Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Opinion matters - ours and theirs

Following on from my earlier post about image and perception, I've been thinking a lot about how we perceive ourselves in the profession, and how others perceive us from outside it.

But first, an anecdote. Last week I went to the dentist and it set me to thinking. I have a good dentist, professional and skilled, and snarky, in the way that the best dentists seemed to be. And he was oh so very cranky at me for not looking after my teeth as well as he thought I should - amazed and annoyed that I wouldn't spend the time to floss three times a day. And it occurred to me that, being so embedded in his profession, so caught up in what he does everyday, that he had forgotten what it was like to be on the other side. It wouldn't occur to him that his patients might value their time differently, and not want to dedicate a half hour a day to their teeth, or that they might not know the best and most effective ways of brushing and flossing. As a professional in his field, dealing with these issues every day, they are of the utmost importance to him, and he couldn't imagine anyone else feeling otherwise.

I can't help but think that in the library profession, particularly within law firms, that we tend to be blinkered in the same way. Dealing with our work everyday, we can't help but value it very highly. And we should value it - we're providing a professional service to the users in our firms. But I just don't think our users value it as much as we do. And not just in the general, 'oh those silly lawyers, they don't know half the work we do for them' kind of way, but in a more tangible way, I don't think that our work is as immediately important as we would like to think it is. So much of what we provide, particularly in the way of raw data, needs to be filtered and refined in some way - usually by an overworked PSL or trainee - into something more relevant for the fee-earners. Whilst we have the skills to find the information, and provide somewhat of a refined product, we generally don't have the skills to interpret it, nor the place within fee-earning departments to have the knowledge of exactly what is needed and when. What we provide is important, yes, but it's often a raw product, and not the end in itself.

I think that much of our frustrations within firms stems from this - it's not that the lawyers don't value what we do for them, but that they often don't know what we do for them. Our research and work feeds into many aspects of the firms information flows, but the source of this information is rarely acknowledged. Our information arrives in their inboxes or on their desks seamlessly or silently, and they, understandably, don't really know the work that went into getting it there. And most lawyers, unless they have had a lot of experience with a good librarian, won't know what we can offer and what skills we have. They will hold faint memories of librarians from their university days, or maybe from their days as a trainee, not knowing that we can give them much more. They don't know, and they wouldn't even think to ask - it's just not within their sphere of interest. They feel that they need to know the details of what we do as much as they need to know exactly what their finance or IT or HR departments do.

Buried in our work, and knowing it's value so completely ourselves, we complain that people don't value us, but don't spend a lot of time thinking about why that might be. We need to step into the minds of our users and think about how they gain their perception of the library. What do we do for them that they can see? That they can't see? Where does the information that we provide flow throughout the organisation? What can we do to make our presence more visible and more valued? What can we do to educate people in the services that we provide? When do we need to step back and realise that what we're providing isn't as important or valued as we think? And what are we going to do about it?

How do you all feel about this? Do you think that we are placing an unrealistic expectation on our users to value us? Or do you think that your firm or organisation values your service as much as you would like?


Scott said...

Interesting post, and one that deserves serious thought. Self promotion is the answer, whether you are part of a main library or - as I am - working directly within a practice area actually sat with my lawyers (and yes this does give you a head start and a better understanding of context that information is needed for etc). Lawyers only know what you can offer them, if you tell them. This actually deserves a better and longer answer so hassle me to do so!

Lore Librarian said...

I'm pretty sure my firm doesn't value our service (or me) as much as I would like (so far they haven't been bowing at my feet, declaring my brilliance, bringing gifts and libations and generally worshipping me as a living goddess - but I live in hope).

The lawyers definitely don't know exactly what we do for them. I know they have no idea how much work goes into providing the current awareness service, for example, they just get a nice email with relevant articles in it - I doubt they realise that we have to spend time weeding the results, administrating the database, setting up the often long and complicated search strings, and actually paying for the database in the first place.

Similar can be said for enquiries. They email us a query, we reply with an answer. I don't expect they always know how we got the answer. And that is not necessarily a bad thing - preserving a little mystery. They don't need to know that I did it in five seconds using a database they could have accessed themselves, or that I had no idea, and got stressed out trying to find the answer before submitting to Google). They appreciate it as well (I've been told I'm a star more than once, and often get thank-yous), even if they don't know the exact mechanics of how I did it.

Being valued by the lawyers varies from firm to firm as well. At my current job I feel much more valued than at my last post (a better salary certainly helps, but there is also a general feeling of being more appreciated).

It also varies immensely from lawyer to lawyer (and trainee to trainee). I've had nice responses from Partners, fee-earners, and trainees, and had to put up with quite terrible behaviour from Partners, fee-earners and trainees.

It is a question of self-promotion, and of team-promotion. The whole library team needs to be acting together to improve their standing in the eyes of the firm. Good marketing is essential, and yet often overlooked. Having a strong library manager is important too - someone who will stand up for the department, participate in high-level meetings and put across the library point of view.

James Mullan said...

I very much enjoyed reading this post because it rang so true. I agree with Scott and Lore Librarian that self promotion is the key, all too often I think Libraries and Librarians hide under their bushels too much or don't promote the services they provide. Unfortunately were not natural marketers of our services but there are more subtle ways to market services then by putting up posters or sending emails.

We also recently undertook a survey which looked at our enquiry service and the results were interesting in that they were very positive but I wonder if Solicitors really realise how much we are able to offer.

Like other Law Firms we are experimenting with working more closely with the practice area groups by having "specialist" information officers and I think this helps idenitfy what practice areas require and shows them exactly what we can offer by having a prescence on the floor!

Jennie said...

Like Lore Librarian, I feel our users really have no understanding of what we do on a daily basis - I only discovered that there was a glitch that had stopped our current awareness service (the bulk of my daily work) sending out alerts to subscribers when I handed a fee earner (see, delivering personally, increasing visibility an' all that jazz!) an update to previous material, and he said he didn't have the previous material. It had been 2 WEEKS!

This lack of awareness of what I do is despite the fact that I sit in a pod in the centre of an open plan office, right in amongst the other support and fee staff...

When your library 'team' consists of one person in each office, and your department manager is the HR manager, it's very easy for you, and the importance of your work to others, to get lost among the long as I don't get trampled on, I figure just getting by and people knowing my name is the best I can hope for!

hypatia said...

Thanks everyone for your comments (apologies for the delay in getting back to you!)

scott - I am envious of your position of sitting within a practice area, though I do worry that it must make you a lot more isolated, and thus make it harder to market the library services as a whole. Do you have relatively strong central lib management, or are you more left to your own devices?

lore lib - I agree that this is very much linked in with the culture of the individual firm, on the sides of both the library and the fee-earners. And no, we wouldn't want to give away all our secrets (of course we don't use google, we're librarians!)

James - I think not only do we not market (and I agree, I don't feel that as a group we are natural marketers), but that we don't always know what we should be marketing. I think that we can sometimes get a bit caught up in what we think the fee-earners want us to provide, rather than what they actually need us to provide for them. They don't know what we can give them, but we also don't always know what they actually want either.

Jennie - oh yes, the number of times that a fee-earner hasn't noticed something like that for weeks (even months!). /shakeshead/ In your situation you must have a lot more difficulty getting people to know what you're doing and can do - I have a small team, but not so small as yours :/ It is a challenge...