That was the topic discussed recently by OCLC Research Library Partners metadata managers, initiated by Erin Grant of University of Washington, Jennifer Baxmeyer of Princeton, Roxanne Missingham of Australian National University, and Suzanne Pilsk of the Smithsonian Institution. The COVID-19 crisis has caused a dramatic change in how libraries deliver services to patrons. Many libraries have increased the number of e-book acquisitions to meet the continuing research, teaching, and learning demands of their institutions. Discovery of resources through catalogs and federated search services has become more important than ever before. In addition, working from home has become the “norm” but not necessarily for everyone. Staff that process physical material are unable to do so from home, so they are either not working, or their work assignments have changed. Metadata managers have been learning many lessons from this period about how they should think about future crises and about how they might operate differently once staff return to work at their physical locations.
Most libraries closed abruptly, and few staff had previous experiences with working remotely. The issues shared among the metadata managers in three virtual discussions and 58 pages of commentary from nine countries are summarized below.
Existing or new metadata work that could be done remotely: Online resource and digital collections work translated very well to working from home. Libraries could request and process invoices digitally. Some catalogers were able to take physical materials home to catalog, but others couldn’t. Libraries had to experiment with new workflows to accommodate copy cataloging physical materials without the item in hand using online accession lists, spreadsheets, or scanning specific pages of materials serving as digital surrogates. The University of Sydney produced this short video of scanning rare books with mobile phones so that other staff could catalog them from home.
The general shift “from p to e” (print materials to electronic versions) that had started pre-pandemic accelerated as libraries swiftly had to support online instruction when their campuses closed. Staff that had previously focused on processing print collections had to quickly learn to catalog electronic materials instead, and this period saw a surge in cross-team training and re-training to carry out essential tasks to support key services. Shifting to online thus required a much more holistic approach across the library, leading to much discussion, juggling, and ad-hoc training sessions.
Cataloging print materials was generally deferred to when staff could return to the libraries. With all professional conferences cancelled, more time could be directed to research, writing, and participating in Webinars. Staff had more opportunities for professional development of their skills. Administrative work such as budgeting, writing reports, and performance reviews continued, with staff meetings moved to video conferences. More time could be devoted to what had previously been long-deferred “rainy day” tasks such as authority work, processing backlogs, database maintenance, record mediation and enhancement, correcting holdings, writing and reviewing documentation, troubleshooting metadata issues surfaced in the discovery systems, automation projects (such as automatically generating MARC records from spreadsheets), and writing new code for in-house applications. This experience highlighted how much of current metadata workflows are normally driven by physical collections at some institutions.
The impact of shifting services to online during this crisis on metadata work:
- Focused greater attention on the value of consistent, accurate, and complete metadata
- Increased the importance of batch editing metadata rather than editing records one at a time
- Highlighted the suitability of carrying out added-value enhancement activities remotely and offline
- Gave managers time to think through the barriers that held staff back from tackling rainy day projects and think of better ways to tackle new and existing work.
- Made libraries aware that they need to be more flexible in staff’s work arrangements: laptops instead of desktop computers; rethinking more remote work arrangements with less time spent on-site; recognizing that more people can do multiple tasks.
Successful managerial support of metadata staff in their transition to working from home: All library staff, regardless of function, had managerial support to make sure that they had the equipment to work from home. Metadata managers all praised their IT staff who made sure everyone could connect to a virtual environment in record time. They stressed the importance of regular, frequent check-in virtual meetings, individual and team support, clear email communications from library administrators, and acknowledging the stress of balancing or juggling work, home, and family responsibilities. Metadata staff take pride in their productivity, and managers had to develop new metrics or performance indicators replacing “number of records created.” Distributing tasks equally so that all staff felt valued and fulfilled has been a common challenge.
Addressing the technical challenges of switching to an all-virtual environment: Library staff switched to an all-virtual environment amazingly quickly! Only a few had worked from home previously—moving everyone to working from home was a radical change and managers had insufficient time to review systems for remote access for the full range of work activities. Some libraries were able to provide staff with laptops or Chromebooks and set up hot spots for those with no Internet access or insufficient bandwidth. Many staff were unfamiliar with the technologies needed for remote work. Managers soon became aware of the “digital divide” among their staff. Some library systems did not have full functionality for off-site cataloging work, and some installed a “remote work space” on Amazon Web Services to allow some basic functionality with their local library system. Managers and IT staff had to spend a lot of time helping staff to set up VPN and other remote access mechanisms. Not all staff were able to fully work from home because of these issues.
