“We can’t just stand on our own anymore”: Collaboration and connection for research (and personal) support

Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

Collaboration and connection were key themes of our third set of online “COVID check-in” sessions convened by the OCLC Research Library Partnership (RLP) Research Support Interest Group, where we discuss COVID-19’s impact on the university research enterprise and research support services (read a summary of the first and second discussions here and here). “We can’t just stand on our own anymore” was the observation of one participant in commenting about the prospects for increased collaboration across libraries as they emerge from the pandemic. But this was not an admission of weakness, as our conversations made clear, but instead a pathway to achieving better outcomes and advancing new opportunities. It was also an observation that struck a chord at a personal level, as we heard about the many social and professional networks that are helping librarians manage through the pandemic.

As with our previous discussions, our conversations began with some updates on the state of research activity on participants’ campuses. Unevenness was in evidence here, as some universities have begun to re-open research facilities and bring researchers back on campus, while others remain closed. A participant from a university in the Asia/Pacific region described how researchers will soon have greater latitude to return to on-campus research facilities, with the understanding that social distancing will be maintained in labs and other research areas. As an additional safeguard against community transmission, the university will also use a tracking system to document which buildings each researcher enters. Library facilities remain closed, with a “click and collect” (online request) service supporting access to print materials. This service has been a great boon to researchers concerned about interruptions to print access. The library will also be opening up study spaces for those who need them (spaces will be subject to regular cleaning and limited numbers). Although the university still encourages faculty and students to work from home if they can, researchers who need university space to work can return to campus, with appropriate cautions.

In contrast to this story, other universities remain in various stages of closure. One participant mentioned that despite rumors of re-opening, very little had changed; others similarly reported that in-person research facilities remain closed on their campuses. But in many places, the planning for re-opening the campus to research is underway. One participant shared that their university is planning a slow, gradual return to on-campus research, with multiple task forces creating and reviewing plans for a safe re-opening. Another pointed out that when their campus does re-open, researchers will be the first to return. Meanwhile, researchers continue to adjust their practices to working at home and, for the most part, online. One participant noted that data science research in particular was thriving online, with researchers taking advantage of online resources such as high performance computing. Another participant described how the head of the Research Office gave weekly town halls to provide updates on research activity on campus. Still another noted a spike in interest among researchers in depositing pre-prints and working papers in the institutional repository (for more on this trend, read this).

We spent some time talking about how personal networks and trusted communities have helped participants manage through the pandemic. One participant, a relatively new manager facing difficult budget decisions, emphasized their reliance on networks of colleagues for consultation on navigating this situation. Another described their interactions with a group of managers in similar positions that meet regularly by phone to share experiences. This group was formed prior to the pandemic, but then “became incredibly important very, very quickly” as the crisis unfolded. Personal networks were also credited with helping talk through ways to support and advocate for staff, highlight the work being accomplished, and find meaningful work for those who cannot easily transition their normal responsibilities to a work-from-home environment. Several participants emphasized the importance of “informally connecting” and learning from others – via, for example, a network of peers to whom a quick question can be texted – rather than more formal networks where one has to be “on” – such as virtual conferences or professional development events. A participant noted that they were selective about the networks they engaged in, relying mostly on informal networks that can accommodate their schedule. Another observed that the necessity of interacting online has increased the opportunity for leveraging personal networks, pointing out that in the pre-pandemic world, connecting often took place at in-person events requiring travel that for many was not feasible. But online is not always ideal: one participant noted that they missed the spontaneous conversations that spring up from bumping into colleagues in the halls.

In addition to personal networks, we also talked about leveraging collaborative networks involving different institutions, or different units at the same institution. One participant summed of the feelings of many by expressing their hope that libraries would become even more collaborative in the post-pandemic era: “I think, if we can do more collaborating, it will be better a better outcome for many of us. We can’t just stand on our own anymore.” Another gave an interesting example of a cross-institutional effort to collaboratively develop open access strategies, with a focus on working together to compile evidence for senior leadership; the result was much more traction than any had achieved individually. But others noted that collaboration, while important, was not the highest priority: their focus is being pulled to the local right now, with much of their effort and attention consumed by the day-to-day needs of keeping the library’s services operational.

