Returning to research (and research support)

The OCLC Research Library Partnership (RLP) Research Support Interest Group recently convened the second in a series of online “COVID check-in” sessions, where we discuss COVID-19’s impact on the university research enterprise and the provision of research support services (read a summary of the first discussions here). Participants emphasized repeatedly the need to be nimble and creative – and it was clear that they were putting these qualities into practice at their libraries. Rapidly changing circumstances present both a challenge and an opportunity, and it was good to hear how RLP members are coping with the former while embracing the latter. One participant summed it up very well with a quote from the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton: “Optimism is true moral courage” – and indeed, the prevailing theme across our discussions was optimism and dedication in the face of lingering uncertainty about the future.

Our conversation led off with discussion of the status of research activity on campus. As we heard in our last conversation, research activity is still significantly diminished, with most “in-person” research, such as laboratory work, halted, and a pervading uncertainty about next steps. But not all research activity has stopped: some researchers are able to continue their work at home, and even publish. Some researchers are focusing on activities that can be done without being on campus, and as one participant observed, it may be a good time to encourage researchers to do the kinds of tasks they would normally resist or feel they did not have time for – such as updating faculty profiles.

There are glimmerings on some campuses of a gradual shift in attention from establishing and supporting online courses to thinking about how the university’s research enterprise might resume. And with a return of research, there will be a return to research support services as well. Currently, research libraries are engaged in a range of “socially distant” research support services, such as virtual reference, image delivery, assisting with open access compliance, creating LibGuides, reviewing data management plans, and consultation on copyright issues (although many copyright questions pertain not to research, but to permissible use of materials in online classes). While participants reported that use of some services, such as access to digitized images and other digital resources, have increased significantly, they also acknowledged that compared to pre-pandemic levels, overall demand for research support services is low, as researchers are still settling into unfamiliar workflows. But one participant observed that they and their colleagues were busier than ever – just in different ways.

Several participants noted that for the moment, large-scale projects were on hold or being re-evaluated amid uncertainty; open positions are going unfilled, and it is difficult to plan very far ahead. In these circumstances, there is a focus on smaller projects, such as metadata clean-up or updating finding aids. With significant expenditures highly scrutinized – and clear justification required for all spending – librarians are leaning toward “getting by” right now, with a focus on essentials.

Many participants in our conversation underscored the need for libraries to continue to support research in whatever state it is in – both now, when research activities are severely curtailed, and in the future, as universities begin to ramp up their research activities once again. The question in both instances is the same: how do libraries get researchers what they need? In doing so, librarians face many challenges in virtualizing research support. For example, several participants pointed out that in some ways, it was easier to shift to a virtual footing in supporting research in STEM disciplines compared to disciplines in the humanities that are more dependent on access to print resources. Many participants commented on how invaluable the Hathi Trust Emergency Temporary Access Service is in providing virtual access to large swathes of their print collections. However, they also understood that this service was temporary, and they needed to figure out how to eventually provide humanities researchers with full access to the stacks. And there are other concerns, including sensitivity to the state of mind of researchers themselves: for example, if the availability of research support services is promoted too strongly, would that feel like unwanted pressure to researchers still struggling to adjust to upheaval in their working conditions?

Yet in spite of lower demand, improvised modes of service delivery, and all of the myriad challenges of supporting research amid campus closures, the participants in our discussion emphasized the importance of making sure researchers know that research support services are still active and available even when the building is closed.

Our conversation ranged widely across many topics. Here are a few highlights and important messages from the discussion:

  • Even amid the unusual circumstances, there is much to be positive about. It is exciting and inspiring to see how colleagues have been flexible and adaptive: pivoting to online, embracing telework, and improvising ways to sustain access to library resources. Colleagues are “leaning toward the positive”, coming together as a campus community, and willing to think outside the box to find solutions. There is real confidence that the longer the pandemic persists, the more “genius solutions” will be found to meet the needs of library users.
  • All around campus, people are pulling together, with lots of goodwill in evidence. But will this change as we enter summer, lockdowns start to ease, and library use becomes more demanding? For example, many universities will switch from pass/fail back to actual grading in the summer term. Also – and directly relevant for research support services – summer is the time when many faculty are able to focus on their research activities. All of this will likely lead to more demands on access to the collection, as well as services supporting both learning and research.
  • As libraries begin to shift their attention from the immediate exigencies of virtualizing services in the wake of campus closures, scenario planning is emerging as a new focus. There is much uncertainty over what teaching, learning, and research will look like in the summer and especially the autumn. Libraries are beginning to think about what their services – including research support – would look like under different re-opening conditions: e.g., all online, hybrid, phased return, etc.
  • Libraries are learning hard lessons now about how they operate, how they are organized, and what they prioritize. These lessons should not be wasted by simply reverting to old ways at the first opportunity. The longer that the pandemic continues, the greater the likelihood that changes and adaptations experienced now will become permanent, such as increased reliance on open content. Remember how important increased connection with colleagues has been during the pandemic and sustain it. Reconsider priorities, not just in response to the pressures and constraints of the current crisis, but in light of the new possibilities that our altered circumstances have revealed.
  • As lockdown restrictions start to ease, there will be an uneven “distribution of openness”. This is important at several levels. Different jurisdictions will have different strategies and timetables for re-opening both the campus and broader society; similarly, different parts of campus may handle re-opening in different ways. This will impact how we work on campus, and how we work across campuses. We will not all move forward into the future at the same pace.
  • Libraries have been investing considerable effort and resources into re-configuring their physical space, diminishing the footprint of the print collection while at the same time extending capacity to support in-person interaction and collaboration. In the wake of a pandemic that has curtailed use of the library building, what is the future of library space and how it serves research needs? This is more than social distancing requiring that a conference room for 12 now be one for 6; how will use of library space change in an environment where many library services – including research support – may be permanently virtualized?
  • The Hathi Trust Emergency Temporary Access Service, which supplies access to digitized surrogates of print books held by a participating library, has proven to be a valuable channel for virtualized access to the print collection. As we enter the post-pandemic period, will libraries prioritize investment in emergency access services designed to overcome disruptions to normal access channels?
  • The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting our libraries, parent institutions, communities, and families. Libraries are already playing an important role in documenting these historical times. One participant in our conversation, based at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, shared a photo gallery of remarkable images of the Las Vegas Strip closed and empty under lockdown restrictions. These images were taken by her colleague Aaron Mayes, with the UNLV University Libraries, Special Collections and Archives, which will archive the gallery.
Image credit: UNLV University Libraries, Special Collections and Archives, Aaron Mayes. PH-00428

We are continuing this conversation. If you are an RLP member, join us May 12 and/or May 14 for our third set of discussions on COVID-19, university research, and research support services. Contact Rebecca Bryant for an invitation.

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