Zoom and Microsoft Teams kept the work—and workplace—going and teams connected. Some thought these online meetings more efficient than their previous face-to-face meetings, while others commented on “Zoom fatigue.” Virtual “fireside chats” kept teams connected, purposeful, and valued, and offered a venue where staff could help each other work in difficult circumstances. Low morale has been increasing as colleagues have been furloughed and institutions are forecasting drastic budget cuts.
Dealing with skill gaps and training: Staff training and development have been core to the success of metadata operations in this period, which has highlighted gaps in staff skills to be addressed. Training courses had to be quickly put in place to update the technical skills of some metadata specialists and whole teams had to be upskilled on e-book metadata processes. Staff who had no work without access to the physical collections had to be reassigned to new tasks that often required training and mentoring. HathiTrust members in the United States took advantage of the Hathi Trust’s Emergency Temporary Access Service (ETAS) that legally gave them online access to materials corresponding to their physical collections. The Internet Archive gave access to a National Emergency Library (NEL), a temporary collection of books supporting emergency remote teaching, research activities, and independent scholarship while universities, schools, libraries were closed until 16 June 2020. Managers had to take a project management approach to traditional workflows, prioritizing tasks with an emphasis on keeping up with the sudden surge in e-book purchases as a result of campuses offering only online instruction and services, and matching staff capabilities to a myriad of new projects. Metadata managers had long wanted to do more cross-training and this crisis expedited it. The situation also increased more collaboration with other departments, such as ILL, e-resources, research support, and IT services.
Rethinking workflows and collections: Workflows were rethought, with managers taking an agile, rapid approach. Time-consuming manual processes that now seemed impractical and archaic were replaced. For example, licenses that used to be sorted into a bright red folder hand-carried up and down the chain of command for review, comment, and signature became a “virtual red folder” that vastly speeded up and streamlined the license vetting process. Tedious steps have been eliminated, and more editing of genre and subject headings and other metadata enhancements have been moved to batch processing. Working on these metadata enhancements projects remotely has increased metadata specialists understanding of the users’ view of the catalog through the discovery layer rather than only the catalogers’ view. Without a physical collection to refer to, metadata specialists have a deeper appreciation for data quality control and the need for better metadata at the earliest stages of processing.
The most fundamental change in this period has been for libraries to move from thinking about their collections to expanding access to electronic resources beyond their institutions. Libraries soon learned that even with the HathiTrust’s valued ETAS and the Internet Archive’s NEL that not all the content needed by academics was available digitally.
Changes to carry over into future metadata workflows post-pandemic: With three months’ experiences with staff working solely from home, metadata managers have been thinking about the changes they had to make in the COVID-19 period that may become permanent when restrictions are lifted. First among them is more flexibility in work arrangements. This period has demonstrated that much metadata work can be done remotely. Staff with long commutes would welcome the chance to work at least a few days a week from home. Metadata managers anticipate that staff working in acquisitions and metadata creation will continue to have expanded teleworking opportunities. “Teleworking is here to stay.”
Reflections on positive experiences from this crisis that metadata managers expect will continue included:
- Increased technology skills of staff and more staff willingness to learn new skills
- Increased communication with peers and other departments, and more metadata involvement with other divisions’ projects such as Research Support.
- On-site work devoted only to tasks that must be done in person
- Increased compassion for others’ circumstances
- Fewer silos of format-specific specialties replaced by staff with skills to handle multiple formats
- More reliance on vendor metadata and batch processes and less reliance on manual metadata record creation and maintenance with reduced amount of handling of material
- More acceptance of cataloging from digital surrogates
- More staff flexibility and accepting new tasks such as research management support, research data, and researcher identity management
- Continued video conferencing to facilitate teamwork among dispersed staff that replace or supplement physical meetings
- More institutional awareness of the importance of metadata, link maintenance, digitization activities, and database maintenance for users’ discovery of resources,
The complexities involved indicate a future with a hybrid working model as not all metadata work can be done from home. Effective teams will likely require a mixture of face-to-face and online interactions.
The increased reliance on electronic and digital resources from this period will also likely accelerate institutions desire to digitize more of their archival and distinctive collections that have been available only in physical form. The importance of online access to collections has never been demonstrated so compellingly as during the COVID-19 crisis. As academic courses will likely continue to be offered online (and as of this writing it’s still unknown when face-to-face classes will resume) more staff will need to be shifted to digital resources—those acquired by the library, digitized from the library’s physical collections, and those available from other collections. The shared global pandemic experiences have revitalized thinking about metadata as a critical activity beyond supporting access for research but also to assist in education and remote learning.
Karen Smith-Yoshimura, senior program officer, topics related to creating and managing metadata with a focus on large research libraries and multilingual requirements. Karen retired from OCLC November 2020.