Does It Take a Crisis to Remind Us of the Value of Libraries?
As libraries pivot to remote services during the coronavirus pandemic, we’re reminded of the value libraries bring the academic and research communities, bringing more than access management to campuses struggling to scale distance learning and scholars keeping research moving forward from home.
In times of crisis, we are often forced to reassess our priorities and see everyday things in a new light. During the global pandemic, libraries of all kinds – long seen as highly trusted institutions and “palaces of wonder” – have been forced to limit physical access and services, impacting the lives of patrons across the globe.
The wide-ranging resources compiled by ACRL and the new Quarantine Librarianship website demonstrate the number of key functions expected of the academic, public, and special libraries of the world – from facilitating distance education and virtual conferences, to compiling authoritative information about the pandemic itself. Clearly, libraries offer much more than access to databases and publications, and librarians are doing more than connecting readers to resources.
During emergencies, we’re reminded of the diverse services provided by the world’s libraries, that libraries "go beyond books." In ordinary times, and extraordinary ones, learners and researchers look to their libraries in meeting diverse community needs, such as:
- disability services, to bridge gaps created by inaccessible content;
- research data management and consultations, helping authors comply with funder or ethics requirements;
- information literacy instruction, partnering with instructors to embed research skills into courses;
- and more – in addition to ensuring off-campus access to digital library resources or physical archives in need of digitization.
Despite the fact that dozens of publishers have made hundreds of resources temporarily available to all readers, demand for library support has exploded – for digital access to databases and resources, of course, as well as online equivalents of the suite of library services from research assistance, copyright support, and more.
Libraries are busy converting on-site services to an online environment and contributing to institutional efforts to scale distance learning, research collaboration, and other digital equivalents. Demand for streaming media is growing as instructors look for ways to engage with students across the digital divide. Librarians are bringing workshops and writing circles into a virtual setting to maintain the services expected by students and professors. Physical exhibits are coming to Flickr and Photobucket to preserve the public’s access to historical and regional artifacts.
Demand for library resources and offerings, many that have been digital for some time, have now skyrocketed, as researchers, learners, and faculty learn new ways of working. For example, Virginia Commonwealth University has offered library consultations via text message, online chat, and email for more than a decade, so they had one fewer hurdle in shifting to a distributed service model. Scanning and content digitization services in place for inter-library loan and special archives are working overtime to bring physical materials into the digital environment to meet the needs of all users working from home.
These growing demands are being met by a growing workforce of technically adept librarians and reinforces the shifting role of librarians that has been underway for some time. As noted in an EdSurge article, “most academic libraries at least have staff that are digitally savvy. They do digital document delivery in all sorts of ways. They have access to lots and lots and lots of digital content. And so, for them the content is less the problem. I mean it's a problem, of course, but it's less the problem. But trying to figure out ways to have continuity of experience.” – Jeffrey R. Young, EdSurge.
Librarians in California are captioning video course material, working with faculty to bring teaching and learning programs online, and helping students adapt to remote classes. Others are enlisting student workers to field help-desk questions from the campus community adjusting to working from home. In addition to mastering remote library services, some libraries are also playing a direct role in the fight again coronavirus, such as those in Alabama and elsewhere using 3D printers to produce protective equipment for healthcare providers. The European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation have built socio-economic goals into their strategic plans, attending to issues of well-being and resilience across EU communities.
When I hear colleagues asking if these digital, decentralized libraries are the wave of the future, I consider how many research and academic libraries have already made impressive transformations. Libraries of the future will continue to be experts with the ability to shape our information experiences. Librarians of tomorrow will likely continue to act as advocates for copyright equity and access rights. Librarians will continue to play a role in academic instruction for decades, and they have been preparing for growing demands for online education, proven by the likes of the Association for College and Research Libraries’ distance learning and library service standards released in 2016.
As the dust settles on the Covid-19 scare, libraries will be part of research and learning communities’ efforts to find the ‘new normal.’ Libraries can be partners in evaluating those crisis-era solutions and patchwork programs, to optimize and re-organize for sustainability and efficacy. As faculty, learners, and scholars recast their work in a remote and distributed context, academic and research libraries will be called to deliver value in new and innovative ways. Traditional library functions and resources will be rewritten to align with the information experiences of the future -- where the very concepts of 'information' and 'library' are likely to be questioned and redefined.