegiance,
and their paychecks, to someone else. And if the independent workers are
not in-house, they can become little more than anonymous voices at the
end of the phone line.
How to Avoid Being Outsourced
Aspects of Outsourcing13
Reduce and control
costs (economics favor the use of contract labor over direct employment,
or service levels can be improved or expanded at an equal or lower cost).
Reduce or share risks.
Improve company focus.
Cash infusion (selling
required assets to the contractor).
Reduce a temporary
not on the regular staff (without having to hire, provide training and
time for learning curve especially technological skills).
ensuring links are working, and other time-consuming tasks can be centralized
new initiatives without committing valuable resources for development and
equipment not owned by the library.
employees at irregular intervals, responding to fluctuating demand.
Free up internal resources
and professionals for other purposes such as improving customer services,
concentrating on core activities.
Expansion of the library's
planning, implementation, and evaluation processes.
support staffs discover a career ladder within a larger outsourcing organization,
with more opportunities for advancement.
independent librarians have new career outlets.
Some outsourcing firms
have specialized in managing their business and often have purchasing advantages
that allow them to satisfy their profit objectives through operating efficiencies.
Once again, positive
examples come from professional librarians who have strategically farmed
out the stereotypical "book and paper-pushing" tasks in order to focus
on customer services (the core library services), and the marketing of
the most highly valued and most professional library services. As Thomas
Shunk7 of Baker & Hostetler
pointed out, "If a librarian is only perceived as a person who shelves
books, obviously the perceived value of the librarian will be lower than
if the librarian is perceived as a person who finds answers, and it will
be easier to make the decision to outsource.... [Librarians should] work
to be perceived as 'a person who finds answers,' not as a person who shelves
books."Along these lines, Carolyn Ahearn11
points out, "We sometimes may do ourselves a disservice when, after tackling
a difficult piece of research, we respond to the attorney's thanks with,
'No problem.' We do make it all look so easy! I'm encouraging myself and
my staff to provide our requestors with a written list of the steps we
took to answer the request as well as other possible options we might pursue.
This allows the attorney to be sure we haven't missed any source they might
be aware of, but it also shows just how much work we have actually done!
It is time-consuming but I think worth the effort." And Mark Estes responded,
"I like Carolyn Ahearn's suggestion of including the steps taken to complete
a reference/research request. It is not unlike what some clients want on
their bills so that they understand what they're paying for. We, as librarians,
if we think of our users as customers or clients, should be prepared to
explain what we did, too."
Who Are These Outsourcers?
I think Pogo said
it first, but, "They are us." Librarians. Sure, much more entrepreneurial
than the rest of us, but librarians all the same. And they hire librarians.
Jones' e global library has over 40 librarians contracted to produce
their Internet resources, courses, guides, and to select Web sites and
commercial databases in different fields.. The live reference services,
such as 24/7 reference, have librarians behind their "ask a librarian"
is a librarian, and also the president of Library Associates, a company
that provides outsourcing services, staff, and project management of that
staff. Here are her comments:
We have had good
experiences, evidenced by the relatively long-term relationships we have
with the companies who engage us to provide outsourcing and staff. Pillsbury
Winthrop, formerly Pillsbury Madison & Sutro when we began our initial
outsourcing contract in 1998, has been Library Associate's highest-profiled
and most successful experience. We attribute that to the fact that Pillsbury's
management has allowed us to participate and fully integrate with the overall
staff and has never isolated us from activities within the firm, including
holiday parties and other celebrations, town hall meetings, management
or committee meetings, etc. Looking back on this relationship since its
beginning, I think everything that happened was done right
even through a merger with the former Winthrop Stimson law firm. Pillsbury's
librarians work as a very collaborate team, and the Library Associates
staff are active participants in both local (San Francisco and Silicon
Valley specifically) and national projects and directives.
What does she recommend
for a successful outsourcing experience? "[M]ake sure that the outsourcing
firm doesn't just place workers (professional and/or technicians/clerical)
on the job without supervision, management, performance tracking and evaluations,
and lots of communication from the top down."
Finally, what does
law firm management think of the services that Library Associates provide?
"Our combination of using both outsourcing and in-house library resources
proved to be extremely valuable during the first year of our merger. The
transition to a global law firm with complex information needs was a challenge,
and we're quite pleased with how our library teams responded in a seamless
transition. Both sides bring a fresh perspective that marries the latest
innovation with deep institutional knowledge," said Pillsbury Winthrop
chair, Mary Cranston. "Having an outsourced component on our library team
enables us to ramp up quickly for major enhancements, such as our on-line
catalogue," she added.
Is Outsourcing In Your Future?
Mark Estes has
I see providing
outsourced library services as the largest growth area for librarianship
in the next 5 to 10 years. That encompasses library services to companies
and to individuals. In considering outsourcing, the touchstones are strategic
business purpose, client service, and productivity/profitability. Is the
activity something that must be done for your core services/purpose? Can
you maintain or improve client service by outsourcing? Will this make you,
your department, and the firm more productive or profitable? Enterprises
need flexibility, nimbleness, and responsiveness to changing client needs/demands.
