Libraries Offer Virtual Meeting Rooms on Zoom

With most library buildings temporarily closed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, some libraries are combining the need for meeting space with the shift to digital service delivery.

Screenshot of eight staff from the Schlow Centre Region Library in a virtual meeting using the Zoom platform
Staff at the Schlow Centre Region Library in State College, PA, including the Children's department seen here, use Zoom for meetings, and are also providing Zoom rooms for patron meetings.

In the past few years, the importance of libraries providing community meeting space has greatly increased, with virtually every new renovation or construction dramatically increasing the proportion of spaces that can be used for tutoring sessions, group study, community organizations, coworking, and more. With most library buildings temporarily closed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, some libraries are combining the need for meeting space with the shift to digital service delivery.

Use of the Zoom video communications platform has exploded in recent weeks as people look for ways to carry out work from home or connect with loved ones they're unable to physically visit. In addition to using Zoom to provide virtual programming and reference chats, some librarians are offering Zoom room reservations as a service.

One that embraced the platform immediately is the Schlow Centre Region Library in State College, PA. As Head of IT Services Nathaniel Rasmussen explained, since the library already been using a virtual solution for staff meetings, this was a good opportunity to advance the conversation from increasing capacity for staff to expanding service to the public.

"A couple of patrons had reached out to us asking us if we had this type of capability," Rasmussen says. "We organized a quick meeting with community leaders, including the head of our local community foundation, and they embraced the idea right away."

Schlow chose a Zoom solution through a business-level license purchased via TechSoup, both because of the available options like large participant numbers and ease of use, and because TechSoup offers public libraries a discounted rate. The Pennsylvania-based non-profit Centre Foundation, which funds various Schlow initiatives, agreed to cover the costs for the program. Rasmussen explains this kind of targeted funding request may be promising for other libraries that are interested in developing a similar program.

"It seems like a type of acute need, specific to the crisis," he says. "That could attract funding sources from other organizations that want to help."

The Schlow team deployed its Zoom virtual community room service rapidly, developing training and workflow materials for staff and building resources and help-points for patrons. The goal was to create a useful service as best as possible, with an understanding that once it rolled out, they'd be prepared to address challenges as they appear.

"When we were talking about this two weeks ago, we were talking about how fast could we move, how quickly could we do it," Maria Burchill, Head of Adult Services, explains. "Speed for us was key in implementing service."

To help ensure the service is used by its local community, users who register for a virtual meeting room must have a Schlow library card. Meetings are available weekdays during morning and afternoon/early-evening hours, with reservations capped at two-hours per meeting, and two meetings per group per month.

The team has adapted the physical meeting room requirements for the virtual realm, allowing semi-private gatherings and business meetings. A library staff member is on hand just prior to the start of a meeting to address technical questions and hand over meeting controls before exiting the room, and IT staff are also on standby.

More libraries are likely to turn to Zoom as shelter in place expands and continues. Estes Valley Library in Estes Park, CO, for instance, is also providing its own Zoom room for meetings, and is offering its patrons general help in setting up and navigating the platform, as well.

What's most important going forward, Schlow's Rasmussen notes, is that libraries communicate with each other about best practices. "Librarians are typically very good at sharing their know-how," he says. "The key thing at this point is to be quick and proactive and share as much as you can. Act boldly, and don't be afraid of it because it's something new."

MANAGING RISKS

While the service fills an important need, Zoom is not a perfect platform, as has been receiving increased mainstream media attention lately. "We're definitely concerned about security and privacy," Rasmussen says. "We want to put some of that information out there for people."

If Zoom is the best available option for an institution's needs and budget, then Gennie Gebhart, Associate Director of Research at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, recommends libraries take steps to mitigate risks, and ensure their communities know what they're doing.

"The most important things to communicate are that libraries are aware of all these privacy headlines in the news, and then all the things they're doing to address them," she says. "We can't make the risks go away 100 percent, but we can take some really good steps to lower them."

Some of the things libraries providing Zoom rooms for patron use can do to make them more secure—and less at risk of "Zoom bombing" by internet trolls—include requiring meeting passwords that patrons can share only with their meeting participants (and making them numeric when meetings will include participants by phone), not openly publicizing links to meetings (because the password may be part of those URLs), and disabling screen sharing by participants. Other options include requiring participants to be registered Zoom users who must log in to attend, and enabling the waiting room feature so participants can be screened before entering a meeting.

"For public libraries, that might not be in the spirit of trying to allow people to use these resources freely and openly," Gebhart says. "But it's a place to introduce friction if you want to make sure you're not stuck with randos dropping in, or even just to give the people running the meeting a bit more control over how they're administering it."

There are also some Zoom options that libraries can disable to help protect patrons' privacy: Ensure that both the auto-saving of chats and the attention tracking feature is turned off for all rooms.

"Librarians are so often the resident tool users and tool assessors," says Gebhart. "They know better than anyone that every tool comes with trade-offs. There's no such thing as a perfect tool that's going to work for everyone, or that's going to work for everyone in the way you envisioned it."

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