Ballad in Plain E is going into hibernation

I guess I knew this day would come, but surprisingly, I’m not sad about it.

With lots of exciting but time-consuming things happening in my life lately, and a moderately successful new group blogging endeavour underway, I’m just not committed to this blog the way I used to be…and I’m okay with that.

So, I’m putting Ballad in Plain E into back-burner mode for the foreseeable future. While I may write about my adventures at SLA in DC this year, I’m giving myself permission to not feel bad about not blogging here with any regularity. If something catches my attention or I feel really strongly about something, I’ll probably write about it. But for now it’s not a big priority.

Thanks to everyone who has read and commented on this blog over the years, and to all those who encouraged me. I have made lots of connections because of the blog, and I value them all!

Over and out (for now),


The value of law library staff: the position, or the person?

Karen over at Library Technician Dialog has just written a great post entitled “A Value Proposition“.† In it she explains something we’ve been thinking and talking about lately: why Winnipeg law firms don’t employ as many library staff as similarly-sized firms in other cities do. I’m glad she took the time to outline her ideas.

Ultimately, Karen wonders “is it the person in the position, or is it the position that has the value?”

I think it’s both, but in the end, personality matters more.† Personality plays a huge role in what an employee makes of a role. There will always be people who do exactly – and only – as the job description dictates, and that’s fine.† But here’s the problem. A lot of important library tasks (filing, shelving, processing) can be pretty boring if they’re the only tasks you have.†† In Karen’s case:

“That wasnít enough for me, however, so I started adding things that I could do, like creating a monthly newsletter …† expanding the current awareness offerings by reading blogs and other rapidly-updated websites and forwarding the appropriate material on. I kept asking for more to do, and when that didnít work, I just took on responsibility. I looked for opportunities to go above and beyond what was expected.”

So, like Karen, another type of person seeks out ways to make the job more engaging, more useful – ultimately, they find ways to make the position more valuable. They need to make the work more personal, creative, and challenging to find meaning in it. I felt the same way as Karen. We realised pretty quickly that the status quo wasn’t going to cut it and wasn’t doing our employers any favours, to say nothing of our own career satisfaction!

I’m not trying to brag and say “Look at me, I’m so proactive and so motivated” – far from it.† All that really matters to me, at the end of the day, is whether I’m helping the firm run more efficiently, by helping get the right information to the right people at the right time. That’s what a law library is for. But in my books, to be good in your job – ANY job – you have to be proactive, you have to seek out challenges, you have to question to status quo.

I’m reluctant to play the recession card, but it’s true: these qualities are always critical, especially in these times.

I’ve been lucky – the boss I had in my old job was incredibly supportive no matter what crazy, newfangled idea I wanted to pursue to keep myself entertained. That’s one of the perks that comes with working as a team – there’s always someone to bounce ideas off of, to share the workload involved in big projects, and to commiserate with when the boring stuff just has to get done. In addition to that, we were each other’s biggest champions, and when we felt like no one knew what we did or appreciated us – which I think everyone experiences at some point, no matter how great their jobs† are – we could remind each other of the great things we’d accomplished and of everyone who did indeed appreciate our work.

But in this city, most of the law libraries are solo joints – and we definitely can’t exist in vacuums. This is one reason that informal mentorship and idea sharing could be a part of improving our profession’s collective profile (WALL, anyone?).

We can’t fault our users for not knowing what we’re capable of. Half the world thinks people who work in libraries are just obsessed with keeping their books all to themselves. No, we can’t fault them for not knowing what they COULD be asking us to help them with, which is why we need to TELL them!

We need to tell our employers that we can do a great deal more than process invoices and keep the library tidy. Aside from all the things they know we can do, we can also:

  • Monitor the media and legislation
  • Help with client development
  • Do internet and social media searches
  • Help keep the firm website up to date (we see a lot of bad websites and don’t want ours to be one of them!)
  • Not only can we do research, but our time can be billed back to the client
  • Save lawyers time by gathering materials for papers and presentations

It takes some guts to tell your employer “You’re paying me too much to file looseleaf updates all day. I’m capable of more!” But I did it. I think everyone can – and should.

Ada Lovelace Day 2009: Marg Anderson and Darlene Taylor

I’ve been thinking all day about who I might write about for Ada Lovelace Day, the day that celebrates women and technology. I realised that it would only be fitting to write about two women who taught me during my two years doing the Library & Information Technology Program at SAIT. Without the program, I’m not sure where I’d be today!

