The Post-COVID Library

It’s been over a year since WHO formally declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Since that time, our lives—both personal and professional—have changed. With many people working from home and the need to lessen physical contact, law libraries have had to change how they provide library services. Of these changes, which ones are likely to stick around and what are the long-term implications?

Death of the looseleaf?

I know, we’ve been predicting the death of the looseleaf for years. And yet, despite all predictions, looseleafs are still with us. Will COVID-19 be the thing that kills them off?

The value of having print looseleaf subscriptions plummeted during the pandemic. The argument for print looseleafs is that the frequent number of updates (in some cases, monthly) are valuable since they keep the materials current. (The downside being that the more frequent the updates, the more staff time is required to file them, the greater the chance for pages to get lost or misfiled, and the greater the expense.) Many libraries with print looseleaf subscriptions weren’t able to file the updates during the pandemic and, even in those libraries that were filing them, most users weren’t able to access them.

These problems were ameliorated by the fact most looseleafs are also available online; libraries had the option of switching to an online subscription if they didn’t already have one. Limited access to print looseleafs allowed libraries to assess whether they really needed that format.

Greater adoption of digital library resources by users

Unsurprisingly there has been a greater reliance on digital content and delivery in libraries over the last year. Even before 2020 online resources constituted a significant proportion of most library collections; the pandemic just accelerated the shift to digital. The number of print resources also available in an online format has dramatically increased over the last ten years. (For example in 2013, there were 19 titles on Thomson Reuters’s ProView product; today there are 358 titles.) It used to be libraries had resources in print because that was the only option; now it is because print is the most appropriate option.

One positive thing about the last twelve months has been the willingness of library users to try new formats and ways of doing things. While many library users (in my experience) prefer to use print products, even die-hard print users will use online products when print is not available.

I’ve seen a number of predictions as to how many people will return to the office once things are back to “normal” and all agree that remote work, in one form or another, is here to stay. So even if all the library staff are back in the office, there will still be a need to provide digital library resources to people working from home.

Library space continues to shrink (or disappear completely?)

Library spaces were shrinking well before COVID-19. Over the last ten years many libraries have seen their physical space decrease, in part due to shrinking physical collections (see adoption of digital resources, above) and in part to reduce the costs associated with that physical space.

Is a completely virtual library attainable? It is still tough to offer all library services digitally; many materials are only available in print and—for those materials that are available digitally—they may be too expensive to subscribe to digitally or the digital interface may be unwieldy. If you completely eradicate your library space, where do you put the materials that aren’t available electronically?

It is important to note that physical library space has a value beyond storing the library collection. In pre-pandemic times we had people using the physical library not because they needed print resources but because they found it easier to do work outside their office. It is also easier to do legislative research when you can spread all the print volumes out in front of you. While the library may get smaller, there is a definite benefit to having a physical workspace.

Greater flexibility in how publishers licence products?

During the first wave of the pandemic the publishers and vendors we work with were incredibly helpful. They offered temporary online access to those print publications that we were unable to access in our library and made it easy to flip print subscriptions over to online as needed.

Given the increased demand for flexible options in the wake of COVID-19, it will be interesting to see how publishers change how they offer digital services and licence products.

Increase in library staff working remotely

For years library professionals have been providing library services to users who could not physically access their library; now the library staff are the ones who are working remotely. There has always been a certain reluctance to let people work from home, but the last twelve months has allowed us to figure out what library staff can (and can’t do) remotely.

For law firms, a crucial element in the services the library provides is the ability to know our lawyers and other users; the downside of working remotely is that we lose a certain amount of knowledge and ability to tailor services to our users when we don’t have the same level of contact with them. While it is much easier to show users how to find and use materials in person, we can alleviate some of the loss of contact by using tools such as Share Screen in Microsoft Teams.

One benefit to working from home is that it may allow the library to offer increased hours of service; not having to be physically in the office generally makes it easier for library staff to work flexible hours.


  1. Joan Rataic-Lang

    Susannah says: “Unsurprisingly there has been a greater reliance on digital content and delivery in libraries over the last year.” Unfortunately that probably applies to medium to large law firms, but does not apply to libraries that are open to the public or with an undefined (not countable) user base. In the case courthouse libraries in Ontario that have been closed, like mine in Toronto, our users do not have access to digital content. The licenses do not permit end user access offsite, they can only access the content when in the library. The license also stipulates what the library staff can do with the electronic data. (Don’t get my started on the question of why we can photocopy pages but not download the equivalented from ProView.) so that means only the library staff can access the resources. In effect we are a public library that is not open to the public.

    Law firms can provide a head count and determine by practice areas who the users of ProView will be. This make is possible to negotiate a price and provide access. In the Toronto courthouse we cannot do that. Most lawyers do not work in firms that have the benefit of a library and staff. Many solo and small lawyers in Ontario rely on their local courthouse library. Until large publishers are willing to respond to the needs of the variety of access methods, the gaps between the haves and have nots will continue to grow.