Guide on the Side – Annual Reports: Connecting the Parts with the Whole

They resemble vines with roots in the past and new growth in the future.

(Archived February 1, 1998)

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O’Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries’ highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute’s programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms “Life in Progress,” which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her “free” time to various non-profit and civic activities. Always open to new ideas, Marie can be reached at: [email protected].

Annual Reports (ARs) tell how your operation supports the organization and provide a snapshot of actions taken and ones contemplated. Before you begin writing your AR, whether your first or “umpteenth,” learn about your audience:

1. What are the organizational expectations regarding annual reporting?

  • Is an AR expected from your department or operation?
  • Is there a standard format or protocol in the parent organization?
  • If an AR is not anticipated and you plan to write one, what can you do to reduce the element of surprise?
  • In the case of multi-office law firms, will the AR be submitted on a local office or firmwide basis?
  • Are copies of previous ARs from your department or operation available?

2. How are ARs used in your organization–planning, evaluation, control, unclear?

  • How do you intend to use your AR in your operation(s)?

3. Who are the primary AR reader(s)–the policy makers and decision makers.

  • What issues concern the primary AR reader(s)?
  • What are the business needs and interests of the primary reader(s)?

4. What are professional perspectives, the communication styles and specialized jargon of the primary AR reader(s)?

Deans, lawyers, engineers, managers of information technology, judges, court administrators, human resource managers, MBAs and accountants are likely to see the world through different lens than information professionals and use different concepts and vocabularies to articulate and prioritize organizational goals.

5. Who are the secondary AR readers?

  • Will everyone on the Library or other department staff get a copy?
  • Which other department heads, faculty members, judges, supervisors, board members, or professional colleagues might value a copy?

6. What is your purpose in writing the AR?

  • Pride
  • Self-evaluation of performance
  • Instill confidence
  • Keep an open communication channel
  • Reduce executive isolation
  • Keep decision and policy makers informed of the value of your operation
  • Motivate employees and staff
  • Encourage sharing of information
  • Record change and innovation
  • Market services and products
  • Public relations

7. Do you have or do you need to seek out critical planning information from the parent organization that may shape your future goals?

  • Plans for expansion or reduction
  • Merge with another organization
  • Close an existing unit
  • Move or re-location of facilities
  • Change of CEO, Managing Partner, Dean, or Chair of the Board of Trustees
  • Radical change in operating or service policy
  • Unexpected increase/decrease in revenue
  • Consolidation of operations

8. What formal or informal reporting instruments augment the AR?

  • Monthly departmental financials
  • Database usage tallies
  • Monthly personnel summaries
  • Departmental meetings
  • Marketing reports
  • CLE and other training reports
  • Recruiting reports
  • Summaries of hours billed

9. What actions and activities have priority, how much time do you have to prepare the AR, and what can you delegate to staff?

If you have taken on new responsibilities, such as acting Dean, Conflicts Manager, Records Manager, or Director of Lawyer Training, priority may go to a state-of-the-innovation report.

10. Where are the industry or professional standards for your operation(s) that can be used for best practices norms or that your primary reader(s) may use to put your achievements in perspective?

  • ABA accreditation standards
  • ABA Guides for professional managers
  • Price Waterhouse or other law office reports
  • Library/information association reports
  • Judicial administration reports

Tips on writing the AR

  1. Aim for brevity and clarity. Avoid fact siege. The AR is a business document and in business writing, each document focuses on one main point which serves to unify supporting details. Write so the reader can easily identify the main point. Many public companies use an AR theme to reduce the main message to just a few words. Often the theme makes its first appearance on the cover page: The walls are gone.
  2. Focus on issues and actions that serve the interests of the primary reader(s). Add a sentence to each accomplishment: “This saved the (firm, court, school) XX (dollars, time, staff) by…” Express achievements in terms of measurable contributions that make your parent organization more profitable and productive. The bottom line is important even when the organization is non-profit.
  3. Use the active voice as opposed to the passive voice. In the active voice, the subject, verb and object are obvious. The reader knows who did what to whom. For example:
    “We reduced operating expenses by 10%” is much stronger than “Operating expenses were reduced by 10%” where responsibility for the action is unknown. A professional writer, who often writes ARs for public companies, says that active sentences are shorter and grab a reader’s attention faster and are retained longer than passive language.”
  4. Keep the tone positive even when reporting the negative. (Remember what can happen to the messenger.) “The flood damaged 15% of the collection and eight of the study carrels. We plan to use the insurance settlement to replace the damaged books with space-saving CD-ROMs. It may be possible to add ten carrels in the old shelf space.”
  5. Get on the same bandwidth as the reader(s). This often means translating key concepts and terms to avoid library-centric messages. Use language and vocabulary that is readily understood. So you bar coded the collection or upgraded the software in the computer lab, how does that serve the parent organization?
  6. Visualize quantities as charts or graphs. Allow relational data to be viewed as a table Jan White in the book Using Charts and Graphs: 1000 Ideas for Visual Persuasion gives these pointers on how to show what you mean:
    Show proportion of parts to whole as a pie chart
    Show proportions related to each other as a bar chart
    Show comparisons of amounts over time as step charts
    Show fluctuations of amounts over time as a line graph
    Show relationships of elements in space as a map
    Who relationship of processes as a flow chart