Marg Anderson and Darlene Taylor are two women who instilled in me a sense of pride in library work, passion for technology, and confidence in my abilities. They helped me to develop a sense of curiosity and perseverance. They taught our about technology that wasn’t even really on people’s radar yet. They prepared us well to work with any type of ILS, and reinforced that technology is about the waterware as much as it is about the hardware and software.

They told us that library work was like getting on a treadmill, and that just when you think you’ve caught up, it starts going faster. I’ve always remembered that, and take it to heart when I start slacking on my own current awareness.

They made me proud that I choose library work as my career and were fierce advocates of the technician program. They were our biggest supporters as we went out into the world and started looking for work. I feel very lucky that I was able to study under these two excellent instructors!

Read Shaunna and Connie’s Ada Lovelace Day posts; and learn about the day at the Ada Lovelace website.

Working with Vendors

An article entitled ďHappy Together: How to Foster Mutually Beneficial Librarian-Vendor PartnershipsĒ in the February 2009 issue of AALL Spectrum caught my eye. (hat tip: Library Boy) Written by Devin GawneMark and Sarah Nichols, the article provides an excellent overview of both sides of the librarian-vendor relationship, and the section on ďDeal BreakersĒ is especially interesting.† (My colleague Karen also mentions this article in a recent post.)

For the first time in my career, Iím the one dealing with legal publishing vendors directly.† At my old job, I would deal occasionally with generic customer service lines and our vendors on the library software side, but generally my boss was the one who dealt with the account reps. So, when I took my new job, it was one task that I was both excited and nervous to take on.

I attended most of an exceptionally useful session at the SLA conference last June, and learned tips there that I took with me and kept in mind as I began meeting my account reps. At ďTales from the Dark SideĒ, all the panelists emphasized that vendors are people too, and that a healthy relationship occurs when both the vendor and the purchaser treat each other the way theyíd like to be treated themselves. And thus far, Iíve found this to be the best piece of advice.

I want to share some of my experiences dealing with the big legal information vendors so far. Here are some random thoughts on good experiences, bad experiences, and one or two ugly ones.

Personalization and Courtesy

Shortly after starting my current job, my Carswell electronic products rep emailed to ask if she could take me to lunch. I gladly accepted; she met me at a restaurant across the street from my office, and we had a lovely time becoming acquainted both professionally and personally. She gave me a few key tips to make our business dealings run smoothly, including always including the firm name and account number in the subject line of email orders. She also let me know that she was available to help me make a business case to management if I needed assistance in that area. Right there, she presented two easy ways that we could make each otherís jobs easier, and I really appreciated it.

Similarly, I had an in-person visit from my rep at Canada Law Book, who since then I have consistently enjoyed working with and considered my ally, not adversary. The service I receive from her is always personal, pleasant, and prompt Ė what more could I ask for?


Outstanding vendors are at worst, neutral about, and at best, collegial with and complimentary of, their competitors. Itís refreshing to hear someone acknowledge the hard work of their competitor colleagues. case in point: the legendary Peter Roberts of Canada Law Book, whose recent semi-retirement resulted in overflowing tributes, odes, and thanks for years of excellent service and role modeling from not only his customers, but also from his competitors: fellow vendors.

On the flipside, nothing is worse or more awkward (and not to mention unprofessional) than a rep slamming or insulting another of your reps. I have witnessed both. Obviously, each leaves its own (very lasting) impression.

Contact Points

Dealing with dozens of contacts at a single company is a recipe for disaster and a surefire way to create confusion and frustrated customers. Ideally, there should be one contact person for your account. If thatís not possible, then having different vendors with clearly defined roles is the next best thing (for instance, a rep for electronic products, a rep for print products, etc.).

Marketing Tactics (Unsavoury ones)

One major international publisher clearly employs commission-based sales calls. This is aggravating, as the calls are always from random people who know nothing about your library or work setting. When you ask if you can think about it and decide later, they always want you to call them directly, and not your usual rep. I donít mind sales calls (much), but I would respond much better to them if they actually came from my rep. Iíd also be able to keep track of my orders a lot more easily, and it would save me a lot of time.

With the aforementioned publisher, just when I think I know who our account rep is, an email order goes unanswered and I realise that rep is no longer with the company. How frustrating! I would much rather work with one person who makes an effort to know my needs and who I know I can always call or email.

Recently, Gary Rodrigues wrote a post on Slaw about outsourcing. While his post focuses on legal information databases, I found that his thoughts on outsourcing apply equally well to the customer service side of legal publishers:

“In the past, the publisher sought to identify selected activities that would be suitable for outsourcing when in house personnel were already working at full capacity. The premise was that while it would be preferable to do everything in house, the sheer volume of work made it necessary from time to time to outsource specific projects.

