Keeping the lights on at the Library of Congress

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It’s name conjures up quiet corridors, dim light, and a slow pace. But the Library of Congress is a busy place, performing a lot of the research and providing much of the insight sought by members. So how is this old institution faring in the great crisis? Here to take listeners behind the scenes, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke to the LOC’s director of communications, April Slayton.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Slayton, good to have you on.

April Slayton: Thanks, Tom. It’s great to join you.

Tom Temin: So tell us how you are operating. I know that there’s lots of visitors that come through the library, but also all of this activity by members of Congress every day. I guess there’s no visitors. But how’s it working with the Congress?

April Slayton: That’s right, Tom. You know, the library is usually such a busy and bustling place. And we’re continuing to keep up that kind of a pace, but in a remote way. The majority of the library’s staff are teleworking at the moment with a very limited number of employees who are performing critical responsibilities that can’t be accomplished remotely, who are coming into the buildings, but that’s a very low number, and the majority of staff really are accomplishing their work remotely through telework. And that includes our Congressional Research Service staff, who continue to provide the full range of services to Congress.

Tom Temin: How many people do you think are teleworking for the LOC and the CRS altogether?

April Slayton: Right now, we’ve had as many as 4,000 concurrent users on our VPN network, which allows our employees to connect to the library’s email and other file servers. So while we probably don’t have 4,000 users at a time, it may be multiple devices. I’d say we have several thousand employees at any given time who are working remotely during this period.

Tom Temin: And did you have a continuity of operations plan that would anticipate possibly everybody not being able to get in?

April Slayton: We did. There’s definitely a very solid continuity of operations plan for the library. However, it’s not a one size fits all in this case where we’re not in an emergency that requires only critical operations. Our goal with this period was really not just to complete the essential work, but also to allow employees who are doing other really important things that are not considered critical under a continuity of operation plan to have access and availability. And the opportunity is so large to invite the public to enjoy some of our research and resources during this period, that it was really important that we not think of this purely as a continuity of operations situation.

Tom Temin: Got it. Sure, because I think you have programs where the public can look at documents and help you translate and otherwise see old written materials and try to put them into text format. All of those programs still going.

April Slayton: Absolutely. And really, we have a large number of public programs where we invite people to come to the library. One of our goals has been to extend beyond our building’s walls more broadly to the public. And this has actually been a great opportunity to exercise those muscles and provide programming that’s available online and digitally to people who are would-be visited from around the country. We did a great book talk last night – National Book Festival presents in a virtual way – with author John Berry who wrote the 1918 book on the pandemic. So he was in conversation with our National Book Festival co Chairman David Rubenstein. And we published that and promoted it on our social media channels. It’s available on our website. So we’re trying to reach people in a variety of ways during this period and provide the kinds of compelling content that we would provide in person on a regular basis.

Tom Temin: Now that machinery was already in place to serve the public. So I guess it was a matter of the people that would normally be, maybe sitting somewhere in the library on the main network operating it, had to do the operation of it remotely. Is that a good way to describe it?

April Slayton: That’s right. Our IT staff and our multimedia group have had to think differently about how we prepare for and present programming to the public and they’ve just done phenomenal work in making sure that we have the tools and the methods that we need to be able to rapidly bring this kind of content virtually to a really wide audience.

Tom Temin: And just out of curiosity, where was David Rubenstein sitting when he was doing this interview and the author?

April Slayton: I believe they were both in their home offices. We accomplished it using an online communications platform. So they were able to do it from their homes. A lot of us are doing a lot of remote meetings. And it may not look as professional and perfect as it might if we were all in studio or in the auditoriums we have at the library, but it’s kind of an authentic look inside the authors and presenters, homes and offices and it adds a little something interesting and intimate to the experience during this time.

Tom Temin: Sure. We’re speaking with April Slayton, she is the Library of Congress’s director of communications. And let’s talk about the CRS, which is getting the inbound requests from members of Congress, who themselves are all over the place right now. So how are things working there and what kinds of combinations have you made there to keep going?

April Slayton: Most of the time CRS staff are working remotely and are up and running. They’re providing the full range of services to members of Congress with virtual briefings. Instead of in-person briefings, they can – commerce.gov, which is the main search engine and the center of information sharing for CRS – is operating without any interruption. Twice a month they’re doing their regular webinars with congressional staff. And they’ve published 153 new written reports during this period and they’ve updated another 192. So they are well at work and very busy and supporting Congress virtually with the same passion that they would in person.

