Interviews with Law Libraries in Puerto Rico and Recommendations for the Future

COVID-19 Reports on Latin America and the Caribbean: No. 34 (En Español)

As part of our new normal, social distancing as a COVID-19 preventive measure has created considerable challenges to all levels of society. The arrival of the pandemic has rapidly introduced changes in technology which have not been easy to integrate. A few law librarians in Puerto Rico have not become accustomed to the absence of public, and they can’t bring themselves to completely substitute face-to-face services. Nevertheless, law librarians on the island also recognize the opportunity to increase services in both their format as well as access. In some instances, it has been necessary to increase services to communities which were not previously reached and to international users as well. As in other libraries around the world, a significant increase in the usage of electronic resources was observed as well as more training to students using databases and other online resources. Furthermore, librarians have been able to find much-needed training and to develop new skills to better manage communication tools not previously used. This particular training represents a clear opportunity to reach out to other users and to expand library services.

In this report, we will highlight the incredible work of several law libraries in Puerto Rico, both academic and governmental. Despite the fact that some of them have not yet reopened to the general public, they are still offering virtual services. In general, the difficulties due to the pandemic can’t be underestimated. However, it is also critically important to recognize the opportunities which will allow law libraries in Puerto Rico to pursue future projects to the great benefit of their respective institutions and the essential services offered to all users.

University of Puerto Rico Law Library

The University of Puerto Rico Law Library is a specialized academic entity which serves mainly a community of students and professors from the Law School at the Río Piedras Campus as well as external users. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the library closed its doors to face-to-face services without ever discontinuing services.

As part of its virtual services, the Law Library has supported information requests through email, chat reference services, electronic forms, video conference on Zoom, Google Meet, Messenger and other platforms. For the virtual reference services, “Ask Your Librarian” (“Pregúntale a Tu Bibliotecario” in Spanish) uses OS Tickets with electronic forms and LibAnswers as chat platform and recently video conference through Zoom. The librarians also offered inter-library loans as well as sending photocopies when needed.

Since August 2020, the Law Library began to offer limited face-to-face services which include book loans, “bookpulling” of magazines and digitization of print materials while applying copyright restrictions. A system of appointments was implemented through the LibCal platform, which allows the librarians to control the amount of students entering and leaving the premises. Library personnel also needs to observe health and sanitary protocols when checking out and receiving materials. The use of face masks, hand sanitizers and hand washing are mandatory for all staff and users.

Other services offered at the law library during the pandemic included training on how to better manage and how to take full advantage of the pedagogical, technological and communication tools to better serve the law school, students and the community in general. Managing individual accounts on multiple platforms such as Lexis, Westlaw and Microjuris was also maintained as well as solving numerous issues from students and faculty. The tools used to organize and manage meetings and communicate events were Google Forms, Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Streamyard. Some trainings were recorded and uploaded to our Youtube channel available 24/7.

Fremiot Torres Oliver Law Library, Catholic University of Puerto Rico

The Fremiot Torres Oliver Law Library belongs to a private academic institution and it serves primarily patrons from the Catholic University of Puerto Rico as well as the public in general. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the law library remained closed until June 2020 when staff returned to the premises to offer only virtual services. Occasionally, professors are allowed inside the library. However, this is not a recurrent practice at the moment.

Library requests for services are received mostly via email. Some of the services offered include sending photocopies, internal inter-library loans among the different libraries located in several campuses belonging to the Catholic University and access to databases through its Virtual Library. Users can also consult numerous open access resources available in the same Virtual Library.

Domingo Toledo Álamo Information Access Center, Interamerican University Law School

The Information Access Center (Centro de Acceso a la Información, CAI in Spanish) at the Interamerican University Law School serves the university community belonging to the institution. Since the beginning of the pandemic, it has offered virtual services via email, virtual rooms and phone. The library also offers tutorials on the use of multiple databases through Genially.

Since June 2020, loans of print books have been offered through car service. Users must request the materials via email and the books are handed out in the university’s parking area. Once books have been returned, these are quarantined for 14 days. Recently, the institution has approved a protocol to begin allowing entry to a limited number of students while respecting social distancing. Access to the library will require a confirmed appointment. Seats at the library will be numbered and safely distanced from each other. Interactions will not be allowed. Once spaces have been used, these will be disinfected and the chairs will be changed. This new protocol should be implemented in the coming months.

