v32#3 Optimizing Library Services: Academic Library Response to COVID-19

by | Jul 15, 2020 | 0 comments

by Prof. Jennifer Joe  (Assistant Professor and Undergraduate Engagement Librarian, University of Toledo, USA) 

Column Editors:  Ms. Brittany Haynes  (Editorial Assistant, IGI Global) 

and Ms. Lindsay Wertman  (Managing Director, IGI Global)    www.igi-global.com

Column Editors’ Note:  This column features IGI Global contributor Prof. Jennifer Joe, Assistant Professor and Undergraduate Engagement Librarian at the University of Toledo, USA, co-editor of the publication Social Media for Communication and Instruction in Academic Libraries along with Prof. Elisabeth Knight, from Western Kentucky University, USA. — BH & LW


Serving patrons from a distance is nothing new.  There is a large body of literature available showcasing the ways that colleges and universities have adjusted their approach to library services for the good of students who are off campus.  The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) released the most recent Guidelines for Distance Learning Library Services (which began as the 1990 ACRL Guidelines for Extended Campus Library Services) in 2016, and it states, “The originating institution is responsible for ensuring that the distance learning community has access to library materials equivalent to those provided in on-campus settings” (American Library Association, 2016, n.p.).  While attempting to adhere to this guideline, modifications have mostly been small and appropriate in scope for the number of patrons they serve, which depends on the institution.  Overall, however, a 2015 survey found that just 54.05% of institutions offer “special classes or training program[s] for distance learning students,” which means many face-to-face programs and methods have not been adapted for the online learner (Primary Research Group, 2015, p. 38).

At the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio, USA, where I am the undergraduate engagement librarian, the institution went to a work-from-home plan beginning the week after our Spring Break (March 9-13, 2020).  By the end of the week (March 20, 2020), library employees were all working remotely, and our building was closed.  We only had a few basic services designed for distance students — electronic resources, LibGuides, reference chat, and email consultations.  This abrupt departure from normal clearly required some changes in our approach toward our patrons. 

We Are All Online Learning Librarians

Even before the decision to shutter the library and the rest of the campus, the administration had decided to shift classes to the online environment.  The initial decision was that this would happen on a temporary basis and then it would be reevaluated, but subsequent talks in the administration have resulted in classes being held online through the summer (Whiteside, 2020).  Therefore, even before we were working from home, faculty and staff at the university had prepared to meet our students in the online environment.  We had reviewed important LibGuide materials; made sure that students were aware that they could reach us via email, chat reference, and social media; and set up our office computers with web conferencing software so that we could conduct synchronous consultations to meet the needs of our patrons. 

Once we learned that the situation would be more permanent and that we would also be working from home, our preparations shifted slightly.  First, we had to test that we had access to everything we would need from home.  This gave us unique insight into the challenges that our students faced as they returned to their homes.  Connection issues, redundant sign-in requests, and unintuitive paths to accessing materials were suddenly our problems, too.  This confirmed what had already been reported in the general literature.  For example, a study conducted by Mueller et al. found that of nine eBook platforms studied, no platform achieved a 100% success rate in more than two of the research tasks attempted, and some eBook platforms failed to achieve 100% in any task (2019).  Our electronic resources librarian is working diligently to help us with these issues as we find them in our own resources, but some of them are systematic and are out of her control. 

Finally, some of us also made attempts to teach information literacy in the online environment.  In addition to the three librarians who are also instructors at our university and were teaching credit-bearing courses online, I was able to teach a one-shot library session virtually through our learning management system.  The class was a Pro Seminar in Anthropology and Sociology.  Thanks to a good working relationship with the instructors of record, they felt comfortable allowing me to teach the class online synchronously on the same date that I would have been teaching it in person, March 30th, less than two weeks after the university had shifted to online work.  It was optional for the students, but we had a good turnout, leading me to believe that it is something students would benefit from in the future.  We also recorded the session for students who were unable to attend.  This returns us to the report by Primary Research Group conducted in 2015; we have the technology and capabilities for more comprehensive distance learning efforts.  Now that we have heightened demand, it would behoove us to conduct them.

