As Information Center Manager, Anna Lankford coordinates, plans and administers the firm’s library resources, records management, and conflicts departments. A skilled legal information researcher with an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, Anna trains KMTG attorneys in the latest electronic research methods to improve client service and firm profitability.
Many librarians, particularly law librarians, begin their career in the traditional manner of research; cataloging, circulation services, and interlibrary loan requests. The happy life of most librarians is commonly rounded out by a trip to the national conference for updates on important field issues, attending monthly local meetings, and maintaining professional friendships. Occasionally, the wind changes direction and librarians find themselves having to flex their skills and broaden their horizons. They are called upon to improve skills and abilities in order to maintain a comfortable job environment. There is a trend in which a few librarians find themselves doing less library work and more “information center” duties; interfacing with other departments which gather and retrieve information. Surviving the transition of change while still offering quality service is the subject of this article.
Businesses usually agree that information is a valuable asset. Efficient information retrieval is the vital key to the success of a company. However, during the past decade, some corporations and businesses have consolidated information departments due to financial constraints, a sparse local employment market, or more usually, a simple lack of understanding of how information is stored, retrieved, and used. In such settings, a librarian is uniquely qualified to contribute essential guidance regarding external corporate information management reorganization.
THE WINDS OF CHANGE……
Kronick Moskovitz Tiedemann & Girard (located in Sacramento CA) is a large, prestigious law firm, specializing in water law. KMTG is known as a leader in the Central Valley due both to its skilled legal partners and use of cutting edge technology to improve efficiency and profitability. I joined the firm in 1994 as a traditional law librarian looking for an opportunity to continue using current technology as a gathering tool. At that time, the firm also had a files center manager overseeing a staff of three people, and a docket clerk administering calendaring duties.
The library needed to be inventoried and the result put into a database. Various other housekeeping duties, such as pathfinders, billing procedures, and weeding, needed to be established and coordinated. Support staff responsibilities were adjusted according to the new structure.
Then the files center manager left.
After the dust settled, I found myself the manager of an information center consisting of 1) the library with one support member and an outsourced filing service, 2) a records center with a one new supervisor and two support staff and, 3) the risk management/ calendaring department administered by the docket clerk.
This is a classic example of an “insourcing” re-organization. According to one definition, insourcing allows librarians to redefine their expertise and services. In order to make this a successful transition, a broader scope of information retrieval needed to be addressed and a new staff partnership had to be created.
DIFFERENCES AND SIMILARITIES IN THE TYPES OF INFORMATION RETRIEVAL
With an insourcing situation, it is important to thoroughly understand the use, retrieval, and integrity of information used in different information departments within your organization. This in-depth review defines the most concise and practical method of managing internal knowledge and data. Information usage, data integrity and retrieval of data share certain similarities and are simultaneously quite different. How the data is used is critical to the level of department service. Service can be modified to support varying data needs in a timely fashion by efficient use of the resource tools available within the organization.
Use of information by attorneys and paralegals in the library consists mainly of research. Research within this system usually provides information to users who have little knowledge of the target subject area or who are oblivious to the types of data available. Not only does research include retrieving archival data but may also involve retrieval of current data from active databases. Most of the information researched is external to the firm proper and can be in the form of paper, CD-ROM, or various online data resources.
Requests to the records center often use archival data which is “intra-firm information.” Intra-firm information encompasses corporate and client histories, currently in paper form and is limited in its activity status by the retention policy of the firm.
Calendaring information is “real time” information and is impacted by outside influences such as court rules, trial schedules, and procedural restrictions. It is gathered and input by the docket clerk and then distributed to attorneys. Calendaring provides a temporal framework which dictates how and when attorneys use information gathered from the other two departments.
The worth of a business is defined by the effectiveness of its internal data retrieval and data service systems. Employees must have the tools and abilities to efficiently recover the unique information needed to perform their jobs. Search skills in the library tend to be more complex than in other departments. The retrieval systems used in the library are tied to the physical format of the resources. Traditional paper collections are accessed by lists based on either conventional or modified classification schedules — the card catalog. This establishes the physical shelf arrangement by subject areas. Placing the card catalog on the firm network creates a system that is conveniently accessible by firm employees and easily maintained by library staff. Maintenance can be done either by using commercial software or custom databases on an intranet. Online legal services enhance retrieval of external archival and current information as well as the manipulation of data. Online services encompass the various CD-ROMs and vendor databases usually found in the law firm setting.
Indexing as a retrieval tool is important in the records center due to its more concise nature of using internally-defined search fields. The complexity and depth of firm files requires that an alphanumerical tagging system, multiple field searching, and date limitations be integrated in a records database. Indexing can be used to create brief banks which help the attorney to acquire pertinent information and help guarantee a successful text search. All file information resides on a LAN database for convenience and future storage issues. A medium search level is needed to successfully retrieve information and normally the information center staff is called upon to do this.
Calendared or docketed information also uses an indexing strategy with fields set up for individual attorneys, practice groups, and client matters. Indices can be tied directly to personal scheduling programs. Daily and bi-weekly printouts are circulated to each attorney as well as their secretary. Even though this information can be accessed via the LAN, the docket clerk has the responsibility to use basic search skills and retrieve calendaring information as requested.
The integrity and quality of stored information is essential. Since a retrieval system is only as good as its input procedures, systems of authority control are established in each information department. The library uses authority lists in cataloging the collection. These lists lend structure and a common pattern to searching. For example, all items that dealt with evidence would have a subject heading of EVIDENCE (LAW) and only that specific way of presentation. Thus the researcher would know that all evidence items would be under this heading and not under EVIDENCE, or LAW-EVIDENCE, etc. The law library depends on a thorough and accurate filing service, whether inhouse or outsourced. Filing of updated materials on a timely basis is important. Not only does this make sure that new items are available immediately but helps minimize malpractice issues.
