Law libraries aren’t restaurants but we face similar challenges in a pandemic due to our reliance on physical space for delivery. A restaurant may have multiple channels – dine-in, take out, catering – to generate revenue. When the pandemic closes your restaurant, a commercial success is maintaining those channels without in-person contact and potentially creating new channels. When our law library closed, our reference interactions dropped like a restaurant that relied on seating diners. I’ve been thinking about what this means.

One last analogy and then I’ll let restaurants go. If your primary channel (in-person) disappears, that’s obviously a huge activity hit. But where do they go? Are law library researchers, who would normally go to a law library, just cooking at home?

Here’s some additional context. Our law library tracks reference interactions. We provide four main channels: chat, email, phone, and in person. This is what our first four months in 2020 look like.

There were questions being asked at our reference desk. And then there weren’t. I know where the people went. What I don’t know is where the questions went.

Where did the other channels go?

Vaporized Interactions

The first thing to dispense with is our failure to create a resilient channel. Some things you can control and some you can’t. Our situation is a mixture.

The failure of the phone channel occurred because we do not have a way to recreate the phone experience outside of our office. In order to maintain this connection, we would have needed to have staff be able to answer incoming calls. This requires routing incoming calls to the law librarian who is on call, since we are using a stripped down team at the moment. We can handle voicemail – call and leave one, we’ll get back to you via email – but otherwise phone interactions lack any organizational support.

Chat is more of a head scratcher. It has never been a significant source of interactions but it has dropped off completely. It makes me wonder how much chat occurs by accident.

In-person is easy. We closed. That goes from something to zero pretty quickly. We weren’t in a position to stay open (both our parent organization mandated closure and then the courthouse closed the building we work in). There are ways we could have adapted to this closure.

Email is email. It helps to have online access to a shared inbox. It was crucial that staff were already doing this before the pandemic hit. We have seen a slight uptick in email interactions, though which channel they would normally have come from isn’t known.

Understand Your Channels Better

One thing is crystal clear and that is we don’t have enough information about why people use the reference service in-person. We can make some assumptions about why they visit the library in person – to use the books, to use the space, to access licensed content that they can’t license elsewhere – but why the reference team?

Growth in email makes sense in the same way that brick-and-mortar stores and restaurants with an online store saw an uptick in sales through that alternate channel. Some people will click the link on our web page (we’re closed, email us) and initiate an interaction that way.

My favorite pandemic story so far is the Ontario lawyers calling the Manitoba Law Society’s Great Library for help. My guess is that the lawyers googled “Great Library” and called the first number they saw.

It suggests that web search is an area for us to dig into further, if only to help . We have a pretty decent Google Search card but you can’t assume people see it, nor that the results are either de-personalized or not geolocated.

A screenshot of the Google Search card that appears when you search for “great library” and your ISP is based in Ontario, Canada (I have location tracking turned off). The card looks like it is missing information but it’s only because I nerfed the card when I updated it for our prolonged closure.

Post-Pandemic Resilience Planning

This is likely to happen again. I’ve already posted about what I would do if I was starting from scratch. That’s for a future me. Since there is clearly a fall off in reference interactions, we should be concerned with shoring that up.

The lack of interactions is a strategic issue. Those may be customers that don’t come back. They may be customers that relied on us for reasons unrelated to our collection and services – they used library space for work but now work from home – and that reason is gone. Footfall falloff and drops in use will erode funder support.

The next time, I’ll advocate for keeping a couple of staff at our location. Even if it is closed, we can take a page out of other business’ playbooks:

  • If people need books (if you circulate) or other physical output, deliver them curbside;
  • Create a temporary kiosk to enable the analog to an in person interaction? Place it just outside the library, offer video chat, include wipes and hand sanitizer?
  • Maintain the acquisition workflow so that materials continue to get updated and added to the collection, so that reference can then incorporate them in answers

We need to understand better what causes those in-person library interactions. Then we can adapt to try to maintain the activity level

Interestingly, there’s nothing to suggest that a significant group of lawyers is missing access to our licensed legal research content. There are some who have taken advantage of extended trial offers from Canadian legal publishers but nothing near what our normal internal usage would be.

I’ve posted about getting feedback about services. I’m thinking we need a paper survey that is left on all surfaces in our library. Easy survey:

  • why are you here?
  • what did you use?

No need to get demographics at this point, if ever. It could even just be check boxes to start (did you use this or that) with an “other”. The other inputs could become new check boxes. It would be useful to know what they used, but also why they needed to use it in our space.

Is in-person reference just a product of adjacency rather than a reflection of a need to get help? Do people interact with reference in-person because they happen to otherwise be in the library?

The desk staff can just keep putting copies out as people turn them in. Researchers should be encouraged to answer more than once (different day, different need), so it will need a bit of signage.

Our library’s HeinOnline remote access traffic. Since it was always available remotely, I was curious whether there’d be any change. There was no noticeable change in visitors, but a spike in search hits. It will be important to distinguish that in the future (since article usage was not substantially higher). We will have data anomalies that will need to be dropped out for future planning.

Another area of interest will be what changes we have seen in catalog searches (since the collection was inaccessible, did searches stay the same or grow) and also the impact with our other online resources. Libguides, digital repository collections, and other online tools may capture interactions that suggest new ways to think of our channels.

Some resilience will require politics. Some will require pre-planning so that water is already flowing through the channel before the next crisis. That is easier than trying to spin up a new channel after the crisis has started. It’s clear, though, that I need to think harder about how to make our channels resilient.