Update from the Nov, 2019 Roundtable on Law Library Service Provision During COVID-19

On November 24, 2020, ELLA hosted an online (of course) roundtable to hear from law librarians in different sectors. The following reports were provided by the University of Alberta Library, Alberta Law Libraries, and McLennan Ross LLP.

The University of Alberta Library (UAL) was represented by Christine Brown, Head, Faculty Engagement (Humanities, Social Sciences & Law), Library and Museums and Faculté Saint-Jean.  She gave a detailed overview of the services that they have been able to provide their users from March to November of this year.  The Library had to align with the policies and procedures of the University as a whole, in response to Alberta Health Services (AHS) guidelines, and librarians were integrated into various campus-wide planning and response teams.  The U of A campus closed its buildings in March, with the directive for everyone to work and study from home, and libraries were no exception. Minimal services and functions continued on campus for those with access cards/keys.

Implementing the closures was difficult, in part due to the insistence of some Faculty and students that they have access to the physical collections.  Fortunately, UAL provided access to many online resources and Open Educational Resources (OER). UAL was also one of many institutions that signed up for HathiTrust Digital Library’s Emergency Temporary Access Service, which allows digital access to print materials held by UAL where a copy exists in HathiTrust. This meant that anything available digitally in HathiTrust was not permitted to be loaned out physically. As well, many Law Faculty who were used to having 24 hour swipe-access to the John A Weir Memorial Law Library, were understandably upset  with having their access restricted due to, the pandemic and the Hathitrust contract.  The Dean was supportive of the library in these matters, and curbside service (for any physical items not held in the HathiTrust Digital Library) was established to mitigate this loss of access.

Additional library staff were added to the team providing the well-established online chat service.  As well, the U of A had already been experimenting with online training using Google Meet, and this was continued and expanded.  In early July, curbside pick up was offered, initially with existing staff members providing this, but then with students being added to the roster, later.  Books were given an open-ended due date, as initially no returns were permitted during the closure.  When materials could be returned, they were quarantined for 72 hours before processing, but no fines were assessed, and are still not being assessed; it would be more work to collect these fines than it would be worth.  In early July, space for studying, as well as access to printers were also opened up, but needed to be booked in advance; neither of these services were heavily used.  In the fall, when some of the NEOS consortium libraries re-opened their physical libraries, further services were offered at the U of A by appointment, including Special Collections and U of A Archives. 

COVID-19 struck, inconveniently enough, during a time of significant budget cuts and restrictions which impacted the entire university and precipitated the closure of two libraries on campus, the Winspear Business Library in May, and the H T Coutts (Education) Library in June.  This added another layer of stress for all concerned. Library managers made a special effort to keep staff connected and supported, including through informal online coffee gatherings.  Communication was key in making the transitions as smooth as possible and they will continue to improve on this, both externally and with their clients!

Kirk MacLeod, Team Lead, North at Alberta Law Libraries (ALL) explained the path that his library, and other branches province-wide, took in response to COVID-19; this service path made a few more bends along the way than did that of the U of A.  The status of the ALL libraries and their service to the Bar and the Public have been posted to the blog, Stay Current, and will continue to be updated as the situation develops. Also, direct communication was made to Law Society Members, and similar communications were conveyed to the other clients of Alberta Law Libraries, including the Judiciary, the Crown, and Department of Justice Lawyers, though they continued to have access to their physical library collections throughout.  

ALL, just like UAL, had to align with the guidelines of their parent organization, the Alberta Courts.  In mid-March, staff were sent home abruptly and the doors were closed for a couple of weeks, with staff working from home, providing electronic document delivery (for which the fees were waived during their entire closure), research, reference and remote training, requests being taken by email, online form and phone call.  Physical loans were put on hiatus from any of the public-facing libraries, though the judicial & Crown libraries continued to circulate books.  A roster of skeleton staffing in both Calgary and Edmonton was set up to provide access to the physical collection, should a document only be available in print, and need to be scanned. Due dates on materials signed out to registered library members, Law Society of Alberta (LSA) members were extended, and then extended again later, and fines were waived during the entire closure.  