Today the opposite is true. The operating premise is that everything should be outsourced, unless there is a very good reason not to do so.”

I donít have a problem, per se, with outsourcing call centres if the people staffing them are competent and empowered to handle my questions. I do, however, have a problem with calling the customer service line for a Canadian product and being asked for my zip code! Is it really too much to ask?

In a similar vein, a certain small Canadian publishing outfit is notorious for calling lawyers directly and pressuring them into accepting trials of products that they donít actually need. Guess who then has to deal with returning these items (at the firmís expense)? Thatís right, the library. We canít stop publishers from sending blurb to every lawyer at the firm, but we should be able to expect them to respect the libraryís role as collection manage (shouldnít we?).

So, at the beginning of this post, I said that itís a two-way street. What do I do to foster positive relations with my vendors?

  • Be polite, regardless of what form of communication
  • Say please and thank you
  • Use the repís name and not ďto whom it may concernĒ
  • Try to remember personal details and follow up on them
  • Keep them informed Ė if Iím in discussion with management, I keep my rep apprised of the developments
  • As the AALL Spectrum article advises, ďCommunicate transparently about constraintsĒ Ė if we donít have the budget for it, or itís just something we need for our practices, I tell them upfront. That way weíre not wasting each otherís time. A good vendor will respect that.

Do you have any tips, experiences, or horror stories about working with legal publishing vendors? I would love to hear them.

Office-Office vs. Home-Office (or, a Tale of Two Jobs)

I read with interest Brenda’ latest post at Library Technician Dialog: “Working at Home“. It prompted me to try to verbalise my thoughts on this topic. Since I moved to Winnipeg I’ve been working two jobs: in the morning, I work at a law firm, and in the afternoon, I telecommute from home to my job with Stem. It has been a huge adjustment and I don’t think I’m entirely used to it yet.

I like both jobs a lot – I get to work on great projects and feel valued and appreciated. But as for the arrangements themselves, there are pros and cons to each. I think what I miss the most in general about my old job is the social aspect of it. Even though I’ve never been a huge workplace socializer, I think it’s impossible to ignore the subtle effects of having other human beings to physically share a workspace with.

At my “office-office”, my library is on a different floor from the lawyers’ offices, the mail room, the staff room, reception, etc. So unless I’m up on that floor running around or getting research assignments, it’s quiet and there’s not a ton of traffic other than, well, the people using the library (or the candy jar). This is a double-edged sword: it’s both peaceful and lonely. While it’s nice to have a calm work environment, working with others can be energizing. And now as a solo library tech, I miss my previous arrangement working as a librarian-library tech duo. I miss having a partner in crime; someone to bounce ideas off of; someone to panic/gripe with when you get a particularly tricky research question.

Here are some of the more superficial things that I like about working away from home in an actual office:

  • Ready-made coffee all day
  • Fun office antics & gossip
  • Random moments where people stop what they’re doing and come together (e.g., watching the Obama inauguration on the big screen in the lawyer lounge)
  • Commiserating about Mondays

And here’s what I’m not wild about:

  • A huge network of technology means you’re much more dependent on the (generally overworked and understaffed) IT department than you would be in a home office
  • The car doesn’t scrape itself; waiting for the bus in -40 degree weather is even less fun
  • Fixed working hours
  • Commiserating about Mondays

Working from home, however, has its ups and downs, too. I love the flexibility to take three hours to run errands at lunch, knowing I can just start my “shift” later. In my arrangement, it doesn’t so much matter when I get my work done as long as I do get it done. In a similar vein, though we always have priorities, I don’t generally get slammed with rush jobs when I’m working from home. I generally choose my tasks for the day and approach them in a way that works for me.

(Also, working from home is a lot more comfortable than working in an office. Let’s be honest, would you rather wear nylons or sweatpants? I choose sweatpants.)

But it does get tiresome being in front of the computer all afternoon. When I sign off from work at the end of the day, I really don’t want to get back in front of the screen for as long as possible.

As Brenda says, “Personally I would miss the staff interaction and I needed to remember to still take a coffee break. Some things are hard to explain by e-mail and you might want to walk over and tell Sam something.” That’s been my experience, too. Sometimes in person really is best.

Lucky for me, I have a new co-worker at Stem who happens to be a good friend of mine – and who’s moving to Winnipeg next week! Though we won’t be sharing an office, we’ll be able to schedule time to meet and work together, which I think will benefit us both, and the company as a whole.

