The UT Libraries wants you to know that even though spaces on campus may be closed, our work continues.
The challenges that libraries have been continuously addressing for some 30 years in a migration from the analog to digital experienced some artificial timeline compression as the university was forced to rapidly migrate operations to a mostly online presence in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the temporary shuttering of university operations.
“We moved 100% of our 200+ member staff from their campus work locations to a work-from-home arrangement, and started making similar arrangements for many of our 200+ student employees – in two weeks,” explains Vice Provost and Directore Lorraine J. Haricombe. “This required an intense rapid planning effort by supervisors, managers and leadership in conjunction with the entire staff.”
After the university announced it’s return plan, it was all-hands-on-deck to try to support the massive campus transition to a completely different format, and that included much of the day-to-day work happening at the Libraries.
“The University’s abrupt shift to fully online instruction, along with our complete relocation of work environments, created challenges across all of our core divisions,” explains Haricombe, “but as key partners in ensuring academic continuity during this pandemic, our librarians and staff moved quickly to provide essential services online, while also extending our reach into support for online teaching and learning.”
Libraries have spent decades building a framework for technological innovation and expertise. They’ve been working online, expanding digital resources, and advocating for barrier-free open access to information. Here at UT, faculty and students have access to high-quality digitized resources, licensed e-resources, online LibGuides, and our collective expertise to support teaching, research and learning. We have created a robust system to preserve the analog resources we’ve built over the past 130+ years in digital formats in order not only to protect them, but to make them available to people who might not be able to access them in person.
Since the initial announcement of the university’s closure, expert Libraries’ staff have been responding to a constant flow of requests from the campus community for help adapting to the temporary process and policy changes that have occurred, along with training in online processes that may have been overlooked in the past.
They’ve worked directly with vendors and coordinated with information technology staff to maintain and in some cases expand digital access to resources, and made spot transitions to in person services making them available in an online environment. In certain cases, they’ve helped to develop alternative pathways to create access to resources that seemed otherwise out of reach without access to physical library spaces. It’s been a massive undertaking with little opportunity for preparation by folks who have traditionally thrived in library spaces surrounded by patrons and colleagues, but who have been required to move to isolation while continuing to provide for the needs of a Tier 1 research university.
Examples of this work abound, from work transitioning to new realities, to finding innovative ways to continue work already in progress, to bootstrapping solutions when success seems a distant possibility.
Preparing Library Staff for a Different World:
The sudden closure of the libraries on campus required a quick response to undertake preparations for a new way of operating for the Libraries, and one of the first orders of business was to try to prepare the extensive staff and their breadth of responsibilities for transitioning to a new work environment.
Even before decisions about operations were finalized that included the cessation of in-person services and subsequent closure of space, Libraries facilities staff were implementing social distancing measures to keep frontline staff and patron safe while continuing to provide core services that included visible distance guides for circulation interactions, and the erection of plexiglass guards to minimize contact.
Libraries’ IT staff, meanwhile, had their work cut out for them with the colossal task of working with a 300+ workforce on individual bases to convert mostly onsite work environments into functional remote digital presences. It required the strategic deployment of limited technology hardware resources, and the immediate evaluation and positioning of new software applications to meet the requirements of the new and considerably unfamliar working conditions.
Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) staff quickly reorganized research support services by setting up accounts for 35 liaisons and TLS librarians to enable direct booking of consultations, reviewed potential technologies for providing on demand research help, and prepared documentation for using Zoom and Canvas conferencing and teaching tools with organized training for library liasons. Staff also reviewed ways to shift information literacy instruction to an online environment and developed resources for anyone transitioning their instruction sessions.