Supreme Court of Puerto Rico Library

The Supreme Court of Puerto Rico Library provides primarily services to judges and judicial staff concerning issues presented to the courts in the island. At the beginning of the pandemic, the library only offered services to judicial personnel via private phones. At the end of March 2020, laptops were provided to court employees in order to provide library services remotely to the public. By May 2020, the library had changed its schedule to virtual services twice a week and face-to-face services the rest of the week.  

Virtual services include helping with requests either via phone or email. The library’s homepage hosts the court’s decisions since 1998 to present. They are also using both Skype and Microsoft Teams for trainings and meetings. Face-to-face services include photocopying and scanning of documents for court employees and the public in general, inter-library loans and book loans limited to personnel from the different courts. At the same time, space is provided to court employees in order to pursue their investigations. Face-to-face services require preventive health measures such as taking body temperature, hand washing, disinfecting used areas with alcohol and using face masks.

Court of Appeals of Puerto Rico Library

The Court of Appeals Library provides services primarily to judges, court personnel and staff. Since the beginning of COVID-19, face-to-face services have been interrupted, although not the virtual ones. On June 2020, the library reopened thanks to safety measures, as recommended by government authorities. Despite its physical reopening, they have continued offering remote services by phone as well as sending requested copies via email. Interlibrary loan services have become more robust and available only to staff from the Court of Appeals. The main page of the Court of Appeals includes various electronic resources as well as a database of its decisions published since 2015 onwards. Currently, the physical space usually designated for work and investigations is not available.

As part of their services, the library also offers face-to-face training to new judges or court staff on databases while making sure all necessary precautions are followed. Using face masks, washing your hands and disinfecting work spaces are all mandatory.

Court of First Instance of Puerto Rico Library

The libraries of the Court of First Instance of Puerto Rico provide information services to judges, court officials and the public from the thirteen judicial regions throughout the island. As soon as the pandemic was declared and the government shutdown was enacted, the libraries discontinued their face-to-face services and solely maintained virtual services. During the first months, services were limited to only court personnel. On May 2020, the libraries began to offer services to the public in general via email and phone. Part of the available services includes sending photocopies.

Face-to-face services include loans of print materials, currently only to judges. Any other person who wishes to consult any print materials needs to visit the libraries’ physical premises. Since July 2020, limited physical spaces or rooms are available in various judicial centers by appointment. Health and sanitary measures include the use of face masks, taking body temperature and disinfecting spaces as well as installing plexiglass panels.

Recommendations

Based on the current state, experiences and practices observed in various law libraries in Puerto Rico to maintain services, we offer the following recommendations as a starting point in our conversation:

  • Strengthening virtual reference services – In times of social distancing, virtual reference represents one of the library services which have taken a significant importance when it comes to continuing to respond to the information needs of all users. Virtual reference won’t depend solely on the previously assigned team. It will also require available electronic resources (databases, online catalogs, educational resources, repositories, open access, instructional manuals), communication tools (chat, email, electronic forms, video conference) and guidelines regulating these workflows.
  • Creating repositories or video channels – Some of the best educational tools available to all libraries are institutional repositories and video platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo. When it comes to academic institutions, it is preferable that these electronic resources are available publicly and that they are easily accessible through various access points in order to reach out to the largest amount of users.
  • Creating multiple channels of communication – With the pandemic, a significant amount of either free or for pay alternatives to face-to-face synchronous communication offer a perfect opportunity to diversify channels of communication. Some of these alternatives are Google Meet, Zoom, Microsoft Team, Skype, Streamyard and Messenger among others. This is the time to take advantage of these current technologies and how to apply them in our libraries.

Services through synchronous communication, different channels of communication, educational materials, dynamic information and clear guides about information resources are the tools we need to continue building upon and to keep our libraries alive online. We must be creative information professionals and to put forward recommendations and solutions which are both modern and innovative in order to improve our library services. We must continue to strengthen our practices and processes which sustain our services regardless of the crisis we might face in the future.

By Samuel Serrano and Jeannette Lebrón

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