Vol. 10 No. 4 April 2002
Library Outsourcing: A New Look
by Carol Ebbinghouse Library Director, Western State University College of Law
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The 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
outsourcing agencies. 

What happened? 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
firm librarianship. 

I had expected to find the following: 
Outsourcing Timeline8
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.

1992 Chesterfield 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. 

1997 Riverside County (California) Libraries and Jersey City (New Jersey) libraries follow suit and contract with LSSI.

1999 Pillsbury Madison & Sutro contracts with Library Associates to operate its San Francisco law library operations9. The contract has been renewed.

1999 Allegheny 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. 
  • Organizations that 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 search systems. 
  • 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 safeguards. 
  • 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. 
  • 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. 
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: 
  • Circulation to users 
  • Collection development (especially selection and weeding, which require an understanding of the user community and their needs) 
  • Inter-library loan 
  • Reference services
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. 
Outsourced Law Library Functions
Here is a list of library functions identified as having been outsourced by law libraries or their organizations10:
  • Bar coding
  • Billing/accounting

  • BindingBookkeeping 
  • Book purchasing
  • Cataloging
  • Computer center/technology management
  • Database access
  • Data recovery
  • Deacidification 
  • Disaster recovery
  • Document delivery
  • Document retrieval
  • Imaging
  • Indexing
  • Library move
  • Loose-leaf filing
  • Messenger services
  • Microfilming
  • Network management
  • Payroll preparation
  • PC management
  • Personnel/recruiting
  • Photocopy service
  • Printing
  • Records management
  • Research (AIIP)
  • Retrospective conversion
  • Routing
  • Shelving
  • Specialized research
  • Subscription management
  • Temporary staffing
  • Thesaurus development
  • 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. e-global 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, e-global 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, Of 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:

...outsourcing 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." 

Barbara Bintliff, president of AALL, also noted that communication was a key to a good outsourcing experience: 

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
Positive 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 backlog.
  • Acquire expertise not on the regular staff (without having to hire, provide training and time for learning curve   especially technological skills).
  • Maintaining content, ensuring links are working, and other time-consuming tasks can be centralized with outsourcing.
  • Experimentation with new initiatives without committing valuable resources for development and testing.
  • Providing specialized equipment not owned by the library.
  • Providing temporary 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.
  • Outsourced library support staffs discover a career ladder within a larger outsourcing organization, with more opportunities for advancement.
  • Entrepreneurial and 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" icons. 

Deborah Schwarz 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 a prediction: 

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.

Deborah Schwarz 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 and opportunity."
Negatives of Outsourcing
  • 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, etc.
  • Concerns over client confidentiality.
  • Concerns over conflict of interest.
  • 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.
  • Staff reallocations 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. 

Barbara Bintliff, 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." 

1 For an excellent history and overview of library outsourcing, see "Guide to Outsourcing in Libraries; Industry Overview" American Library Association, Library 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

2 See "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

3 Go to and "click" on the owl, "Connect with a librarian."

4 Jean M. Heilig, "e-global library: The Academic Campus Library Meets the Internet," Searcher, vol.6, June 2001, pp. 34+.

5 See "The Future of the Law Firm Library," ibid., p. 144.

6 See "The Future of the Law Firm Library," ibid., p. 142.

7 See "The Future of the Law Firm Library," ibid., pp. 144,146.

8 For 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 1998).

9 See press release at

10 For a longer list of services outsourced by companies, see the Outsourcing Institute's site at

11 See "The Future of the Law Firm Library," ibid. p. 148.

12 Mark Schauerte, "Who's Running the Shop? Staff Roles Expanding at Law Firms," Chicago Lawyer, vol. 8, August 2001. Survey requests went to 156 firms in Illinois with 20 or more attorneys; 87 firms responded.

13 See "Outsourcing Issues" at for pros and cons of outsourcing. See also "Top Ten Outsourcing Survey: The Outsourcing Institute's Annual Survey of Outsourcing End Users" at
articles/intelligence/oi_top_ten_survey.html&nonav=true, Barbara J. D'Angelo, "Assembling and Managing Virtual Libraries," Library Technology Reports, vol. 37, no. 5, 2001, pp. 1+.

Carol Ebbinghouse's e-mail address is
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