Features – The Value of Benchmarking for Law Librarians

(Archived February 1, 1998)

Annette Gohlke is the President of Library Benchmarking International . Annette writes the bimonthly publication, Library Benchmarking Newsletter and conducts benchmarking and other professional workshops for librarians.


Benchmarking, as a formal recognized management method, has been around for almost twenty years in the business world. In reality, it’s been around as long as there have been people with common sense, ingenuity and a willingness to look for new and better ways to get things done. Almost any action, task, or process can be benchmarked – such as fire making, boat building, teeth brushing, sailing, cooking, cleaning, ironing, managing an office, producing a product, marketing merchandise, and on and on. There is someone who can do it better somewhere, somehow.

Xerox introduced process benchmarking to their operations in 1979 because they were losing money and market share and could not compete satisfactorily with their Japanese counterparts. Xerox’s successful benchmarking ventures started the trend for all types of forward thinking businesses, large and small, to benchmark their processes that needed improvement. Government agencies and other non-profit organizations are following suit. Benchmarking will probably continue as an important improvement method if only because of the constantly changing and competitive nature of the global economy. Where business leads, others follow.

The first reported library benchmarking study was conducted by the Metro Toronto Reference Library in 1985. The reference service, sadly in need of improvement, was targeted. Since the new director, brought in to “get things on track,” came from the business world and was familiar with benchmarking, she had a valuable tool to help sort out the problems. Since that time, librarians have been very slow about jumping on the benchmarking bandwagon.

Benchmarking in Libraries

Some library managers in the business or corporate sector have been “encouraged” to follow their company’s lead and conduct benchmarking studies to “prove their value” to the company. Most of these librarians have started out doing a comparative benchmarking study used mainly for justification purposes. Statistics are collected and compared on staffing size and ratio, expenditures, services offered and productivity with similar type libraries to measure how they rank. Hopefully these libraries and others will graduate to the second type of benchmarking that compares their “work processes.” A process study looks for ways to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, costs, and customer satisfaction within the library. According to the literature, medical librarians appear to have taken the lead in doing process benchmarking studies, probably as a result of their 1994 accreditation standards that require them to seek continuous improvement opportunities.

There are many reasons for law librarians, and all others for that matter, to plan and conduct their own benchmarking study. Law firms and lawyers are very competitive about attracting business and keeping customers. They are very conscious of costs and billing most of those costs to customers wherever possible. Since librarians would be considered support staff, their purpose is to help lawyers find the information they need to successfully complete legal transactions. And, as you know, most lawyers do a lot of research! They can do it themselves, have another lawyer do it, or seek help from a librarian, if the firm is fortunate to have one.

A process study looks for ways to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, costs, and customer satisfaction within the library.

Keeping good productivity and cost data is a real help to librarians if called upon to justify their existence! There are two main methods used to account for law library operations. One, the library is considered an administrative or “overhead” activity, and therefore, all associated library costs are charged to the firm. This sounds easy to administer and may require the librarians to keep as little information as the cost of salaries, materials and services in general, or they may have to track costs by requesting customers – usually firm lawyers. However, if the firm wants to reduce expenditures, and there has been a trend in the 1990s for law firms to do just that, then the library may be in the line of fire. The second method requires each librarian to account for his or her productivity time and related material purchases and service costs so that, as with lawyers, most costs can be billed to a customer or project. Keeping good productivity and cost data is a real help to librarians if called upon to justify their existence!

If practicality is not reason enough for legal librarians to reach outside their own library and see what other librarians are doing and how they do it, then it’s time to read or reread the SLA report, Competencies for Special Librarians of the 21st Century, published Oct. 1996. Of the 11 professional competencies listed in the report, three of them (1.7, 1.9, 1.11) expect special librarians to have the knowledge and skills needed to implement continuous improvement (total quality management) and benchmarking in their libraries. Of the 13 personal competencies, the very first one (2.1) requires librarians to be “committed to service excellence” including seeking performance feedback to use for continuous improvement of library services and operations.