I guess in the end, my biggest challenges is that I find it difficult to treat my home-office as if it were a real office – and this is both in terms of self-discipline AND in simulating less sedentary work habits. The other day, Steve said to me, “Grab a cup of coffee and sit and brainstorm a bit” and my first thought was: “Wow, what a treat!” It had never occurred to me that not all my work has to take place in front of the screen. But of course, when I worked in a team at my old job, when we had a big project to work on, we’d always grab a coffee, find an empty boardroom, and brainstorm with minimal distraction. We were much more efficient when we were spared the distraction of email alerts and phone calls every few minutes!

Every article that you read on telecommuting or working from home emphasizes the importance of getting up and stretching your legs, giving your eyes a rest, and taking regular breaks. But as rewarding as breaks are, I find them hard to take. Sure, I pause from work and check my personal email, read some cooking blogs, etc., but if you don’t get up from the computer, I don’t think it counts as a break. I’m considering using an egg timer or something to encourage this habit.

Do you work at home? Any tips for making working from home easier? Or for making a job you do from home seem more like an office job, with all the benefits and none of the drawbacks?

Cool stuff from Gmail Labs

I love Gmail. Really, really love it. I can’t believe there are still people using Hotmail or Yahoo when Gmail is available!

So I was excited to see this CNET article about a nifty new tool from Gmail Labs: “Send & Archive Combo Button Economizes Gmail” (hat tip: Steven Cohen). I realised I’d never looked at what’s actually available from Gmail Labs and took a tour. Here are some of the options I’ve turned on:

  • Mark as Read Button: Tired of spending all that effort to click on the More Actions menu every time you want to mark messages as read without reading them? Now just enable this label and that is just a button click away!

I used to have this simulated using a Greasemonkey extension. SO handy!

  • Forgotten Attachment Detector: Prevents you from accidentally sending messages without the relevant attachments. Prompts you if you mention attaching a file, but forgot to do so.

Wish I could have this on Outlook at work. I forget to actually attach at least once a week, it seems. Embarrassing!

  • Google Calendar gadget: Adds a box in the left column which shows your Google Calendar. See upcoming events, locations and details.


Lastly – I didn’t turn this one on, but it’s hilarious:

  • Mail Goggles: Google strives to make the world’s information useful. Mail you send over the weekend late at night may be useful but you may regret it the next morning. Solve some simple math problems and you’re good to go. Otherwise, get a good night’s sleep and try again in the morning. After enabling this feature, you can adjust the schedule in the “General” settings page.

You can get to all the Labs offerings by choosing Settings>Labs

My 2008 CLawBies Nominations

The 2008 edition of the Canadian Law Blog Awards (CLawBies) is off to a great start – check out the growing list of blogged nominations at Steve Matthews’ Vancouver Law Librarian Blog.

I approach the nominations from the point of view of a law firm library technician.† The heavyweights that have already been nominated multiple times (Slaw, Law21, Library Boy, etc.) are all must-reads, but I wanted to focus on some other blogs that are just as deserving of some recognition.

So, without further ado, here are my 2008 CLawBie nominations!

1) I had to laugh (and feel honoured) when I looked at my feed reader earlier today and saw that Karen Sawatzky of Library Technician Dialog had nominated Ballad in Plain E, because I’m also nominating her! Karen and Brenda Wong are both law library technicians who write on a variety of topics and themes, not always law-specific, but always thoughtful and relevant. (Karen and I both work at Winnipeg law firms and I think we may be the only two legal bloggers in the province. We’d sure love to see some Manitoba lawyers start blogging – it’s a small market, but there’s definitely a need for more Manitoba commentary.)

2) Law & Style, which has both fun and helpful content, but I chose mainly because of the infinitely helpful “Wednesday Roundup”. (For those of you who don’t know about the Wednesday Roundup, it’s a summary of – and direct links to – the content featured in the Globe & Mail‘s Law Page and the National Post‘s Legal Post.) If you hear about it in the elevator, chances are it’s in the Wednesday Roundup – this quick & dirty way to find out what people are talking about is a law librarian’s secret weapon! (On a related note, I sure miss the old, deliciously snarky Fashionista!)

3)† I’m going to second Connie’s motion for a nomination for Steve (full disclosure: I work for Stem Legal, but have no role in the CLawBies). He was a big part of the reason I started blogging and his Law Firm Web Strategy blog consistently offers practical, timely, and down-to-earthy guidance on, well, web strategies for law firms and lawyers. I think Steve’s blogs (Law Firm Web Strategy and Vancouver Law Librarian Blog) have done so well because of his sense of humour and cut-to-the-chase style and tone. I know he won’t consider his own blogs for the CLawBies, but I also know I’m not alone in wanting to recognize his significant contributions to the Canadian legal blogosphere.