Staff in Research Service organized communications flows to make sure that liaisons were informing their constituents of service changes, and liaisons updated LibGuides, calendaring applications and chat features to create as seamless a transition for users as possible. Academic Engagement liaisons have been proactive and also quickly responsive to faculty and student needs, ranging from filling requests for e-book text alternatives and other e-resources, adapting their instruction and helping faculty rework assignments, updating CourseGuides, and holding virtual office hours. Discovery and Access staff have set up mechanisms for availing faculty and researchers of crucial physical materials that are no longer directly accessible, and a limited cadre of Stewardship staffers worked feverishly to digitize resources needed for summer classes.
Shifting Resources to a New Environment
As future-oriented as libraries focus on being, it’s hard to deny the quintessential connection between the traditional archetype and the books that are so tied up in it. So when the places that house the 130+ of physical collections are no longer accessible, how do librarians fulfill the needs of the biblio-centric researchers and faculty that normally haunt the stacks on any given day?
As it became evident to the Libraries’ most energetic users that much of their access to stack browsing and physical retrieval were going to be halted for an indeterminate time, it became incumbent on librarians to locate alternate resources in order to support the maintenance of the university’s core research efforts.
Fine Arts Library staff heard concerns from faculty researchers at the College of Fine Arts’s (CoFA) Butler School of Music about burdens caused by the inaccessibility of the bound music scores that reside on the 5th floor of the Fine Arts Library, and were able to point users to over 54,000 digitized scores available thanks to the Libraries’ partnership in HathiTrust. HathiTrust has opened at large cache of their digital resources in response to the pandemic, all of which are accessible contingent on the current accessibility of physical resources, so changes to the status of those physical resources could result in the loss of that resource; copyright inquiries have increased for our Scholarly Communications unit as they help people navigate the intricacies of collaboration the digital environment. Staffers in Research Services have coordinated with faculty to locate ebook alternatives to course texts, pointed to temporary resources opened by publishers in response to the crisis, evaluated fair use requests for audio visual materials to meet teaching needs and promoted existing resources such as the extensive PCL Map Collection as resources for consideration by faculty in the recalibration of their syllabi.
Ongoing Remote Expertise
Beyond the access to informational resources that had to be reconsidered, the Libraries needed to reimagine how best to utilize staff expertise to support the changes to the new teaching and learning environment.
Graduate research assistants in Teaching and Learning Services started fielded numerous questions about Libraries services, collections and spaces at the onset of the pandemie, increasing their availability the week of March 16. They have been working Saturdays throughout the crisis to expand the service for user needs.
Staff have also worked on numerous specialized cases to assist faculty who had either enlisted Libraries support for their classes, or who came to the Libraries as a resource when they needed help thinking through a pivot to online teaching. In specific cases, staff experts were able to help facilitate video learning opportunities using prerecorded training videos in tandem with live presentations to explore practical opportunities for research, and in certain cases, included additional special collections archivists to discuss specific digital resources and opportunities available from collections that normally require an in-person visit. Staff have also ramped up video consultations as unforeseen challenges arise in the transition to online, and in certain cases, have helped to train faculty adapting to video conferencing technologies required to carry-out the expectations of a new and sometimes foreign online teaching environment.
Uncertainty seems to be a constant in the current crisis, so speculating on the future seems like a bit of a fool’s errand. Nonetheless, the necessity for change that was precipitated by the sudden closure of library spaces created opportunities to consider what we’ve done in the past, and how we may be able to do things better in the future. An excellent thought piece by Christopher Cox, dean of the Clemson Libraries, ponders some previously unchallenged notions about what libraries are, and suggests that this moment has offered us the chance to reenvision ourselves for a new era. Are we overvaluing books? Do we invest enough work in digital preservation and access? Is the current model for electronic resources in the best interest of the public? Has our investment in collaborative space and technology hardware been challenged? What is our new role in the virtual space? Are we providing equitable access to all our users? These are all questions that have arisen before, but they’ve taken on additional gravity when applied in the midst of extreme adversity.
We know we’re up to the task, though. We’ve proven it. If there’s one thing we’ve gleaned in the last months, it’s that we have the capacity to rapidly adapt to unexpected challenges that are far beyond our control. And to thrive in doing so.