Benchmarking Benefits

Because of SLA’s report on competencies, there has been a surge of interest among librarians about what benchmarking is, how it’s done, and how it can benefit them personally and professionally. There are numerous reasons why learning to benchmark can be personally rewarding to you. Hopefully you are a proactive law librarian who wants to stay on the cutting edge of the information profession, especially in your specialty. You are now aware that benchmarking is something that the corporate world is using to improve their competitiveness in the market place through the improvement of customer services and work processes. If it’s good for business in general, it can be just as good for the legal environment!

You may be curious to learn what the current new management process is all about. You may have weathered MBO, Zero Based Budgeting, Quality Circles, so why not add TQM and benchmarking to your knowledge base?

Maybe your law firm is looking for ways to cut overhead costs and the library (or need for a librarian) is up for review. If you want to show upper management that they are getting a good return on their investment in the library and that you compare favorably with other law libraries, especially in comparable type firms, then benchmarking can provide the information you need to “make your case.”

You may be like so many other librarians who feel that they work in a highly pressured environment. Information is the name of the game, and new technology has opened the floodgate of available information! With higher customer expectations, you may find yourself with a definite need to prioritize and re-engineer some facets of your library operations and customer services.

At a minimum then, learning to benchmark can help you personally to:

  • Obtain cutting edge business knowledge & practices.
  • Learn a valuable new management process.
  • Help you justify library costs & services.
  • Improve customer service & operations.
  • You are now aware that benchmarking is something that the corporate world is using to improve their competitiveness in the market place through the improvement of customer services and work processes.

    Now, let’s find out what benchmarking can do for the library and library staff?

    First, it can help you improve your library to better meet the needs of your customers and to make it operate more efficiently and effectively. By identifying best practices you can maximize your current resources. It also can be used to explore a new service or product that a library may want to adopt.
    Second, it can be used to help you gain or improve the support of upper management. The thinking behind this is that benchmarking makes you look more proactive, demonstrates that you can operate like a business, shows that the library is solving its own problems with the good of the law firm in mind. It makes the librarians appear to be stronger team players which can lead to practical matters such as protecting the library budget in the long term or even increasing resources.
    Third, it helps build relationships within the organization and profession. Benchmarking provides a purpose for seeking out performance feedback from your customers which in turn can expand and improve knowledge of the firm and lawyers. It also provides superb opportunities to meet other librarians in their own work place and actually see how they operate. Building closer professional relationships is time well spent as they can be very helpful after the benchmarking study is completed.
    Fourth, benchmarking can support both the goals of the law firm and the library. The strategic goals of the library should mirror those of the law firm. If the firm wants to cut costs, the librarian can look for ways to help the company achieve it’s goal, possibly even reducing library costs. If the firm wants to increase billable hours, then the librarian is challenged to find how the library staff can help. A benchmarking study can definitely help a library achieve positive visibility. It both showcases the library process selected for benchmarking and can also show why other processes were not selected
    Last, benchmarking can help show how valuable library resources and staff are to the company. In a law firm, lawyers are evaluated on the amount of business they bring into the firm or on how many billable hours they worked or a combination of both. You can rest assured that lawyers keep up with those statistics. It behooves legal librarians to do the same by keeping appropriate statistics on library services.

    Since benchmarking is a Total Quality tool that requires librarians to look closely at how other librarians accomplish selected work, it can be considered a kind of “friendly” competitive intelligence used to increase your library’s performance and customer service. Since best library practices are always evolving, benchmarking is not a one time activity, but a continuous process. In a nutshell, benchmarking is a four step activity where:

  • You measure your target library process that needs improving.

  • Your partners (other libraries) measure the same library process in their libraries.

  • You and your partners compare the measures and decide which library is the highest performer or “best practiced.”

  • You adopt or adapt your partner’s best practice.

  • Unfortunately, benchmarking is not quite as easy as it sounds. It takes time – usually from 4 to 6 months to conduct a study. One librarian can accomplish a benchmarking study, but a team is better. Of course the size of the library staff dictates the level of involvement, but the rallying cry for selecting a team should be, “Remember the work load.” Few people enter into a benchmarking study because they don’t have enough to do. Benchmarking is a time consuming process that is extraordinarily worthwhile because of the value of the improvements and savings in time and money you hope to achieve in the long run. So law librarians can definitely use benchmarking to improve their library operations and services.

    Posted in: Features, Law Library Management