Unless employees can provide that flexibility, etc., especially as demand
levels change, then outsourcing some or all of those services makes sense.
of Library Associates agrees that there is a future for librarians in the
outsourcing companies, "Library Associates' mission is to open doors for
information professionals and provide opportunities for careers and exciting/challenging
assignments. Outsourcing assignments can be an excellent way to match talent
Attorneys who thought
they didn't need the library find that their use was filtered through associates
or legal assistants who did depend upon the librarians. Once these indirect
users feel the impact on the work presented to them, they re-evaluate the
value of the librarians and in-house legal research services, training,
Concerns over client
Concerns over conflict
Discipline must come
from outsource agency/vendor.
Lack of knowledge
of law firm marketing, locating prospective clients.
Significant lead time
is required to plan and implement an outsource contract, and start-up costs
may be incurred.
Library staff needs
to monitor ongoing costs and continuously assess the value of outsourcing
as costs change.
require managers to identify ways of reassigning and retraining staff as
work disappears and new work is identified.
Where entire library
is outsourced, there is a loss of institutional memory, familiarity with
practice areas of firm, firm culture, partners, and associates.
Loyalty of outsourced
staff is to outsource agency not the firm.
Only control or recourse
is to cancel or not renew contract.
No safeguards for
intellectual property (copying, etc.).
Outsourced staff turnover
generally higher than in-house staff.
Unable to determine
needs for staff/associate training, unable to conduct training systematically.
Understaffing by contract
agency to keep costs down.
I have come to
believe that if outsourcing is the librarian's idea, then it is a practical
and prudent solution. With tasks either not a core service of the library
or on the clerical or technical level, law librarians have a lot of experience
in outsourcing. Only those few cases in which a law firm has farmed out
the entire library professional librarians included
have led to headlines. In the Chicago Lawyer 2001 Survey of the
Largest Law Firms in Illinois, "Of the 54 law firms that listed information
about library services, four firms contracted for library information."12
That might be alarming until you consider that the survey was sent to firms
of 20 or more attorneys. Smaller firms traditionally use contract and freelance
librarians until they can afford a full-time professional.
Also, as noted,
outsourcing agencies are often run by librarians, who can certainly provide
law library and legal research professionals. It occurs to me that I was
once an outsource librarian when I contracted to take over
the database research service at a major university library for 10 months
while the staff librarian went on sabbatical leave to Italy. It was a terrific
opportunity for me to work in a specialized field that challenged me to
grow in many ways and it paid well. So, outsourcing
even of professional librarians may become a wonderful career
alternative to the traditional full-time job.
The next time you
think about a job change, don't just skim the AALLnet and local chapter
job information sites; give a call to one or more outsourcing agencies.
You may find that handling professional projects in different corporate
and/or law libraries is fun and challenging, or you may find yourself assigned
to the staff of one large law firm library. You will likely find that at
the larger outsource companies, unlike in firm libraries, there is a career
ladder for promotion, opportunities for training and professional growth,
and a variety of skills and competencies that you can both bring to and
develop on the job. It isn't for everyone, but it is a growth industry
and a career alternative.
when asked about the future posited, " Predicting the future is always
tricky. I can't begin to imagine what the future will hold in terms of
our economy, which is such a great determinant of library support, in law
firms especially. Nor can I predict how technology will change the role
of librarians, the necessity for in-house legal resources, or attorney/judge/professor
use of legal materials. It's more likely than not that outsourcing of specific
library work will continue, will ebb and flow with a particular institution's
needs, and might become even more common than it is today."
an excellent history and overview of library outsourcing, see "Guide to
Outsourcing in Libraries; Industry Overview" American Library Association,
Technology Reports (September 1998). On top of the background information
it provides specific model RFP (request for proposal) contracts for a variety
of services outsourced by libraries. The Special Library Association has
a bibliography on Outsourcing Library Services for members at http://www.sla.org/content/memberonly/electrinfo/contract.cfm
"The Future of the Law Firm Library," Law Library Journal, vol.
89, 1997, pp. 99+ and ALA "The Impact of Outsourcing and Privatization
on Library Services and Management" at http://www.ala.org/alaorg/ors/outsourcing/intro.html.
to http://www.247ref.org/ and
"click" on the owl, "Connect with a librarian."
M. Heilig, "e-global library: The Academic Campus Library Meets
the Internet," Searcher, vol.6, June 2001, pp. 34+.
"The Future of the Law Firm Library," ibid., p. 144.
"The Future of the Law Firm Library," ibid., p. 142.
"The Future of the Law Firm Library," ibid., pp. 144,146.
an overview of private, government, county, and public library outsourcing
experiences, see "Guide to Outsourcing in Libraries; Industry Overview,"
American Library Association, Library Technology Reports (September
press release at http://www.lawlibrary.ucdavis.edu/LAWLIB/Jan99/0398.html.
a longer list of services outsourced by companies, see the Outsourcing
Institute's site at http://www.outsourcing.com/content.asp?page=01i/
"The Future of the Law Firm Library," ibid. p. 148.
Schauerte, "Who's Running the Shop? Staff Roles Expanding at Law Firms,"
Lawyer, vol. 8, August 2001. Survey requests went to 156 firms in Illinois
with 20 or more attorneys; 87 firms responded.
"Outsourcing Issues" at http://www.ala.org/alcts/now/outsour1.html
for pros and cons of outsourcing. See also "Top Ten Outsourcing Survey:
The Outsourcing Institute's Annual Survey of Outsourcing End Users" at
Barbara J. D'Angelo, "Assembling and Managing Virtual Libraries," Library
Technology Reports, vol. 37, no. 5, 2001, pp. 1+.