By Jenny Silbiger, LISP-SIS
The Hawaii Supreme Court Law Library’s colorful history dates back to the Kingdom of Hawaii, when in 1840 King Kamehameha III promulgated the Kingdom’s first constitution. The king created the three branches of government, including the Judiciary and the Supreme Court, and by extension the Supreme Court Law Library (SCLL). We’re not sure just when SCLL opened its front doors, but in 1851, the legislature set aside $1000 to fund the library.
Fast-forward 180 years later, SCLL now faces the challenge of operating and delivering public services in the context of a global pandemic, alongside libraries throughout the Pacific and across the mainland. For us, this meant an abrupt transition to a telework schedule effective March 20, 2020, and when cases decreased—oh how I miss the days of 0 or single digit case numbers–returning physically to the building on July 1, 2020.
Back in March, we didn’t know what to expect, so we put a temporary hold on the mail, contacted our vendors that we’d be in touch with billing/payment at the end of April/early May, naively thinking we’d be in a somewhat ‘business as usual’ place after a month. (Oh the wishful hopes!) Unfortunately, library staff had a hodge podge of home devices to use to connect from home, including a daughter’s laptop, a phone, a tablet, and personal computers. Working with our IT department, I was able to get all staff VPN access via their Judiciary computers, and staff went into the office to pick up and bring home their equipment. We held weekly zoom meetings to stay connected and once we were settled with the right equipment in our respective homes, we became much more effective to complete our work. This first phase of our work-at-home/stay-at-home order was fully focused on the health and safety of my staff.
While library services for Judiciary personnel remained mostly uninterrupted in our new telework environment, we realized we needed to develop better methods to provide services to the public. Working with our vendors (Lexis, Westlaw, and Lexis Digital Library), SCLL began offering remote access to online legal resources to our legal community and the general public. Our public services librarian developed our Virtual Reference Desk (VRD) and launched it on April 3, 2020 (modeled after the wonderful Harris County Law Library). Our VRD is optimized for mobile devices, provides access to the aforementioned resources as well as community and legal COVID-19 specific resources, and the public can contact the library with a single click. Within the initial four days of launching our VRD, our public services librarian and I fielded 100+ reference email interactions, which totally energized us. We also put a moratorium on any library service fees related to document delivery and legislative history research, pulling on our digital archives when legislative history requests came in. And finally, rounding out our virtual resources, on June 1st, following the lead of our colleagues at the Texas State Law Library, we began offering Live Chat, Monday- Friday, 1pm – 3pm.
Due to a decrease in COVID-19 numbers (some days we had 0 new cases), our Governor lifted our Stay At Home order, moved to the “Safer at Home” and then to the “Act with Care” restrictions. This meant that SCLL staff returned to the building on July 1st, 2020, holding our first in-person staff meeting. We were physically open to Judiciary staff only, offering curbside checkout to members of the community as needed, and continued to leverage our virtual services to the public.
Our first priority upon return in July was finishing our Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) needs analysis in our workspace, something that I had begun doing with our Judiciary planning analyst, prior to the start of our teleworking in March. However, due to stringent state budget restrictions, there were no funds to do much purchasing. Using cardboard, plastic sheeting, and a can-do attitude, we came up with safety measures that helped staff feel more comfortable. One of our favorite PPE is from our Judiciary History Center’s exhibit detailing the timeline of western presence in the Hawaiian islands. We’re using some of the exhibit pieces in the staff office area and some stand in our law library, providing PPE barriers at the reference desk.
Also, remember how we stopped the mail in March? About mid-May, some of our staff began going into the office to manage the deliveries (the initial one amounted to half a USPS postal truck), and then once staff was fully back on July 1st, we could really tackle catching up with deliveries. July was then finished off by putting our office and library space back together, so we could organize it and physically make it ready for visitors.
On August 1st, SCLL “opened” to the public, by appointment only. With social distancing guidelines in place, requiring masks and hand sanitizer, we currently allow members of the public to come into the library, one hour at a time. We have a limit of five public patron appointments a day, so as to be able to service our Judiciary staff and keep to no more than six people in the library in any given time (including staff). As a further precaution to protect both staff and the public, the Judiciary has contracted with the National Guard, which conducts initial screening and temperature checks before anyone can enter the building. The first week we were open, nearly all library appointment slots were filled, with some folks calling in ahead of time, others calling the day of.
We are so happy we’re able to work toward fulfilling our mission of providing law library services to the Judiciary and community as best as we can, even in the midst of our global pandemic. At the same time, we remain vigilant and careful moving forward, as unfortunately, cases are currently spiking in Hawaii, and we expect more stringent measures to be put in place.
One of the things that keeps me going is that I know we are not alone, and looking around at our fellow amazing colleagues across AALL, I’m inspired by how we continue to learn from each other and share ideas. Like Greg Lambert says in his _In Seclusion_ podcast, we may be in (various states of) seclusion, but we’re all in this together.
Sending love and aloha to our fellow colleagues here in Hawaii and across the sea, dreaming of the day when it’s safer for everyone to be out and about in the world, and wishing you a safe and healthy rest of your day.
Post Script: Due to the Governor’s and Mayor’s (City and County of Honolulu) orders that were just released on Tuesday, August 25, 2020, which is resulting in a two week stay at home/work at home order, the Hawaii Supreme Court Law Library has temporarily ceased our in person appointments starting Thursday, August 26th. Appointments are planned to resume on Monday, September 14th, pending further state and county guidance.
Something that has helped me and that I’ve also shared with my staff–in terms of coping with all the changes–is to “be like water.” While I’m not an expert Tao Te Ching philosopher, I resonated with the idea that water shifts and bends, flows and changes forms as it moves about in the world, facing different obstacles or sometimes no obstacles at all. Water can carve paths into canyons, carry us in its waves, astonish us with its strength (and sometimes destruction), or can calmly reflect the sky. What would water do in the face of barriers and challenges? So as we respond to the pandemic, I’m doing my best to be like water, and every day I’m thankful to my staff who have been flexible and are being like water even at this writing.
About the author: Jenny Silbiger is the State Law Librarian of the Hawaii State Judiciary.