By Sarah Larsen, LISP-SIS

By the time this is posted, the U.S. will have been living with COVID for an entire year. To say that this last year has challenged the way we think about libraries and librarianship would be an understatement. For those of us who work in Outreach Services roles, this shift has been especially pronounced. I’ve joked many times during the pandemic that my job used to be trying to bring patrons in to the library, but now it’s to keep them out. Bad jokes aside, the pandemic has forced us to reimagine how we connect with and serve our patrons – especially our public patrons.

Before the pandemic, much of our outreach work focused on going into the community and meeting potential patrons where they are. This included a wide variety of initiatives, ranging from offering legal reference help at the local public library to presenting training to attorneys and public librarians to helping staff a booth at the Minnesota State Fair to educate the public on Minnesota’s justice system. Obviously, these types of projects are not possible currently, so we have had to get creative to reach those who need our help finding legal information. For the vast majority of our patrons, this has simply meant expanding the remote services we already offered – emailing documents, handling reference by phone, expanding our remote CLE offerings, or holding consults by Skype or Zoom.

Most patrons are grateful that we are able to save them a trip to the library (and potential exposure to COVID-19). But electronic services do not serve all of our patrons: those who lack technology skills or who do not have access to the internet at home are left behind. I suspect I am not alone in taking for granted the fact that I can easily access the internet at home, but there is still a large share of the population that cannot. According to the Pew Research Center, 73% of Americans have access to broadband internet at home (meaning 27% of Americans do not) and nearly one in five Americans only have access to the internet through a smart phone. With the public libraries these Americans usually rely on for computer access largely closed, simple tasks like attending a remote court hearing or accessing court forms become nearly impossible.

I certainly cannot solve the problem of the digital divide in one blog post, but I can share some of the ways that we at the State Law Library and the legal community in Minnesota have been approaching this problem.

At the Minnesota State Law Library, one of the first changes we made was to move our Appeals Clinic and our Unemployment Appeals Clinic to be remote only. Getting the word out about this change was challenging at first, but we’ve had about 150 people attend the clinics since the pandemic started. We also began mailing court forms upon request to individuals who do not have access to a computer or printer. To date, we have mailed packets of court forms to 670 people. Most people who call asking for these forms contacted their local courts or the statewide court self-help center, who then referred them to us. Not only are we able to introduce our library to new users, but we have also strengthened our relationship with other frontline court workers.

On a larger scale, the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition launched the Legal Kiosk Project last fall with funds received under the CARES Act. The Kiosk Project offers two models: one providing access to legal information resources from LawHelpMN and intake for legal aid and the other offering a secure terminal for patrons to meet with a lawyer or attend a Zoom court hearing. Community partners and organizations were able to request kiosks to be placed in locations around the state where people may have trouble accessing the internet. Some of the locations chosen include community centers, public libraries, and domestic violence and homeless shelters. The project is still in its very early days, so there is not information available about its impact yet, but it is a good step in helping bring access to those who need it most.

About the author: Sarah Larsen is the Outreach Librarian at the Minnesota State Law Library.  She is also the Vice Chair of LISP-SIS.

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