The library employs “weeding” or the culling of items/information that are not appropriate for the firm. Practice areas change, new editions are published, statistics show that an item hasn’t been used for a specified amount of time–all are reasons for culling. Quality-checking systems for external online databases and purchased CD-ROMs are usually maintained by vendors themselves but periodic cross-checking with published materials reaffirm faith in the thoroughness of the vendor’s work.
The records center controls the integrity and quality of its information, often using client matter authority lists. New matters have indexed labels automatically generated for them by the records center. No other label is allowed to be used which preserves data integrity. By using an “intake” sheet, the attorneys have a voice in what goes into the file. If culling of client information is not done, files can grow rapidly and thus making proper filing of documents essential. Records centers usually control files only if they are physically maintained in the center. Coordinating the growth and maintenance of files with a retention policy completes the circle of firm responsibility.
Risk management issues such as confidentiality, ownership, storage, and completion of the information cycle affect the integrity of data. Coordination between calendaring, records center, and client development departments helps deflect conflict of interest issues between departments. Databases that track timelines and client information are connected via the LAN and offer a unified structure under which data is scheduled for long term maintenance or set for destruction.
HOW TO COPE
Reorganization is a traumatic event. Maintaining balance as a researcher, manager, and mentor during an insourcing period is a major challenge. Applying a consistent understanding of the similarities and differences in the information transfer process (“information flowage”) in each of the three departments, the information center manager facilitates a smooth transition during reorganization.
The most important element in a reorganization is the staff members. Staff need to be thoroughly informed of the reorganization issues and timelines, be reassured of their duties and retention, and be motivated to make the department successful. The perception of trauma and change can be reduced by emphasizing the interactive team nature of department services and de-emphasizing the commonly-held, inaccurate, view that staff members are isolated entities working in effective vacuums.
Creating accurate and concise job descriptions defines position responsibilities and gives stability to staff positions. Poll each staff member. Compile lists of duties and the perceived relevancy of each duty in the past, present, and future. Ask staff members to project and support future or anticipated needs. Listen carefully to the collective position elucidated in the polling process. Being approachable is a definite “plus” during the reorganization transition. Praise staff members for each small step forward and encourage each person. The small steps collectively make the transition effective over the long haul.
Having a strategic plan will help set goals and coordinate the various department projects. Many goals and projects will be interrelated. An initial, revised, and final timeline distributed among the staff and administration will telegraph events that impact budgets and work flow in time to avoid disasters. Keep all affected persons fully informed of changes before they happen.
Communicate, communicate, communicate. Maintain control of the transition timeline but be sensitive to changes which affect motivation and perceived comfort levels. Staff and users will be more receptive to change if the benefits of the changes are explained in advance and reiterated during implementation. Regular informational meetings and “walk-around” management maintains touch with issues, progress, and perception. Use a variety of communication media. Memos, newsletters, and firm e-mail help keep the entire office aware of what’s happening. Join listservs ([email protected] or [email protected]) which give you an extensive knowledge base of experience and lessons learned from other locations and which provide a psychological support system to perk you up when you need it.
From internal customer communications, create research forms for each department. Information obtained from these forms will help establish the basis for an intra-firm resource for your staff. Each area can use this collective data to effectively provide faster service because of the previous “leg-work” available. This data integration can be done in a vertical file format, a “rolodex-style” format, or put on the LAN as a common database.
In most reorganizations staff size will decrease. With a leaner workforce, emphasize a “work smarter” environment by prioritizing duties, emphasizing time management, and cross-training of staff. Talk with the staff to assess their abilities and initiatives. Some restructured duties might overwhelm a single person and should be divided among two or more people. Host a time management workshop for your staff. Work together to identify and resolve problem areas. Shifting lunch hours can be a simple answer to eliminating a bottle neck in work flow. Cross-training can offer challenging opportunities and variety to staff who have reached temporary work plateaus. Cross-training covers holes left by illness and vacation without losing continuity in information or work flow. The entire department should know the basics of how to use each of the databases in the different areas. The department’s skill base is enhanced when staff appreciate and understand the work done by others. Don’t be afraid to call in temp agencies to help during temporary surges of work.
Evaluate the entire department on a regular basis. Talk with practice department heads, secretaries, whoever comprises your effective “customer.” Find out if their needs are being met and if something can be done more effectively. Ask for suggestions which will improve service. Surveys are valuable to the extent that relevant questions are asked and thorough responses are received. Internally, have supervisors evaluate staff, managers evaluate supervisors, and staff evaluate both. Regular evaluation cycles address problem areas and promote integrity and honesty within the department. Supplement regular evaluations by keeping statistical information on research requests, files checkouts and calendar information. This will become invaluable in maintaining and improving work flow and staff skills. A knowledge of where one has been and where one is currently is required in order to see clearly where one should go and when.
The library profession is not solely about information itself anymore. It is about managing information flowage into and out of a company. Combining the information departments in a company is a powerful change. Information flowage must compliment the overall company strategic plan to be successful. Administrative and senior officers must be aware of the capabilities and limitations of combining departments to ensure the proposed restructuring is balanced and realistic. It is a challenging experience by any description. Attention to thorough and clear communication coupled with perceptive people skills and an eye towards the future is guaranteed to make managing an information center a positive and broadening experience.
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