The response of the NIU College of Law Library to the COVID-19 pandemic has changed over time, as we have learned more about the virus and as the needs of our patrons has changed. While we have had to make significant adjustments to our modes of service, we are providing access to information to our patrons in increasingly efficient ways.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading in Illinois in mid-March, the NIU College of Law decided to move classes completely online, and the Law Library closed its doors. As three of the law librarians are also professors of legal research, they were immediately accessible to then first-year students who had reference questions. We also changed our website to prominently feature the email address patrons could use to contact our reference librarians. Because of the uncertainty at the time about how the virus was spread, our building was locked down and physical items were not being loaned out; our librarians highly encouraged the use of our online resources.
Our library is a member of the CARLI consortium, and as spring turned to summer, the state-wide consortium moved from using the Voyager ILS with the VuFind catalog to Alma and the PrimoVE discovery system. Introducing a new discovery system is always challenging, but the skills of video creation and online collaboration our librarians had developed during the early weeks of moving to online courses served them well in assisting patrons with answering questions and aiding in information searches on the new platform.
PrimoVE has also allowed us to implement a local request service so that our patrons can request physical materials. Once a request is made, the material is pulled from the shelf, checked out to the patron, and they receive an email about when it is available for them to pick it up. The material is placed in an envelope (to protect patron privacy) and placed on a book truck just outside the library (but still inside the College of Law building) for the patron to pick up. There is another truck for returns, which we then quarantine before checking back in and returning to the shelves.
While our physical library space has not been open, just before the beginning of the fall semester there was an open study area in the College of Law building that was opened for student use. During the spring, concerns had been raised about students having access to quiet study spaces and reliable internet access. The ability to print documents, while less of a concern with online classes and assignments, was also needed. A large study area in the College of Law building was opened for student use, with most furniture removed and the remaining pieces spread out. Students are required to sign in and asked to wear masks and use provided disinfectant spray and paper towels to clean their tables before and after use. So far, this space has proven useful for several students, and the “honor system” has not been abused (no group studying or refusal to wear masks, provided cleaning materials and printer paper have not ‘disappeared’, etc.).
This fall, the law school has continued to conduct all classes in an online format, and the library is closed to patrons. The library staff each come in one day a week to serve as the “on-call” person, taking care of phone calls and immediate needs at the library. The law school’s mail is also delivered to the library twice a week, and so we serve as the pick-up spot for the rest of the College. Patrons can contact reference librarians by phone, the general library email, or by making an appointment for a Microsoft Teams meeting through our Bookings system. One of our reference librarians set up the environment for this during the summer, but we have found more use for it during the fall semester.
As we look forward to the spring semester, we continue to encourage students to utilize the variety of online resources we provide, including Westlaw, LexisNexis Digital Library, and Hein Online. While our classes will continue to meet in an online-only format, librarians will arrange meetings with individual students and groups via Microsoft Teams or via email, and our local request and interlibrary loan services will continue. Until we are safely able to open our doors again, we will find keep finding and creating alternate ways to assist patrons with their research and information needs.