That’s it for me; who will you nominate?

Non-lawyer legal bloggers

I really enjoyed Laurie Mapp’s latest post over at Halo Secretarial Services. In it, Laurie explains why non-lawyers have an important place in the legal blogosphere:

“Non lawyers are important and valuable assets, whether to brick and mortar law firms or virtual practices. In fact in every law firm I have worked at the non-lawyer staff members were a critical part of the success of the team. The secretaries helped manage timelines, completed dictation and often completed the first draft of pleadings.† Paralegals did the research, helped organize large files and oversaw support staff. The library staff were always so amazing, especially when a deadline was looming and the supporting caselaw for a brief had to be quickly found! Oh and letís not forget the IT staff who made sure our information was all backed up and accessible!”

I completely agree, and would add that every person – from the hostess to the name partner – who keeps a law firm running has a unique perspective on how it operates: what works, what doesn’t, what’s helpful, what’s a pain, and I think we all benefit from hearing others’ voices.

Just as an articled student learns pretty quickly that a librarian can be his new best friend, and a librarian learns quickly that an ornery partner’s secretary can be her greatest ally, we could all learn something from our fellow support staff. So, in the Canadian legal blogosphere, we’re pretty well represented. We have blogging lawyers, students, librarians and library technicians, webmasters, marketing consultants, and entrepreneurs such as Laurie who support law firms. But do we have blogging law firm IT staff? Paralegals? Secretaries? I can’t be the only one who’d be glad to read about their experiences!


On a related note, my own nominations are forthcoming, but don’t forget to nominate your favourite Canadian legal blogs for the 2008 CLawBies!

Am I the proverbial 20-something?

It’s a weird feeling to see my generation being described over and over again in the current business and library literature.

Net Generation, Gen Y, Millennials, Echo Boom…there are a million names and the birth-year range is up for debate, but generally accepted to be anyone born about 1980 or after.

The people writing these articles are always at least a generation ahead of me or more, and it’s pretty disconcerting. As much as they try to understand “us”, they never quite get it. And it’s also sort of annoying to be pigeonholed and stereotyped with these strange backhanded compliments (“They’re amazingly creative! They’re incredibly innovative! But they don’t want to do any hard work! They have an inflated sense of entitlement!”) I don’t need to link to any of them. You know the articles I’m talking about.

These articles invariably describe the characteristics of this generation, then offer suggestions or warnings on what to do or what not to do to keep these people happy and productive. Now, I am probably quite different from someone who is ten years younger than me, but I’m tired of all these trite, generalized accounts. Similarly, a friend of mine (who’s one of the hardest-working people I know) told me she’s tired of being lumped into a generation that’s accused of not having a work ethic.

Here’s what I propose: stop worrying about whether we watch commercials on TV or read newspapers anymore. Don’t waste your time trying to identify and reinvent new marketing rules. Start considering your potential staff and future clients as people with varying skill sets and personalities, instead of demographical categories to be neatly plunked into. I know that the nature of market research is to generalize and identify trends, but I just can’t believe that all these assertions about Gen Y are all that useful.

I know plenty of people my age who couldn’t do up a basic Powerpoint presentation to save their life. Likewise, I know fifty-somethings who know that when they’re having a problem with a piece of software, they can Google it, and chances are, someone will tell them how to solve their problem.

I don’t know. Maybe I fall somewhere in limbo between two generations. Maybe I am mistakenly categorizing myself as a GenYer when I’m actually part of Gen X. I certainly don’t feel like a digital native. Anyway, these are just a bunch of things I’ve been thinking about for a while, and wanted to get off my chest.

New BC Courthouse Library catalogue

One of the things I miss most about working in BC is the fantastic BC Courthouse Library system. This week’s news is just one more reason for that. They’ve now got a new name (Courthouse Libraries BC), URL (, look, and logo, and along with that, a fresh new interface for their library catalogue. Just check it out – it’s amazing! See more commentary at Slaw, VALL, and Vancouver Law Librarian Blog.

I’ve always been a huge fan of the system’s approach to library service — so much so that I’ve ordered documents from them since I’ve been in MB, just because I knew it could easily be the fastest route to go! Courthouse Libraries BC serves a substantially larger user base than the Law Society library in Manitoba does. Understandably, because of that, it has a greater capability to offer outstanding resources. So while I really shouldn’t compare the two, it sure reminds me of how fortunate the BC law library community is.

Congratulations to Virtual Library manager Mandy Ostick and everyone who helped get this project get to where it is. Way to go!