A crisis can bring out extremes in behavior as people adapt to their circumstances. My extremes have been at both ends of the spectrum. Some things I find harder to do, and things that used to grate on my nerves don’t phase me at all. I found this article on preppers an interesting read on one extreme. It got me thinking about how to prepare better for the next crisis of this sort.
I don’t align with the survivalist mentality, which seems to rest on societal breakdown. Preppers themselves warn about those of us who aren’t all in. When I go camping, I often plan for uncertainties and carry the sorts of things a prepper might carry in a bug out bag. First aid kit, matches, extra batteries.
One of my law school study quartet followed the Church of Latter Day Saints’ guidance on food storage. The goal is not to prepare for the end times so much as the lean times.
Camping seems like a good metaphor for how we might prepare for a future crisis that requires law libraries to leave our physical space. As I posted recently, many of us lucked out in having staff who had bought technology we could leverage. But that’s not a fair expectation – that staff equip their house for our needs – nor is it necessary.
When you go camping, you plan for both the forecasted weather and what the season could also bring. You might not use that fly sheet over your tent unless it rains, but you’ll pack it anyway. How might we purchase technology with an eye to making it more flexible?
We can do more than just prepare with a plan. We can actively change what we acquire so that, when an event happens, we have already trained our staff to use tools that they can take with them.
Where to start.
The Portable PC
Buy a laptop for everyone.
No, just kidding. I mean, you could equip your entire staff with laptops. But I think that’s a costly option and most law libraries aren’t in a financial position to both purchase and refresh laptops. You would end up keeping the computer specs down in order to make it financially feasible.
Also, you have to keep in mind funders who may think you’re not being fiscally careful if you buy lots of laptops.
This is a good opportunity to think about what your organization has and what your staff need to do. Then think about how you convert that into a format that is portable enough for each staff person to put in a box and take home.
For example, in our environment:
- we are standardized on Windows 10
- we require multiple web browsers but most of what we use is text based, so we don’t have substantial hardware demands in a crisis
- we use Microsoft Office but few other “on premises” applications. These would be required for scanning, PDF editing, and interacting with the backend of our integrated library system.
Our servers are maintained by our organization, although we don’t rely on them for anything other than email and file server storage. Our ILS is cloud-hosted by the vendor. We do reference statistics with Gimlet, and account maintenance through our publisher online sites.
We do not need much in the way of computing power. We could probably just stick with standard business PCs. They’re not really portable, though, so there are two alternatives to consider: the mini PC and the all-in-one.
The mini PC is just a normal PC but in a very small form factor. It means that you may rely on integrated parts rather than a variety of separate components. For example, instead of buying a graphics card, the graphics function would be integrated into the computer. This is actually pretty common on most consumer and business computers for normal productivity. It’s also normal on laptops, which have similar space limitations.
There’s also the all-in-one desktop. This embeds the CPU in the monitor. This means that, if a staff person needed to pack up their office technology to take it home, they’d only need that monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse. Pretty efficient.
We could probably set a $500-$600 budget for each device (either all-in-one or mini + monitor). This cost would be for a three-year cycle, after which each device would need to be replaced with an upgrade.
There is also the Apple Mini. You’d get laptop power in a small desktop size but for a pretty big price jump. You’d also have to be on the Mac OS, which we’re not.
You might also consider Chromebooks. These are laptops running the Chrome operating system (which is different from the Chrome browser). This would be my choice if (a) we were less reliant on Microsoft Office and (b) we were entirely cloud-based, since you can’t install ILS apps on a Chromebook.
Chromebooks are interesting because you can buy Google’s version of the operating system or you can get your own. I’ve blogged about updating older laptops with open source versions of the Chrome OS, but you could also just get it from Neverware. For the truly budget conscious, buying some cheap older laptops and putting Neverware on it might be a great option.
We have tended to default to wired connections. In the future, the default perhaps should be wifi. If not, the law library should be willing to drop C$50 per staff member to get them a wireless card for the work PC they’re taking home. It seems to make sense to just get it built into your smaller form factor PC.