LSA were also reminded that of the array of online resources that were available to them remotely, and more resources were added to the collection, notably a permanent addition, Emond’s Criminal Law Series, and temporarily, two key legal databases, WestlawNext Canada and Lexis Advance Quicklaw, which normally can only be accessed at the ALL locations. These databases were available for a day at a time when requested, and this service was discontinued once ALL’s doors to the public-facing libraries opened.  At some of the branches, LSA members had a hard time accepting that they were not permitted access to the library. Kirk reached out to other Law Society libraries across the country and found that they were dealing with closure and service in similar manners.

In June, ALL implemented a form of curbside pickup within the courthouse during restricted hours (10:00-3:00), and more staff per day took turns working on site to provide this service.  A Pathway to Reopening was released via ALL’s blog.  Books still did not have to be returned, and were not accruing fines, though starting in mid-July, ALL did start receiving returns via a cart just outside of the library; these materials were quarantined for 72 hours before being reshelved (this quarantining of returned materials continued after the doors reopened).  At the end of August, all staff were back onsite full time, and ALL opened its doors again, following AHS restrictions of a limited number of people adjusting for space, masks, distancing, and handwashing, as well as regular surface sanitizing, (this by an outside agency).  Access to the stacks was restricted for the first few weeks. After reopening the public-facing library locations, they only received payment for fines and services by credit or debit card or by e-transfer and no longer accepted cash or cheques.  Plastic shields were also added to the service desk.  By mid-September, document delivery fees were reinstated, the stacks were opened and overdue fines, outside of the closure dates, plus a generous margin, were charged, again.  The stacks were opened, without restriction, but the counsel rooms remain closed and only a limited number of carrels are available.  A few public computer stations were closed to allow for adequate space between clients.

Dolores Noga of McLennan Ross LLP provided an overview of the services offered by her firm’s library during the first months of COVID-19.  Law firms were declared essential services early in the pandemic, but as many staff members as possible were asked to work from home as much as possible, including the library staff. Dolores, already worked one day per week from home, so this transition was easily made. The librarians worked one day a week on site and four offsite March through May, two days on site starting in June, but Dolores returned full-time onsite once the articling students joined the firm in September to assist with  onboarding, while adhering to AHS guidelines of handwashing, distancing and wearing masks. The librarians returned to working onsite approximately half-time for October and early November.  In mid-November everyone was asked to work full-time from home.  Dolores noted that working from home was more easily done by those who didn’t have dependents.  

Work that they have been doing, providing online libraries and databases, as well as the KM work on a precedent and memo database helped greatly in providing and expanding these services during this period.  More of their lawyers became open to using more electronic resources and developed their research skills. Another librarian in the firm produced procedure manuals to assist with this. The work never slowed down!  The library ramped up online training, using Webex, as well as their social media involvement.  Dolores mentioned that they modestly  increased their collections budget, as they needed to purchase some materials that they normally may have borrowed through interlibrary loans,  The University of Saskatchewan was an appreciated and notable exception regarding ILL.  Many of the clients took to e-services more quickly than they may have in the past, but some materials were either not available online or were much preferred in print by their clients; the McLennan Ross library fills these requests as often as possible, as part of their client-responsiveness. The purchase of materials was complicated by the vendors not taking phone calls during much of this period, and taking up to a week to respond to emails, as they adjusted to the new COVID realities, as well.  

At the time of writing this summary (mid December), there have been further AHS restrictions introduced, and libraries which had been open, including Alberta Law Libraries, had to close their physical locations to clients, again.  Libraries have been “pivot pros” for years, responding to budget cuts and technological advancement, among other things, and this pandemic is no exception.  Though there were variations between the service models presented, the primary concerns of all of the law libraries were for the health and safety of both their staff and clients, while maintaining as high a level of service as possible, under the circumstances.  And they will continue to do so in the months to come…it’s not over, yet!

This entry was posted in General ELLA Announcements, Home Page, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.