The University Library and COVID-19: Where Are We Now? - ACS Axial | ACS Publications
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The University Library and COVID-19: Where Are We Now?

We are more than halfway through 2021 and for almost two years, we’ve weathered a global pandemic that has altered the way we live in so many ways. At times, we’ve shuttered schools, restaurants, research labs, and non-essential manufacturers around the globe. Nearly all of our daily activities have changed in some way. Now that most of the world has learned to live with and manage COVID-19, we’re experiencing a wave of vaccinations and the return to in-person learning. At the beginning of the year, we sat down with some librarian members of our ACS Publications Advisory Roundtable to discover how they, and their universities, have dealt with remote learning, and what their plans are for this upcoming academic school year.

Reference Desks Go Online

Zoom is now an essential tool for librarians to aid students in their research. Reference desks have gone virtual and librarians now set up their cameras when it is time for reference desk office hours. “Most of our reference services have pivoted completely to virtual. Until recently, students were only allowed in the library via reserved seating and it’s for individual study so reference of any of any kind is only taking place virtually,” says Andrea Twiss-Brooks, Director of Humanities and Area Studies at the University of Chicago. “I’ve heard more than one of my team members say that Zoom consultations with the ability to share screens actually works better than when they come to your office and they’re perching next to you with their laptop trying to see your screen and type on their laptop. So we’re thinking about how to continue to use that when we are back in person.”

Neelam Bharti, Senior Librarian from Carnegie Mellon University, adds “We used to have consultations and other office hours in the libraries and now all those activities are done via Zoom. So instead of having open hours we have Zoom hours. Every day we have one hour we keep open for colleagues or any other person who wants to talk to us, like a virtual coffee time so that we can talk to each other outside of the meetings.”

Budgets Remain Tight

Universities budgets continue to be under strain, and in some cases the situation has worsened as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Librarians are feeling the result of that with budgets being cut to renew subscriptions for journals and eBooks. In addition, a number of universities implemented spending freezes throughout the pandemic. Alyssa Young, Science & Math Librarian at James Madison University, tells us, “We cut a significant amount of our databases this year, we had to cut a lot more than we were expecting due to our budget. A spending freeze, with certain exceptions, was also implemented.”

Addressing Multiple and Changing Guidelines

Librarians have also been involved with the process of reopening campuses throughout the year so far. “The university library has been involved with the campus’s attempts to put together a reopening strategy,” says Chuck Huber, Chemical Sciences Librarian at UC Santa Barbara, “We’re being very cautious about reopening as we’re responsible not only to local planning, but also to the County of Santa Barbara, and the State of California in terms of factoring all the different things in that we can do.”

A number of universities also began to implement health and safety training programs. Andrea-Twiss Brooks tells us: “On our campus, anyone who intended to be on campus had to do an online training and to also sign a very lengthy health attestation and basically a pledge saying that they will follow these best practices for reducing infection, etc. You could not come back on campus until you had done that training.”

What’s Next?

Now that we are halfway through 2021 and COVID-19 vaccine efforts are well underway, we followed up with some of these librarians to find out what the upcoming Fall 2021 semester will look like. With a few minor modifications from before the COVID-19 pandemic, almost all universities, and libraries, expect to be fully open for the fall semester in August and/or September.

But policies around vaccination vary. A number of private universities are requiring students and faculty to be vaccinated. We’ve heard from library leadership that individuals may be able to opt out of vaccinations for some medical or religious reasons, but in order to do so they will need to discuss that option with a university health professional first.

Some public universities, like the University of Washington, are requiring vaccines for all students, faculty, and staff. James Madison University, a public university in Virginia, will not require vaccines for faculty, but will require students to be fully vaccinated prior to moving onto campus or attending classes, with a few exemptions. Most other public / state universities are following state guidelines and thus not requiring vaccines for students or faculty.

The long-term impact of COVID-19 on the role of the library remains to be seen. Jeremy Garritano, Director of Research Support and Outreach Programs at Marx Science and Social Science Library at Yale University, tells us that “librarians think our audiences prefer virtual workshops, but once they are here, will they actually want us to do them in-person again? There are a lot of questions about assuming what people want when we return and what they will actually seek out once they are here.” Some of our library thought leaders think the major disruptions caused by COVID-19 might also be a chance to rethink how we can best serve our communities equitably and with respect. Erica Lopez, Chemical and Biological Sciences Librarian at the University of Houston, appreciates the shift in how librarians have adapted in their interaction with patrons, “I think we’ve committed to using technologies and offering services that are more adaptable to change,” she tell us, “This will hopefully allow us to better live up to our values of equity, inclusivity, and accessibility.”

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