Participants felt that collaboration would be increasingly important in an economically strained environment; moreover, tolerance of redundant systems on campus will be less as resources and budgets are pressured, enhancing the incentives to collaborate. One participant highlighted the opportunity for the library to be the place that can help make research more visible, raise the campus profile, and help attract more research funding. But to do so, the library would need to add new resources and acquire new skill sets, not all of which should be funded solely out of the library’s budget. Since these services impact the university’s research enterprise as whole, support from senior leaders such as the president, provost, and the vice-president for research is needed, and deep relationships with units around campus can help make the case. 

This topic led into further conversation about the kinds of research support services that would benefit from collaboration. Participants gave several examples from their own campuses. One talked about a multi-unit effort to support funding discovery, which included the Office of Research and liaison librarians. Another described a collaboration between the library, research office, and institutional research unit to increase ORCID usage among faculty. And a third shared about how collaboration has increased between the library and the campus Center for Teaching Excellence, especially in regard to teaching online information literacy as part of the shift to online pedagogy. Participants emphasized how the pandemic has created new opportunities for the library to collaborate with campus partners: circumstances have thrust everyone into the same challenging environment, and the library has a lot to offer to help the university get back on its feet – and even be better.

We also discussed research support services that have by necessity been “virtualized”, or moved online. We heard about a doctoral skills workshop that, pre-pandemic, was almost exclusively face to face; it has since been transitioned online. Library staff were particularly anxious to preserve this networking opportunity for students, who are “losing so many other opportunities and other ways to connect with people” as a result of the pandemic. While there are trade-offs – some activities just work better face to face – the online workshops are reaching more students than before, and the library plans to maintain them even after campus spaces reopen.

There was a sense among some participants that research support services will remain primarily “virtual” or online for a long time. Several participants predicted a strong focus on optimizing an online delivery model for research support services. But one participant expressed reservations about this approach, cautioning that it can lead to a disconnect between research support specialists and the researchers with whom they work. Virtualization of many research support services is a necessity under current conditions, but the decision whether to make this  permanent in the post-pandemic world should be carefully evaluated.

Our discussions touched on many other topics. Some highlights include:

  • Several participants talked about pre-pandemic investments that have helped their libraries weather the current crisis, such as expansions of the ebook collection. One participant noted that their institution, predicting that the pandemic would result in many international students being unable to return to campus, ramped up their efforts to digitize materials for online access, and secured agreements from publishers to digitize and make temporarily available higher percentages of textbook content than was permitted under normal circumstances. All of this helped get a substantial collection of materials online very early.
  • One participant noted that their library had recently restructured to reduce manager/staff ratios. This turned out to be extremely important as the pandemic unfolded, as staff needed more from their managers, including a greater need for regular communication, and sometimes, compassion and understanding. The participant noted that managers who have fewer direct reports, and those reporting to a manager overseeing only three or four people, are having better experiences during the pandemic.
  • Planning for the autumn (in North America) term has already begun: what would fully online classes look like? What would face-to-face classes look like? For the latter, a big problem is space: small classes need larger spaces because of social distancing, and large classes (involving hundreds of students in some cases) become impossible. One participant talked about holding large classes online, supplemented with small discussion sessions. Another predicted online sessions for international students who cannot return to campus. And the need for asynchronous online teaching models was emphasized for students who lack access to bandwidth sufficient to support live virtual sessions.
  • Participants talked about how the library could expand its support of online education and research. One suggestion was “continuing our acceleration into electronic resource investment”, including open educational resources. One participant noted that “we’re pushing back a little bit more on faculty requests that say, we absolutely have to have this thing in print and so we say now, no, because your students can’t access it. So, it’s given us a little bit more agency to say what we wanted to say for a few years anyway”. Other suggestions included finding better ways to support existing distance programs; more support for the institutional repository (given higher volumes of deposit activity observed during the pandemic); and building up libraries of online instructional videos on topics such as information literacy.

One topic we discussed is worthy of special emphasis. Several participants noted challenges they were experiencing in attending to childcare, home schooling, and other family matters while at the same time managing their work responsibilities. For example, in our discussion of personal networks, more than one participant mentioned that despite the importance of networking and connecting with colleagues, responsibilities at home often precluded taking the time to do so. In our COVID-19 discussions to date, we have heard many inspiring stories of flexibility and adaptation in challenging circumstances, as librarians have kept services up and running. While it is good to hear these stories and share them, it is important not to forget the work-from-home challenges many librarians are coping with as they find their domestic and professional lives increasingly entangled.

Thanks to my colleague Rebecca Bryant for helpful suggestions for improving this post!