Reopening During a Pandemic: A Second Look

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.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

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.”

Pictures of the computer carrels at the Thurgood Marshall State Law Library with only three open workspaces.

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.”

A view of the circulation desk at Hawaii Supreme Court Library with a blue tape line to remind patrons to maintain their social distance from library staff.

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. 

A view of the workstation used to attend court hearings remotely for Hawai‘i District Court.

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.”

Hennepin County Law librarian, Rich Harrington, stands near part of the reference collection we moved to our temporary space in March 2021.  These titles help us answer phone and email questions effectively.
The temporary home of the Hennepin County Law Library, in the shadow of U.S. Bank stadium.  These are some of the books and filings that have arrived since our move.  Note all the monitor “arms” – we are on a floor that previously provided shared workspace for social workers and other employees who came downtown only on occasion and would work at any open carrel or desk.

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.

Recommended Collections for Prisons and Other Institution Law Libraries

By Jessica Almeida, LISP-SIS 

One of my wonderful colleagues in the Social Responsibility Special Interest Section (SR-SIS), who is also a Massachusetts court librarian, reached out to me about working on a project together.  The project, Recommended Collections for Prisons and Other Institution Law Libraries, is being organized by the SR-SIS’s Assistance for Prisoners Standing Committee.  The committee is looking for librarians to create publication lists of recommended collections by jurisdiction.  My colleague suggested we work together on the Massachusetts list and I was more than happy to help. 

We contacted the committee chair and she sent us a template and example to follow.  At that point, we decided to split the list in half.  She worked on reporters, rules, and codes.  I worked on legal newspapers, legal research handbooks, and practice manuals.  The library I work at has a large collection of Massachusetts secondary sources in print, so I was easily able to go through our collection to determine the types of secondary sources that might be helpful in a prison library.  I included a state specific legal research handbook, a variety of criminal practice manuals, and juvenile court treatises.  We were also asked to include family law, immigration, and estate planning materials too.   

Using the sample, I was quickly able to provide the list in the preferred format, including author, title, publisher, and cost.  The only tricky part was determining the shelf space requirements.  Luckily, we had many of the books I recommended on our own shelves, so I was able to do a bit of measuring and math to come up with an approximate number of inches needed to shelve the books recommended.   

The Assistance for Prisoners Standing Committee is still looking for volunteers.  If you are familiar with the legal resources in any of these jurisdictions, I highly recommend you volunteer.  If you are interested in creating a publication list for any of the following states or territories, please reach out to Kristen R. Moore at krmoore@law.stetson.edu.   

Alaska 

American Samoa 

Arkansas 

Delaware 

Guam 

Hawaii 

Kansas 

Kentucky 

Maine 

Michigan 

Mississippi  

Montana 

New Hampshire 

New Mexico 

North Carolina 

North Dakota 

Northern Marianas Islands 

Ohio  

Oklahoma 

Rhode Island 

US Virgin Islands 

Vermont 

Virginia 

Washington 

West Virginia 

Wisconsin 

Wyoming 

About the author: Jessica Almeida is a Public Services Librarian at the University of Massachusetts School of Law.  She is also the co-editor of the LISP/SR Blog.