It’s Friday. Well, not when I’m writing this but … anyway. I’ve had a couple of things rattling around in my head that didn’t really fit anywhere else. One is an idea I’m starting to rough out a little bit for our law library. Another is something that other libraries have done that I want to emulate in spirit. One is just a “how would that work” idea.
Thinking Outside the Physical Box
This is an easy one. Amplify your in-building wireless when your physical access is closed. Google “wireless parking lots ‘public library’” for plenty of results. I like the Cuyahoga (OH) public libraries ensuring they’re measuring the parking lot wifi usage: 30,000 users since mid-March.
It is not uncommon for law libraries to have subscription licenses that are tied to physical premises. You need to be in the library to use the database. Amplifying your signal so it reaches your parking lot after hours is a great idea.
Law libraries could do the same thing. First, change the language in new negotiations with legal publishers so that the license can be used on the container and space around the law library. This might all be the law library’s property; it might be the courthouse and courthouse grounds. It might be county space at such-and-so an address.
Our organization locked down our wireless after the Toronto Raptors won the NBA final. The crowds celebrated in the nearby Nathan Phillips Square and many found the unsecured corporate wireless network.
If one of the things law libraries are valued for is their access to information, there’s no reason for us to limit that provision with closed doors. There was an interesting academic library director’s research paper published recently by Ithaka. It highlighted a disconnect between what the directors and faculty felt was important. The audience often values our ability to deliver content above all other functions.
Amplified wireless could be site limited. If the intention is to make legal research tools available after hours, to people in proximity to the library, then the network access could filter out requests to other sites. We can do this when we provide kiosk mode to patrons so there’s no reason not to do it when we provide the network and the patron provides the device.
Amplifying wireless without a parking lot probably wouldn’t work in a pandemic. The individual cars allow separation that you may not otherwise be able to achieve. But not every crisis is viral. And if you can do this during an emergency, why wouldn’t you encourage people to do it all year, around the clock, when you’re not open?
I’m thinking about having our law library buy a robot. In particular, a telepresence robot. More granularly, something on wheels that has a video capability but does not have a touchscreen or keyboard.
I’d heard of these being used at conferences, to enable people to attend who couldn’t physically be there. I can see many uses in a law library, especially if there is a need to maintain social distancing.
The librarian controlling the robot could have video reference interactions with researchers. I’m not a fan of doing that remotely, but it’s different when you control both endpoints. A mobile device could also handle directional questions. It could roll to a location to show where a particular part of the collection was.
You could place it in the entrance of the library to catch early questions, as these devices are often used in reception area contexts. If you have a multi-story library, you could position it on a unstaffed floor. If you work in a secure courthouse, you could have it operate outside the law library’s walls, perhaps after people have passed through security.
Just as importantly, the librarian need not be present in the library. If we are social distancing with clients, we are also social distancing with co-workers. If I can deploy a reference librarian into the library, and have another one interact with patrons through telepresence from another location (home, wherever), I’m able to keep everyone involved. A telepresence robot may allow me to maximize the use of our most valuable resource, our people.
From a hiring standpoint, it would allow me to hire from anywhere. That reference librarian could control that robot from anywhere. This would increase my hiring pool, potentially accessing a more diverse pool than currently lives in proximity to the library.
A library system that has unstaffed locations could use something like this as well. If you could place robots in other locations – unstaffed courthouse law library space, public library law collection space – you could have a remote librarian assigned to a broad geographic space. It would avoid a law librarian having to drive to multiple locations or even live near any of them. You could also do this with static video kiosks, so long as there’s no movement required.
The biggest hurdle will be perception, I think. These devices don’t cost a lot. But they may seem frivolous in this time of layoffs and cutbacks. I asked about that aspect today in a management meeting, because I wanted to get a sense of whether now is the time to innovate. I think it is, if only because we haven’t quite sorted out coronavirus yet.
Big Phone Boxes
Picture a red metal British phone box. Solid. Private. Outdoors. It seems to be an ideal out-of-library experience. Take out the phone. Put a touchscreen and input tools (voice activation?) in and you can start to picture it as a virtual law library tool.
A kiosk, you say. Yes, and ….
Kiosks are common in courthouses now. They help people complete and file forms. The reason I think of phone boxes is because you could put them outside the law library, possibly outside the courthouse. The phone box is secure. The device inside it could be secured. They are individual, so for social distancing, it would be easy to have a couple of similar cubicles adjacent to each other without the people involved having to share space.
Drawbacks include having to have some way to wipe them down and keep them sterile. I once went to a local university’s computer lab, used a keyboard, and was sick the next day. I don’t think it was a coincidence.
They’re also not accessible. You’d have to have something large enough for people with mobility challenges to be able to navigate.
But you could picture how a public law library might utilize some sort of enclosed container to make the law library accessible without requiring physical adjacency.
Theft. Misuse, especially if the video portion allows a researcher to feel the anonymity to expose themselves. Damage and vandalism.
There are lots of reasons – and challenges – to avoid providing technology that is not under the control or the watchful eye of staff. But we’re comfortable with book dispensers and other service points outside libraries. And we manage with abuse that happens within our space too.
Chaotic times like those we’re in may offer opportunities for us to do things we’d normally feel weren’t possible. We’d be told no. We’d be denied funding. We’d be considered frivolous. But this summer may offer us a perfect time to push a bit harder, to take advantage of the general bewilderment. We may find new service methods and services by doing so.