Envisioning the New Model Library: Navigating through the pandemic and beyond

Libraries, as most organizations and businesses, are heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only do libraries offer information and resources on many topics from multiple viewpoints, but also serve as community centers and welcoming environments on campuses and in communities. However, with the pandemic, many libraries have had to close their doors to in-person gatherings and services and transition to an online environment, often within hours. Librarians have had to make decisions and changes very quickly and continually during the current environment.

Crystal ball being held in front of an ocean view
Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

Because of these changes and adaptations to provide services, resources, and information, we at OCLC Research have identified a new research area, titled the New Model Library. We have conducted individual discussions with approximately 20 public and academic (community college, 4-year college, and university and research institutions) library leaders from different countries and regions throughout the world to identify how they envision libraries will emerge as short-term responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are converted into positive, long-term change.

Our broad questions include:
• Will the current environment of physical distancing and precautions persist in the post-pandemic era?
• If so, will most of our services and programs continue to be offered in an online environment?
• How will we – or can we? should we? – create experiences similar to the physical spaces in our libraries in our virtual library spaces?

We have learned that library leaders are making continuous changes and are interested in sharing and learning from each other in order to provide resources and assistance to their communities in this new environment. The New Model Library project is an opportunity to identify a version of libraries based on changes made to accommodate a new way of life.

Most library leaders had to make changes within 24-48 hours, with some discussing how the pandemic forced transformations that may have taken much longer to implement. When talking about the changes a community college in North America had to make very quickly, the Head Librarian referenced previous change efforts, saying of the past, “If we weren’t pushed, we would be doing smoke signals with the students.” In many cases, the pandemic has not allowed us to wait for that kind of “evolutionary” change—library operations have been “pushed” into immediate innovation.

Some of the themes that library leaders have discussed include both the challenges and opportunities of retraining and reassigning staff in either all online environments or in a hybrid environment that includes some in-person services as well as online services. Many librarians are “doing more with less,” i.e., less staff are available to duplicate services both for in-person and online users, hence, many staff are working harder to meet library users’ needs and expectations.

Library leaders described partnerships and collaborations with other departments within their communities, local businesses and industries, professional associations, and library consortia. Some library leaders have partnered with industry to acquire sponsored keyboard covers for library workstations to make it easier to sanitize. Others have become more dependent upon assistance from professional associations and regional or national consortia. All in all, library leaders recognize that cultivating already existing collaborations and partnerships and creating and developing new collaborations and partnerships have become extremely important.

When discussing collaborations and partnerships developed during COVID-19, the Chief Executive Officer of a large metropolitan public library in North America, stated “… I think that is the beauty of virtual – it is much easier to share. I think that will become more prevalent going forward.”

Some staff have been loaned to other community agencies and some libraries are lending sewing machines and 3-D printers to industry partners to make masks and PPEs. Many libraries have offered hot spots, laptops, chrome books, and tablets to their public and academic communities. However, the need for this equipment has increased and if there are funds to purchase more of this equipment, there is a great demand for them and a short supply available for purchase. Some students, faculty, and library staff had limited or no Wi-Fi service at home. Librarians stepped in to provide equipment and technology access enabling individuals to teach, learn, and work from home, highlighting the digital divide for both community members and library staff.

Some library staff have been retrained so they were able to transition their workflows to an online environment. Some library leaders perceived this as an opportunity to try new ways of working and providing programs, resources, and services. Others identified this transition as a challenge, such as creating metadata for open content, making physical resources available with no or minimal metadata, and providing library users the capabilities to order materials and to have them directly shipped to their homes. Most library leaders feel the intensified pressure of the challenges associated with e-resources, e-textbooks, e-book loan restrictions, and copyright and licensing agreements.

Reference services that were offered in person or as hybrid models (both in person and virtual) immediately switched to virtual. Chat and email reference services have increased, with library staff having to set up and learn virtual reference services. Reference consultations are being conducted through video conferencing tools or telephone.

Library programs, such as story times, author talks, artist exhibitions, and information literacy instruction, now are being offered through video conferencing and webinars. Academic library leaders have discussed how faculty have asked librarians to assist with preparing online courses and to embed information literacy instruction into courses and virtual learning environments. Librarians’ skills and comfort in the digital world have positioned them as key leaders on the instructional teams, often more difficult to accomplish prior to the pandemic.

For some libraries, interlibrary loan (ILL) has become more heavily used and depended upon, while others indicate that ILL has ceased. For some, patron-driven acquisition has taken the place of ILL. This means that library users are able to directly order materials from certain online sites and have the materials delivered to the individuals’ homes. The library staff retain records of the purchases and provide metadata for discovery based on the order information.

Many library leaders have mentioned decreased or limited budgets and staff attrition. Although library budgets and staffing restrictions and limitations have been challenges to the operation of libraries for quite some time, these uncertain times have made these pressures more concerning.

Articulating the library’s value has resonated throughout our discussions. A major concern is how to make the case that the physical library still is very important in a community. Some ideas include promoting and marketing the library’s offerings in the online environment as well as cultivating and developing online communities.

When discussing the changes implemented at a 4-year college library in North America during the pandemic, the University Librarian said, “The library is not just a place over there, the library is all around us. It is where you need to be wherever you are.”

Some of OCLC Research’s previous work is relevant to some of the changes and challenges mentioned. The challenges associated with “container collapse” in online resources may become more important when identifying and discovering resources in our current online environment. Our work with Digital Visitors and Residents (V&R) may be an interesting lens in which to view the challenge of transitioning to an online teaching and learning environment. The changes being made in libraries in response to the COVID-19 pandemic resonate with the V&R framework.

While the shift to online has certainly presented challenges, librarians also have found opportunities in these new circumstances. As the CEO of a large, urban public library in North America stated, there are “silver linings” that will come from this experience.