Reported by Pauline Afuso, Ramsey County Law Library, Sarah Bates, Second Judicial District Court Library (Reno, NV), Sarah Larsen, Minnesota State Law Library, Catherine McGuire, Thurgood Marshall State Law Library, Jenny Silbiger, Hawai‘i Supreme Court Law Library, Karen Westwood, Hennepin County Law Library
Last fall and winter, the LISP/SR blog featured posts from law librarians who shared how their libraries were reopening to the public after months of closure due to the pandemic. As expected, there were similarities – extra cleaning, masks, social distancing. There were some differences, too, such as requiring appointments, imposing limits on visitors, and providing remote services for patrons.
Months later, we are still in a pandemic, but now with new considerations: vaccines, virus mutations, evolving executive orders relating to masks and indoor gatherings, new surges, and more. We checked back in with some of these librarians to see what changed, what stayed the same, and what they are preparing for as we move forward in 2021.
So many things have happened in the past year that there were bound to be some changes to policies and procedures. As Catherine McGuire from the Thurgood Marshall State Law Library in Maryland said,
“I think all our procedures have undergone changes, from tiny tweaks to significant shifts. We reopened on June 8, 2020, so quite a lot of time has passed, restrictions have been reimposed, and are now lifting again. We learn more about the science of transmission. And of course, the vaccine has been introduced. The basics have stayed the same – we’re asking that visitors schedule with us ahead of time. And the spacing of our public computers hasn’t changed, as they are set in a piece of furniture that can’t be broken up. Until the distancing requirement is removed, I think we’re going to have to continue to schedule public computer time, since we can’t use all of the seats simultaneously.”
Meanwhile, in Honolulu, Jenny Silbiger reported a positive change: After an inspection by the Department of Health, the Hawai‘i Supreme Court Library was allowed to double its capacity, as long as the patrons maintained their social distancing. They have also added two more appointment slots to allow for even more visitors to the library. Jenny’s main concern is for the safety, health, and well-being of her staff and visitors. She very much appreciates the judiciary’s leadership with their support of flexible teleworking schedules and building access policies appropriate for the library. She feels
“very fortunate that our case numbers are low in the islands, but because of our limited healthcare facilities (we are an island chain, after all), weʻre always keeping our eye out, and Iʻm glad we were closed for a bit during the second surge in the late summer into the fall of 2020.”
At the Ramsey County Law Library (St. Paul, MN) and at the Second Judicial District Court Library (Reno, NV), much of the policies are tied to the orders from the Court. In Minnesota, the Chief Justice issued several orders over the last year, ordering the courts to hold hearings remotely where possible to minimize the number of people who physically had to come to the Courthouse. The library adjusted its policies to follow the Chief Justice’s mandate to limit exposure at court facilities: the library has reduced the number of people who can come into the library at any one time (from 10 down to 5) and are limiting visits to an hour at a time.
Similarly, in Reno, Sarah Bates reports that in November when COVID cases surged, the State of Nevada relocked down the courts. Despite that, the Washoe County Law Library continues to assist patrons via phone and email. They plan to open in-person research appointments, but that will depend on the Court’s approval. They have converted their in-person Lawyer in the Library program to a virtual format using Zoom. Sarah reports:
“I do not know if our Lawyer in the Library program will ever be an in-person program again. Not only does keeping it online mitigate the risk of having a group of 25+ people gathering in the library, but it is much more convenient for our volunteer attorneys and many of our patrons. At the very least, it will remain virtual for the foreseeable future.”
Sarah Larsen, Outreach Librarian for the Minnesota State Law Library, also reported on some changes that have occurred in St. Paul. The main change is that staff will have the option to work from home one or two days a week. They plan to continue to offer remote access for their clinics. They have gotten feedback from both attendees and the volunteer attorneys that the convenience of the remote clinics is working well. She added,
“We also changed how we provide the documents to our attorneys, and I think we’ll keep that as well. We used to print court documents on the day of the clinic and run them in to the attorneys. Now, we upload the documents into a shared folder ahead of time. This cuts down so much on paper usage, and the attorneys seem to like to have this kind of access. I think we’ll probably continue doing this sort of thing as much as possible.”
The Hawai‘i State Law Library’s Lawyer in the Library program also successfully transitioned to remote conferences, and they also plan to continue to keep that format after restrictions are relaxed. They might compromise and offer both in-person and remote clinics, but it is too early to say for sure.
Some of the changes regarding staffing that were implemented during the shutdown will continue even after the libraries are fully opened. In Maryland, Catherine said that even with service restricted to phone, email, and limited in-person appointments, they have had a usage increase of 25% over non-pandemic times. She’s not sure if the increase in workload was caused because people can’t visit, or because they just managed to find the library while in lockdown by cruising around the internet. They are looking to keep the increased reference staffing because they don’t see the workload decreasing once they are fully open, currently planned for the end of April.
In Hawai‘i, the Supreme Court Law Library was able to hire and onboard a new staff member. It was a little difficult, as she was hired while half of the staff were teleworking from home, but Jenny reports that she is settling into her new position. One of her responsibilities is to manage the laptop access station used for district court remote hearings.
But the prize for the biggest change since the start of the pandemic goes to the Hennepin County Law Library, located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Karen describes how the law library has adapted since her article came out last December.
“Greetings from Hennepin County Law Library in Exile! As you may recall from my past writing on the pandemic experience here, we never did open to the public but have had staff in the building since last June. This allowed us to access our print collection for reference, offer curbside circulation, and manage the print collection (checking in materials and filing loose-leaf pages). A countywide email came out in January indicating in-person services would fully open September 7, at the earliest. But, if I’m honest, as the vaccination numbers began to improve, I harbored hopes of reopening during the summer.
And then it became apparent that there was another elephant in the room jockeying for space with the pandemic. The Derek Chauvin trial would begin in our building in early March, and an administrative decision was made to move all services not related to the trial to alternative locations. We chose to move to another county building because the county will forward mail to this temporary location. This way we can still receive titles and check them in (although we are unable to file loose-leaf services).
Our patrons have been understanding, and (as we all learned last spring) we can continue to provide a high level of service via phone and email. But I worry that after more than a year of being closed, we’ll have enormous challenges getting folks to return to our physical space. In addition, the defensive measures we see downtown and the extensive reporting on the trial feel like an additional weight during an already heavy time.
But here’s what I can also say – my local Minnesota colleagues have been more than generous, whether it’s providing materials that we can’t get to or offering us space if we want to work in their libraries. They’ve reached out as the trial has gotten underway to offer help but also just to check in. And my colleagues across the country have done the same. It’s been heartening to be the recipient of such compassion and understanding. We’re looking forward to getting back into our space and eventually reopening, but for now we carry on as best we can.”
So stay tuned – we have a ways to go before we get past the challenges caused by the pandemic. Until then, as Karen put it so nicely, we’ll carry on as best we can.