We’ve just submitted our law library’s annual data for 2021. It’ll go into an organizational report with comparative data from pre-pandemic 2019, as well as 2020. On it’s face, it has little value. As expected, we experienced wild swings in service delivery that are unlikely to be trends. Or are they?

One If By Land …

We were open to foot traffic for about 60 days in 2020. We reopened for about 40 days at the end of 2021 before returning to virtual-only law library service as another viral variant surged. All in all, anything to do with our physical services in the past 2 years has resulted in little useful in the way of measurable data.

You can see the difference in our stats. But the difference is more stark when you realize that we were open nearly the same amount each year. Our 2020 tempo was pretty normal. The 200+ visitors to our physical space in 2021 was much, much less.

Our more traditional reference interaction formats are phone and in-person. This chart shows a significant drop in 2021 despite being open nearly the same amount of time to outside users.

I’m not that surprised by the drop in phone reference. We have forced a huge amount of interaction into video calls and I could imagine a context where people are happy to use something other than synchronous live communication. It was never a huge part of our reference activity and so to see it drop by 75% is surprising but understandable. We have seen a huge uptick in e-mail reference and I could see a scenario where email has absorbed former phone calls. But the drop in the blue columns, for foot traffic, leaves a big question mark.

We know there are a bunch of issues there:

  • people still not venturing out in a pandemic unless they have to
  • people who have changed their legal research behavior in 2 years and no longer default to going to a physical law library, including lawyers who used to frequent a courthouse and don’t any longer because of virtual hearings
  • people not aware of whether we are open or not, exacerbated by a second closure at the start of 2022
  • people who are aware we are open but are unable or unwilling to comply with the safety requirements of masking and check-ins
  • people unable or unaware that, just because access from the courthouse is closed, the library is accessible from other locations.

This is in addition to all of the other current logistical challenges to visiting a physical courthouse law library:

  • parking and public transit access
  • courthouse security access (for example, can’t bring a phone in)
  • hours of operation are not aligned to availability of researchers

I’ve even seen a survey on how far researchers are willing to travel to get legal information. It’s not far. Users of the courthouse libraries in the survey dropped off dramatically if it was more than 15 minutes away.

I am not sure how long it will take before we know that the drop in foot traffic is permanent or not. Two years is more than enough time for people to permanently change their research habits. And while we can continue to grow our electronic, online analogs to our physical space services, we contribute to that softening. I don’t think anyone would argue that, once we reopen to physical traffic, that we should discontinue our virtual services.

Two If By E-

Email is also an uncertainty. We saw an increase, in part because that was the only way to reach us in most of 2020. But even after we regained access to phones, the emails kept coming. It is hard for me to see this trend undo itself.

A chart showing a rise from 2020 – during which, from March to December, we could only provide email reference – to 2021 in our email reference interactions.

Email has replaced so much of our earlier communications. We hear plaintive voices wanting to return to synchronous communications, like phone and in-person (and, yes, chat). I think it’s very much an open question as to whether we’ll see phone reference return to its normal levels, if those phone callers are now using email.

And, as I noted last year, our document delivery numbers remain high. But they did start to normalize a bit once we’d reopened. That suggests to me that we may have had some foot traffic that was self-help, and people absorbed their own document delivery needs at year-end.

A chart showing document delivery requests fulfilled during the pandemic. In November 2021, at the far right, we re-opened and also started to capture document delivery based on format used for fulfillment.

But you can see the dilemma pretty clearly on the document delivery chart, above. Those numbers have started coming down but it could be some time before we know if they’re returning back to pre-pandemic levels. If they do, all well and good. If they don’t, it will mean rethinking our reference service allocations.

That’s already an obvious issue with email. If email has absorbed in-person visits and phone calls, then it could be that it’s a wash. We’re handling the same number of interactions but the format has changed. But if in-person visits or phone calls rebound, and email remains high, then we should see our overall interaction numbers go up. And that could be a strain on our staff as headcount dropped just prior to the pandemic.

Cautious Planning

This probably goes without saying. But 2022 may be a year where goals are a bit fuzzy. We start our budgeting process in May so we may be creating a 2023 budget with very little idea about what that year will actually look like. We will have been closed for much or all of the first quarter. Will every November-February include a physical shutdown as we move towards treating flu and coronavirus surges? More than any year I can remember, there will be a lot of guesswork.

And while year end is still a good time to talk about your stories from the last year, that may be more important this and next year than ever before. We may have relied on the numbers to tell a story in the past. And keen eyed governance and funding boards may be literate and informed enough to understand what an aberration 2020-2021 was. But a reliance on the numbers alone will mean a lack of understanding about what the future might hold. There are just to many unknowns.

I don’t see that as a problem. We’ve gone through a huge change. It means that some of our strategic thinking has to be thrown out. But there will be new opportunities to come, if we can embrace that change and rethink our service delivery to fit what we see emerging from our data.