Tom Temin: And just in a given week or a given set of projects, how much do they actually access written documents like books, and how much of what they do is pretty much all online to begin with?

April Slayton: You know, it depends on the issue and what the researcher is working on, but many of them have access to virtual resources. Some have occasionally been able to come into the building just to retrieve specific information for a report or piece of literature that they need in order to work on it in hardcopy, but a remarkable amount is available online. And it’s giving our staff an opportunity to think creatively about how they identify and develop the content that they’re working on.

Tom Temin: And did everybody have a laptop with a camera and so on to begin with? Or is this something you had the issue with the last minute?

April Slayton: Many employees did have laptops but not all. Since the beginning of March, our IT staff have configured and distributed about 400 new laptops to help staff who haven’t traditionally teleworked, and we’re continuing to increase that number, as we have the availability of additional laptop computers. So it’s an ongoing process for employees who didn’t traditionally telework, but we’re settling making progress to bringing more employees online and able to telework.

Tom Temin: And so you’re letting them know that it’s okay if the dog barks or a child runs behind the camera for a minute.

April Slayton: It happens quite a lot. It happens here at home. And it’s an OK way to balance everything. This is a complicated and unusual time and employees are all having to make modifications. The library has developed some policy to support employees during this period for that very purpose. And I think staff are thinking differently. There’s an energy and excitement about being able to find ways to connect with our audiences during this time. And I’ve been really amazed to see the remarkable suite of opportunities we’ve been able to create and share with the public during this time.

Tom Temin: What are some of the elements of that policy that might be useful to other federal agencies? I think a lot of people are still in catch up mode here.

April Slayton: It sure seems like it’s an evolving process as we go. The library has developed policies that allow staff who were not teleworking before this period to have the flexability to telework as often as they can. We’ve developed new projects, including by the people transcribing, that employees can work on when they have time available during telework. If they can’t accomplish their full 40 hours using telework, we’ve implemented flexibilities and for a limited time administrative leave up to 20 hours per pay period for employees who are trying to balance child care or elder care with their daily routines. And we’ve instituted flexibility for scheduling so that employees can work outside of core hours as early as 6 am. And as late as 9 pm, in order to work in their hours and also meet their other obligations.

Tom Temin: Interesting. And on the IT side does the Library of Congress have its own IT staff and CIO or tell us about the support there?

April Slayton: Absolutely. Our CIOs office really has been working around the clock to make this all possible. The network that connects our employees to their email and others resources has supported an 800% increase in daily workers on the remote side. And they have a pandemic IT tiger team, which is focused on doubling our available bandwidth for those remote workers. They’re also responding very quickly to any changes in network availability. And responding to hundreds of IT help desk support calls per day. So they’ve really stepped it up and made sure that employees have that conductivity that they need to do their work under really different circumstances, which has been wonderful.

Tom Temin: And have you had feedback from either members of Congress or the LOC staff on how they think it’s going?

April Slayton: We’re hearing from staff that they feel very proud to be able to continue their work. We get questions very regularly, and try to answer those through daily all-employee messages that we’re sending to keep staff updated on health, on policy, and on other issues that are really important to them. To feel connected to the larger library community during this remote period. We’ve had great feedback that people appreciate that regular source of communication. We’ve heard from members of Congress, that they’re very excited about some of the programming we’re able to continue. They’ve been impressed with the level of service they’ve received. The briefings are ongoing and regular. And we’re working to make sure that members of Congress can share with their constituents some of the engaging content that we’re able to provide online. So there’s been great feedback in all those areas.

Tom Temin: And the final question, of course, there are lots of physical resources and I’ve been in some of those reading rooms that the public doesn’t see as much and the stacks at the library. There must be somebody going into make sure there’s no water pipes leaking, and no broken windows and nothing falling off the shelves.

April Slayton: Yes, we absolutely have a critical core team who continue to report to the library and make sure that the books and research sources that we have are maintained well. We’ve also worked closely with the U.S. Capitol Police to provide our security. They’ve been an incredible support during this time, and ensuring that everything is secure and well cared for while most of the staff are out of the office.

Tom Temin: April Slayton is director of communications at the Library of Congress. Thanks so much for joining me.

April Slayton: Thanks, Tom.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at www.federalnewsnetwork.com/FederalDrive. Check out the Federal Drive on demand. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Podcastone. Stay up to date on your agency’s atest responses to coronavirus visit our special resources page at www.federalnewsnetwork.com.