We have been open for a month. For those of you whose law libraries have reopened – sometimes multiple times – our experience is probably not much different from yours. As I had expected, it has highlighted some new challenges. But it has also enabled a re-connection to our patrons which has been gratifying.
Our organization – of which the law library is a part, not the center – has had a vaccine requirement to access the corporate space. In addition, while we are in a courthouse, the law library has not been accessible from the courthouse entrances. The only way in and out has meant passing through our corporate security entrance and complying with vaccine policy.
People are coming back to the library but still only in low numbers. Time will tell why, although we are pretty confident that eliminating courthouse entrances has had an impact. But at the same time, not as many lawyers will be coming to the courthouse while virtual hearings continue.
Those who are coming in have met the corporate vaccine policies. Not everyone has been thrilled about this, although only a bare half dozen or so have been turned away. One Toronto-area lawyer has repeatedly tagged our Twitter account in his anti–vaccination requirement posts, despite the fact we don’t make any policy decisions regarding entry. But not everyone cares about the well-being of law library staff.
I’ve been grateful to see that the people who come in to the library are considerate enough to follow the rules. The rules are there, after all, to protect our staff as much as anyone else. I’ve only had to speak to one person about keeping their mask on – we require masking at all times by visitors – and they complied and put it back on. Patrons are doing their best and things like taking off masks have more to do with them getting use to being back in the library as well than anything else.
The pandemic has highlighted technology gaps as never before. While we have always been cognizant of the challenges our patrons face, now these gaps are appearing with staff as well. Like taffy that has been stretched too far, holes appear as we go through change and transition to new platforms to support our hybrid work environment.
I’ve mentioned this already with QR codes. Our current corporate approach puts the burden on the person entering the corporate space. Staff – including me – who either do not have a mobile device or don’t have internet on it are put at a disadvantage when entering the space. A paper form is made available for us but there have been times where the security staff have questioned why we can’t use the QR code system. You can understand their perspective, as it saves them time. But it makes assumptions about what we choose to buy and whether we can afford the basic requirements to comply with a technology-first or -only system.
This is particularly frustrating since Ontario has a COVID vaccination “passport”. This would allow staff and visitors to present a QR code on paper or device. The onus would flip, for the corporation to take on the burden of accepting the code, rather than putting the burden of creating the code on the visitor or staff.
But it’s not just QR codes. Like many organizations, we have had staff who have been out of the building for over a year. Our organization continues to follow out-dated security protocols and forces quarterly password changes. In addition, they have applied two factor authentication to some of our systems.
One of our people returned to the office and had to log in to change a password. They initiated that successfully (all you need to know is the old password) but then were prompted for a second factor. The 2FA could occur only using a phone, either a mobile phone or an office phone number. But we have recently gotten rid of our physical phones so our phone system assumes you have access to a corporate PC.
In the end, the person was unable to access email because they do not own a phone. And, without a physical phone, they did not have an ability to receive a call or text message. We were able to temporarily disable 2FA so they could start work. For better or worse, it means this staff person will only be able to do work on corporate-owned equipment.
Document delivery exploded as a service when we were closed to patrons. It makes sense since one of our key value propositions is our extensive print collection. All those law firms who made cancellations to save their budgets have relied on us to continue paying those costs.
But now we are reopening and it will be interesting to see how those service demands shift. We have already seen a drop in document delivery, in contrast with when we reopened. It is always great to make a change on the first of the month, for the purposes of clean analytics.
It means that perennial issue for law library analytics – how do you count interactions that you don’t intermediate – raises its head again. We will see fewer interactions as people help themselves. I would guess that we would see fewer people – people still way of going to other businesses, people who are no longer working in the downtown core near our library – for some months to come.
But we don’t know how many people coming in are handling their own content needs. A single lawyer might have accounted for multiple document requests in October but can now review all of those print items in one visit. At year end, one note I will include in our annual report will be a reminder that the inevitable drop in measurable service interactions is a shift from 100% of interactions (when we were closed) to some percentage less than 100% when we were open.
For example, you may be able to see some of this shift already happening in directional reference and quick reference. It’s far too early to say for sure. But it seems as though our quick reference interactions are dropping as our directional ones go. Initial assessment: quick intermediated requests are being done by visitors themselves, who just need to be reoriented to where the collection is.
One benefit – there is always a silver lining – to reopening as we are is the bifurcation of courthouse and corporate entry. If we operate in this way for another month or more and then reopen to courthouse entry, we will be able to get a sense of how much traffic that generates. My guess is that a lot of our walk-in traffic will come that way, if the courts return to a normal face-to-face tempo. If they don’t, we may be charting a new perspective on our services.
All Pandemic, All the Time
It is also incredibly important to remind decision-makers and funders that the pandemic is not the only issue that may impact service levels and value. As you can see in the chart above, we have had a substantial service drop in the last 2 years. There are lots of pandemic reasons that will have contributed to that.
But so will the 3 retirements of senior library reference staff, who would have handled a lot of interactions. The elimination of 2 reference positions due to budget cuts will also have impacted our future service levels. We have gone from having 3 people answering questions all day to 2.
We’ve also eliminated evening and weekend hours due to those budget cuts. The one reference position during the day and those off-hours are like cutting 2 full time equivalent staff people from service delivery. And, obviously, we can’t have interactions after hours if we are closed.
It is still far too early to be able to plan for our service levels. We will be overhauling our reference schedule in the new year. We have tried our former approach but there just isn’t enough slack in our staffing any longer. A team of 6 is trying to do the work in a manner that had been done by a team of 10. Hopefully, this new approach will accomplish its objectives: more flexibility for staff to take time off and to work from wherever is most appropriate while maintaining full reference service delivery.
December is a quiet month in our law library. November has not been as taxing as it could have been and it has given us some time to think about changes. We have been able to restart former workflows and processes and see which ones still work, without also having to dig out from under a pile of new work. January will be a great opportunity (and year end/start is a great opportunity to begin anew) to try new things and see which ones get traction in the new year.