The Anywhere Software
This one is easier. You can start to transition to cloud-first software wherever possible. The most obvious are your productivity suites. But there are other areas too.
We use Microsoft Office so having access to the apps outside the office is useful. But whether you do or not, it probably makes sense for your law library to land on either the Google G Suite or Microsoft Office Web apps. This will give your staff a web-based tool for editing documents and spreadsheets, or starting that presentation slide deck about their time.
This is an investment in time and money. Yes, your staff can get their own personal free accounts for either Google Docs or Microsoft Web Apps. If you go this route, make sure they do it using their work credentials. They should have the option to keep their private online activity separate. You could also just spring for G Suite (~C$100 a year per person) or Microsoft 365 (~C$60 a year per person, includes Office desktop software).
These options provide access to Microsoft Teams and Google Meet, so you would have your collaboration and conferencing tools covered. Both offer email using your domain name, whether through G Suite or Microsoft Exchange. I don’t think there’s a right choice except perhaps to choose one.
But the license isn’t enough. As we saw this pandemic, our organization had a Skype license. But no-one had been trained on using it and there was no leadership in getting people onto it for video, voice and chat. So we ended up using Zoom because that was what was in the media.
Train your staff on your tools. They should be completely fluent in how to get into their online apps, how they work (and are different, perhaps, from their desktop apps), and how to get stuff out (print, email, share) of the apps. That way, if they have to be out of the office, they don’t need training before they’re able to adapt to their new circumstances.
Browsers will read PDFs. If you need editing tools, you’re going to need to have them installed on the PCs your staff take home. Store your license keys and installation files in the cloud, so that you can download and reinstall on PCs that need the software.
Passwords are the other thing that we typically share. In our case, the default publisher passwords are stored in a SharePoint page on our corporate intranet. They’re accessible only to staff who may have additional passwords to the licensed content.
I’m considering whether we should look at a web-based password manager for these passwords. That way, in cases where our intranet is inaccessible (like Monday of this week when our corporate internet access died), we’d have a secure backup. I’m not a big fan of sharing passwords, though, so staff should really have their own password manager. If it’s not web-based, the software should be installed or installable in a crisis.
This will be the determining factor in law libraries that need to invest in more expensive equipment. If I had a web-based ILS – where cataloging and acquisitions and access management could all be done in a browser – then I would go with Google’s G Suite and Chromebooks for staff.
If you need Windows to run your ILS apps, that’s a critical decision point. You’ll need to be able to run it locally or by accessing a remote server running Windows. The former is the simpler process, assuming there’s a way to connect your ILS app from a home-based worker to wherever the ILS lives.
We are functionally without telephone support right now. A phone system should allow simple forwarding remote devices – NOT to staff personal phones. A virtual PBX would be one way for a large organization. But you can do this with Microsoft and Google tools, by planning ahead to have your phone run through Skype or Meet (or Voice). Handsets or headsets (I use a knock off Native Union Pop handset, ~C$20 ) connect to staff PCs and regular use will get staff up and running.
I think that would get us a lot closer to the point where, should a crisis happen again, our staff could pack up their PCs and walk out the door as we evacuate. Maybe keep some banker boxes or large tote bags around for the PCs.
What else? Office supplies? Shared online storage of key documents? There are lots of ways to prepare in advance.
We can’t do everything. I was thinking about internet too. There’s no way of knowing what type of bandwidth staff have at home. We live in a suburb that has very slow internet access compared to Toronto. It’s just old wiring.
This may end up being a financial subsidy for whatever staff have on their own. Or it could be remote hotspots that the law library licenses and sends home with staff. Unfortunately, this is the sort of thing you can’t stockpile or plan for before the event.
The technology preparation seems to have been the big missing item this pandemic. We couldn’t take our collections with us. Our space is closed. But I think there are concrete steps we can take to change how we buy technology so that every staff person can go home with what they need to keep working until the crisis passes.