When my brother was imprisoned by the Russian government, my life changed. As the family’s designated spokesperson, I had to adapt to a new skillset and experiences. It was a bit of a wrench to realize that that old life no longer existed. Even when I do the same things – as a parent, partner, son, pet owner – that I did before, I’m a different person now.

The pandemic creates a similarly jarring event for law libraries. Some of us are closed entirely. Some of us provide some remote services, either directly or by enabling remote access to commercial content. The next phase of law libraries will be different. What should we leave behind?

The title of this blog post is inspired by the title from Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam war book. There are no other similarities. But sometimes we carry things because we have always carried them. They have meaning, even if that meaning lacks relevance beyond its sentimentality.

In the expanse of hours since our library closed, where work infiltrates other parts of life, I’ve been thinking about what I might do with a clean slate.

Rehome the Physical Collection

A physical collection requires a physical location.

Beyond that, everything is up for grabs. If I were going to start from scratch, I would:

  • place the collection in a physical space that was dedicate to storage, without the dual needs of information commons or research space. It needn’t be devoid of research space, but that would be 10% or less of space. It would have space for processing materials but not much for people.
  • select a location that was rentable, and that had extensive, inexpensive parking access, and was near major arteries for the local traffic.

That eliminates most courthouses. But it’s time for law libraries to follow the bar and the public out to the suburbs. If those audiences need physical collection access, it should move to them. The new space could be:

  • a warehouse with closed stacks;
  • a light industrial space with a mixture of open and closed stacks
  • shared space with a business, community center, public library, etc.

It should be convenient for sending and receiving book shipments. Interlibrary loan should be easy. There’s no reason for a researcher to have to visit a law library for a known title if the library can send it by mail. Amazon is doing same day delivery in metropolitan areas. Restaurants have figured out carryout. Law libraries can find a way to do it too.

The space should not have sentimental attachment. If your audience moves, the law library should be prepared to move as well. If the rent jumps, you don’t want to be in the same boat as you are with a legal publisher. There are lots of places to put a library collection.

Remote Reference

Many law libraries have marketed that they are still open by way of their electronic services and collection. This is not actually a change. The marketing merely gets around the mindset that library services can only be accessed from a physical locaiton. We are really doing a lot of the same work.

The difference is our location. If anything, this shows that a reference team doesn’t need to work out of a central space. It’s an opportunity to rethink our reference delivery.

This is a space shift, not a cost savings. The phrase “work from home” has been used extensively. Some CEOs seem to think that this is a cost-savings, that a physical location isn’t required any longer. But if we adopt remote reference, we need to understand how we might need to fund it differently.

A remote reference service could:

  • place a reference librarian wherever they live or are able to work. We wouldn’t need to bring librarians into high-cost metropolitan cores (either requiring them to pay with either high rent or long commutes). A law librarian could work on the electronic collection from anywhere with an internet connection;
  • rely primarily – or entirely, depending on your jurisdiction – on an electronic collection;
  • involve the same approaches a physical service offers;
  • could run 24 hours, with law librarians spaced around the globe, where common law countries exist in many time zones.

One benefit of having reference staff from wherever they are, rather than near you, is that you suddenly have a much larger, possibly more diverse, pool to hire from.

You might ask, “but what about the researchers?” One element of reference is to do the interview. A lot of that can be done with remote tools (phone, email, chat) just as it has been done for years. Another is to show the researcher. We can do that too.

Our staff has had to spin up remote desktop (RDP) to get access to the catalog back-end. Tools like RDP and desktop sharing can enable us to connect with researchers. It’s not going to work for everyone, but neither does a 9 to 5 courthouse.

The ability of our economy to switch to audio and video tools for remote meetings shows we can adapt. It also shows we maintain the same bad behaviors – like excessive meetings – whether we’re in person or virtual.

What might this look like? A researcher contacts a reference librarian and the question needs to be shown. The librarian might:

  • send the researcher a code to access the librarian’s Chrome Remote Desktop;
  • send the researcher a code to access an online meeting that allows screen sharing;
  • send the researcher a device (public libraries loan laptops, wireless hotspots, etc.) to enable them to connect;
  • in a high trust environment (law firm, law school, government), the librarian might connect to the judge or lawyer’s computer to assist

Using the Windows 10 Game Bar or a similar screen capture app, the entire interaction can be recorded. In that way, frequently asked questions can become video content.

I don’t think a remote reference service covers all possibilities. In my tabula rasa world, there’s a physical collection. That collection would be staffed with one or two people to handle in-person activity. But law libraries are already seeing footfall … fall. We needn’t keep staffing – and creating physical space – for physical presence unless we know we have the need.

Just as we are getting accustomed to delivering remotely, our researchers may be getting accustomed to receiving it that way as well. The reality is that a physical collection requires physical processing. So that’s one or two people. You might keep them separate and use kiosks or something too.

The Collection is Remote

I still believe in the necessity of a physical collection. That’s not true for all law libraries, perhaps not even most. We have many duplicate physical collections because, while there is broad agreement on ensuring last copies, we lack trust or money to ensure last copies.

But a substantial amount of the collection is electronic. This is particularly true if you’re in the United States – not so much in Canada – and perhaps more so in states like Ohio, Texas, California, and New York that have always had extensive secondary content.

To the extent any library isn’t already maximizing their electronic content, now is a great time to make that change. But there are other changes. They might include:

  • a more aggressive shift to electronic titles, even if you can’t deliver them directly to the researcher;
  • reducing direct remote access to content by researchers if there is a cost-savings to making it behind the desk only, so that money can be reallocated to more electronic content.

Behind the desk is a bit of a dated term. If most of us are working remotely, the desk is as about as relevant as the radio. There are lots of resources that librarians use – because they’re information professionals – that are not mediated for researchers.

Some law libraries serve the public. There is no escaping that large percentages of the public have no internet, no broadband. One question for me is whether we are better off keeping print information points or digital ones for this audience. Or something in between.

One thing I’ve been considering are ebooks. One reason we don’t collect them is because there’s no way to get them in the hands of the researcher. But maybe we don’t need to. Why wouldn’t we use the ebook the same way as an online resource. Print the pages, screen cap the content onto a tablet, whatever. Or we could put the ebooks on a tablet and ship the tablet out as an ILL.

Can we have the print content shipped to remote technical services staff? Then have them ship the processed material to the collection location? If reference staff can work dispersed, why not technical services?

Shift the Money

There are lots of hidden costs. They need to be balanced with the current costs. Everyone who doesn’t work at a library location still has a location. That location requires heating, cooling, light, power, space, technology. Costs needn’t derail change, but there seems to be a feeling that the “home” in “work from home” is somehow free to the employer. It’s not.

A shifted technical services processing workflow that involved greater shipping (to the staff person’s location, then again to the library) might be more costly than the space to put them at the collection.

Staff would need to be hired with an eye to remote work and potentially to evening and weekend hours. They’d need to have the space and technical knowhow to manage their own space. Libraries might have to scale up technology teams to support remote workers.

None of this is easy. But our old law libraries don’t exist any more. We are adapting new ways of working. Our researchers are finding new information sources, and new ways of using both familiar and changed information tools. We can take advantage of the opportunity to make changes as we continue to adapt to our environment.