    Edward Tufte’s books also provide valuable insight into how to make visual explanations. (See Guide on the Side Now I Get the Picture: A Visual Strunk & White

  7. Do not include proposals in your AR. You are reporting, not persuading. Proposals are independent documents and likely to get lost in an AR and dilute its focus. If pertinent to your reporting, mention that a proposal is under consideration.
  8. Structure the ARs content for easy scanning.
    Transmittal memo
    Executive summary
    Cover page
    Table of Contents
    Vary font size to reflect the hierarchy of the content
    Select a high readable serif font, such as Caslon, Times Roman or Garamond
    Avoid small fonts
    Pyramid each section so the reader may elect to surf the main points
    Use section headings and subheadings
    Label charts and graphs clearly
    Use white space as a page design element
  9. Review the previous year’s AR so cumulative charts, graphs and goals are consistent.
  10. Avoid taking a proprietary tone about change in technology, the economy or the legal profession. Change is pervasive and primary readers are struggling with it too.
  11. Weave your operation’s Mission Statement throughout the AR to link departmental operations to the goals of the parent organization. (If your operation does not have one, write one fast.) If you are responsible for several departments, you may have a Mission Statement for each.

When in Doubt Look for Exemplars

  1. Ask professional colleagues in your type of library or area of responsibility to share their ARs. If there are confidentiality concerns, suggest that the report by “sanitized.”
  2. Determine if there is a collection of ARs for your type of library locally. Academic libraries sometimes collect them.
  3. If you participated in a team project, like developing an Intranet, ask the team members if they will share their ARs. Is there a team report on the project?
  4. Talk to colleagues to find out the variety of information they include and select from these to create your own style of reporting:

    Financial highlights
    Five year comparative summaries
    Costs by category, department, and technology
    Revenue generated or hours billed
    Consumer price index information relating to information products
    Lexis, Westlaw and other commercial database usage
    Number and categories of end-users
    Circulation statistics
    Computer lab usage
    Publications and guides
    Training, CLE and educational programs provided
    Team projects with other departments
    New services and products
    Trends (business, professional, technological)
    Profile and review of the operation
    Industry standards and conditions
    Distinctions and commendations
    Competitor analysis
    Product ranking
    Personnel demographics

  5. Observe how others substitute graphs, charts, diagrams and schematics for words.
  6. Suggest that your AALL SIS create an AR collection either hard copy or online.

    Editors Note: If you’d like to submit a stripped down version of your annual report as an emplar, we’ll be happy to post it on LLRX. Just e-mail [email protected] .

  7. Stimulate your imagination by reviewing a few ARs from public companies, who often engage professionals to write and design their reports. Observe the writing styles, formats, content and special features. Which ones tell their story effectively? Why do others fail to hook and hold your interest?
  8. Consider delivering your AR, or part of it, online or verbally. I “experienced” an AR delivered as a short skit at a U.S. Master Swimmers’ Annual Conference. It was action-oriented, brief, clear, and effectively held everyone’s attention. It probably was put together in a couple of hours. While a skit may be too far out for formal legal environments, it might be appreciated in more informal ones.
  9. Incorporate your AR theme and key achievements for the year into bookmarks, library maps, pathfinders, Web pages, Intranet and brochures.
  10. Refer to ( for additional tips from the Annual Reports Library and if you are interested in unusual ARs and AR trivia, like who said “never judge an annual report by its movie,” see
Posted in: Guide on the Side, Law Librarians, Writing Skills