What does the Harvard Law School Library evoke for you? Is it the high ceilings, large portraits, and wooden tables of Langdell Hall’s reading room? The new glass paneled collaboration spaces on the second floor? Your favorite study carrel? A helpful librarian pointing you toward the perfect resource?

Since going remote in March, the Harvard Law School Library—the largest academic law library in the world with over 2 million volumes—has had to rethink what it means to provide services to its community, with a closed building bringing collections and all other work entirely online. As HLS gears up for a fully remote semester in the fall, the library staff is continuing to work together to imagine a new kind of library that meets the needs of its patrons.

As soon as the pandemic necessitated the library’s physical closure, Executive Director Jocelyn Kennedy and Associate Director Kevin Garewal began working to ensure relatively uninterrupted service—particularly to students. “We started focusing on how we would make our collections available to patrons, which was our primary concern,” says Kennedy.

The library homed in primarily on digitizing the print course reserves that students could no longer access in the building and permanent collections with high circulation. Multiple library departments collaborated to gather past circulation statistics to determine a workflow, starting with a small team working methodically from spreadsheets and data from the past few years. At the same time, the Collections Team worked with major legal vendors like Wolters Kluwer and Lexis to encourage them to make their collections available to students.

“We were one of a small group of libraries to begin reaching out early to the vendors, working with them to figure out how they could open up their online platforms to our students,” says Kennedy. “This early outreach helped to get vendors to really think about the ramifications of the situation and provide more free and open access for both Harvard Law students and law students across the country.”

At the same time, other library staff partnered with colleagues from multiple departments across the law school to assemble resources and lead classes on remote teaching and to help faculty, students and staff to navigate this new environment.

In some ways, this has been a dividend on a more than decade long investment by the library in digitization of materials unique to the library.

Jonathan Zittrain, Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources

“Every single faculty member we engaged with just wanted to do right by the students. The faculty wanted to be able to go into the classroom and give the students what they deserved in an educational experience,” says Kennedy. Working long days, the team created documentation to support the academic life of the community, from library research guides to FAQs to instructional videos. “Every day we learned something new from the questions that were asked,” says Kennedy.

“The team just kept growing,” says Garewal, “We were focused on getting the intellectual works to the students and the faculty so the academic parts of their life wouldn’t be disrupted.”

This provided an opportunity for departments to work together in unexpected ways. “The place that you work can be a community when people come together with a common goal and a common objective,” says Kennedy.

A major piece of the library’s success has been a strong digitization program, previously led by Steve Chapman, who retired in January. HLS Professor Jonathan Zittrain ’95, vice dean for library and information resources, agrees. “In some ways, this has been a dividend on a more than decade long investment by the library in digitization of materials unique to the library.”

Digital suites like Caselaw Access Project and the Nuremberg Trials Project are keystones for the library. “We were at an advantage over other law schools in the country because that is part of the work that we do. We had the team in place and people are familiar with digital protocols to think quickly about how to execute into online space,” says Kennedy.

Through the summer and into the fall semester, the library will continue to serve the HLS community, conducting virtual reference consultations, locating digital copies of library materials, working with the school and university on safety protocols, and helping 1L students feel more connected to their new life as law students. For Kennedy, the message is simple: “We’re here for you.” Zittrain agrees, “If there is any way for research materials to be found, librarians will find it, bringing a sense of mission that’s not just one of job or career, but of calling. If there is any way to make it work, they’ll make it work.”