On COVID-19, research libraries, and … turtles

The OCLC Research Library Partnership (RLP) Research Support Interest Group recently convened online sessions to discuss COVID-19’s impact on the university research enterprise and the provision of research support services. But mostly we gathered to share and support one another. As it turned out, research support services were not the central theme of the discussion; participants had many other things on their minds.

Our conversations took place in early April, when most RLP members were still adjusting to dramatic changes in their home and work lives. The focus was on the here and now: settling into new work-at-home arrangements, staying in contact with colleagues, caring for children whose schools were now closed, and even looking out for some unexpected casualties of the pandemic. Jan Fransen told us about Leonard, a female (yes!) yellow-bellied slider turtle who resides at the University of Minnesota’s Natural Resources Library. Leonard, along with her 75-gallon aquarium, is now Jan’s houseguest while the library is closed. It was touching to hear this story of compassionate care for Leonard’s welfare even as Minnesota library staff were immersed in closing physical spaces.

One thing that our participants emphasized in the discussions was how completely the university research enterprise ground to a halt. With the exception of research activities deemed essential (for example, those having to do with COVID-19), most on-site research facilities and laboratories have shut down, with sometimes heartbreaking consequences like the euthanization of research animals. Several participants in our conversation noted that in the initial weeks of the shutdown, the attention of researchers was focused on almost anything but research: managing the shift to working at home, adapting coursework to an online environment, and of course, dealing with domestic concerns such as children, homeschooling, and vulnerable loved ones. For many, research was of secondary importance; one participant observed it was only now that some attention was reverting back to the exigencies of re-starting research activities.

Getting courses online was the foremost priority at many institutions, with library efforts consequently focused on ramping up support for online instruction. Since little research was being done in these first challenging weeks, little research support was being done: instead, librarians were occupied with the university-wide shift to online learning. As one participant pointed out, their campus was designed for face-to-face teaching and learning; the COVID-19 shutdown required them to “flip a switch” and somehow make an online pedagogical model work. Many librarians found their time fully consumed in helping instructors set up and get comfortable with teaching from home. One participant shared that all effort was currently focused on preparing for an all-online spring term.

Amid the immediate challenges of re-calibrating the university as an online institution are concerns about what the future holds for higher education as the pandemic continues to unfold. Unease was expressed that austerity measures were waiting around the corner, with the prospect of decreased enrollments in the fall. One participant wondered how many students would return at the end of summer; another said that their institution had already decided that classes would be online-only in the fall. Still another noted that new admission applications were already down at their university. One person summed up prevailing opinion by noting that whatever happens, they expect that life at their university would change drastically for the foreseeable future.

What about libraries? Unsurprisingly, the common theme among participants’ experiences was the closing of the library’s physical spaces. For the most part, library staff were working at home (in some places, a few on-site staff remained to manage remote access to library resources). Many library services were impacted: for example, one participant indicated that inter-library loan services at their library were currently limited to non-returnables (aside: for a great – and uplifting – discussion of COVID-19 and ILL services, see the recent post by our colleague Dennis Massie). In some areas, library service usage is down: for example, one person noted lower traffic to the library website and catalog than the same time last year. Another observed that use of library course reserves was falling, as instructors have started putting their own course reserves up on learning management platforms (often in the form of PDF files).

But librarians are also seeing increased interest in some services. Streaming content is growing in popularity, especially as publishers have started offering certain content for free – although there are worries that this free access is only temporary. Use of online “chat” reference services has also increased. And in some cases, access to print collections has been “virtualized”: at the University of Minnesota, for example, online access to millions of the library’s print books has been established through emergency access to digitized versions held in the Hathi Trust Digital Library.   

One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion was learning how participants were keeping in touch with colleagues. Zoom, Google Hangouts, WebEx, Blackboard Collaborate, GoToMeeting, and Microsoft Teams were all mentioned as communications platforms; some had been in use prior to the pandemic, while others had been set up in response to the sudden necessity of working at home. Universal use of these platforms is a new experience for many: as one person pointed out, in pre-pandemic days meetings had been mostly in-person with a few people participating remotely; now everyone was online. Some participants commented on the difficulties of virtual communication with colleagues – for example, an overwhelming number of virtual meetings, and the difficulty of conducting such meetings amid the distractions of home life.

But it was inspiring to hear the many positive comments participants made about connecting with their colleagues virtually. Several people observed that communication – and overall interaction – with their colleagues were improved under these conditions. Some remarked on how much they appreciated regular communication from managers or senior university administrators: for example, daily emails from the president and dean; a brief daily all-staff meeting; weekly “drop-in” calls with the university librarian. Moreover, participants also observed that there was now much more communication and information sharing between peers, not just trickle-down communication from senior leaders. Perhaps most heartening of all was that participants were keenly interested in how they could sustain these improved levels of connection with colleagues once conditions had returned to “normal”.

Not all of this connection has to be work-related. Several participants remarked on opportunities for virtual socializing with colleagues that were springing up: for example, virtual lunches and happy hours. One participant mentioned how after a Zoom all-staff meeting, colleagues set up breakout Zoom rooms on different themes, with people moving from room to room to socialize. Another participant mentioned that their university’s wellness committee had set up Teams groups for socializing around topics like pets or recipes.

The discussion also touched on the long-term effects of our current circumstances. Many predictions were offered: for example, working from home would be more accepted, and remote attendance of meetings and other events more common. A new emphasis on supporting remote interactions with students and faculty was another suggestion: could tools like Zoom be used to create richer virtual experiences (e.g., by having the ability to share screens)? One participant noted a “peer research consultation” program at their institution, in which students are trained to help other students with their research. These sessions are now going online; will they remain there? But there were also worries about the need to improve access to computers and broadband, both among library colleagues and students and faculty. As more and more activities move online, how can we ensure that everyone is sufficiently equipped to participate? 

One observation about the future that seemed to resonate in the discussion had to do with the workflows that are being hurriedly built to accommodate the new circumstances into which those engaged in teaching, learning, and research have been thrust. As one participant put it, the situation is like building the airplane while flying it: the near-term goal is to just get it done, but not necessarily creating workflows that are ideal.

Lots of new platforms and services are being deployed, all with learning curves, and patched together in awkward ways. Sometimes the library is left out of this process, and faculty and students are missing out on services and resources the library could be helping with. Participants agreed that as we move forward, we need to re-examine these pandemic-era workflows, and how the library can help organize and optimize them

Our discussions covered a lot of territory. We learned about the wide range of things that are on people’s minds these days, from new APA guidance on citing cancelled conference presentations, to the experience of on-boarding a new colleague virtually. We also heard re-affirmation of the library’s central role in fulfilling the university mission, as members described their efforts to smooth the transition to new ways of teaching, learning, and research. And we were inspired by what we heard, summed up in one participant’s comment that circumstances were “daunting but exciting. A new opportunity perhaps.”

We are continuing this conversation. If you are an RLP member, join us April 21 and/or April 23 for our second set of discussions on COVID-19, university research, and research support services. Contact Rebecca Bryant for an invitation.

My thanks to colleagues Rebecca Bryant, Lynn Silipigni Connaway, and Merrilee Proffitt for their helpful suggestions for improving this post!