We Are All Scholarly Communication Librarians

At the University of Toledo, we have a scholarly communications librarian.  Her job includes handling everything related to public access, data sharing, copyright, and the support of new scholarship.  In normal times, her job gets many requests, but when one is trying to pivot to online in the middle of the semester, in the middle of an international emergency, these requests were not always going directly to her.  Furthermore, if they had gone directly to her, she would have easily become overwhelmed.  Therefore, many of us took it upon ourselves to help answer scholarly communications issues in our respective subject areas.  I took a question from one of my liaison departments about format access that turned into coordinating a response from our reserves specialist that would not violate copyright but that would also provide the students with materials that they needed.  The response also eventually came to involve our cataloging staff, as they worked through the possibility of individually purchasing eBooks from publishers directly, which is something that had not been done by the university in the past. 

Other patrons needed access to electronic materials, too, not just faculty.  I have navigated many research questions where the best materials for research are locked up in our building right now, helping students find electronic resources that will answer their questions and help them proceed with their work.  As I have dealt with these questions, I have also begun managing a list of materials that have become open access in response to the crisis.  I am not the only librarian keeping these lists; many librarians outside my institution have been freely sharing lists that they have made themselves, to the point that my list is more like a list of lists.  I have also been developing the best ways to express to students how to find these materials; because they are temporarily open access, they typically would not show up in our discovery tool.  WorldCat has become a dear friend to me because it can show me if something has an electronic format available.  Unfortunately, at least one study has suggested that students are less capable of navigating WorldCat, with Gewritz, Novak, and Parsons finding, “[m]any students appeared to have difficulties interpreting records in [WorldCat Local],” and, as a result, these students were unable to find materials that they could have accessed (2014, p. 119). 

We Are All Solo Librarians

My colleagues are still available to support me when I have tough questions, but gone are the days when I could just stop by their office.  This has led me to work harder, and hopefully smarter, at answering the questions posed by patrons and my liaison units.  However, it is reminding me more and more of my previous library position, where I was a solo campus librarian at a regional university campus, 70 miles away from my colleagues working for the same system. 

It has opened me up to new possibilities, too.  Because I am using e-mail and video chat to contact my university colleagues, I am just as likely to ask the same question in a webinar or a listserv; these two methods of information gathering require the same amount of effort, but I also get the added benefit of hearing more diverse opinions, leading to more innovation in my job. 


The pandemic has made clear position definitions blurry, but it is also identifying the strengths within us all.  While we should not be afraid to step outside of our assigned roles when it is necessary for the good of our patrons, we must also recognize when someone else on our team would be better suited for the task and allow them to do the work themselves.  During a disaster, self-motivation and cooperation with a team must work together to meet the challenges the library faces. 

This is, of course, only the response from one academic library.  We should and are working together to share best practices.  There are already several surveys circulating, asking individuals to share their responses to the crisis.  Hopefully, those results will be made available as soon as possible because it will help us plan.  As we navigate this new but hopefully temporary normal, we should be planning for two different futures: one where we are able to return to our buildings, and one where we are not.  The former will happen eventually, as our students miss our collaborative spaces, our computer access, and yes, even our physical materials, but the latter may last longer than we would like, or it may become necessary again at some future date.  We should try to learn from the best practices we are developing today, so that we can use those practices again in the future. 

Works Cited

American Library Association.  (2016).  Standards for Distance Learning Library Services.  Retrieved from: http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/guidelinesdistancelearning (Accessed April 14, 2020).  Document ID: afcce136-a64c-6094-6de0-7ad1550814c4

Gewirtz, S. R., Novak, M., and Parsons, J.  (2014).  Evaluating the Intersection Between WorldCat Local and Student Research.  Journal of Web Librarianship, 8(2), 113–124.  doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/19322909.2014.877312

Mueller, K. L., Valdes, Z., Owens, E., and Williamson, C.  (2019).  Where’s the EASY Button? Uncovering E-Book Usability.  Reference & User Services Quarterly, 59(1), p. 44-65, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5860/rusq.59.1.7224

Primary Research Group.  (2015).  The Survey of Library Services for MOOCS, Blended and Distance Learning Programs.  Primary Research Group, Inc.

Whiteside, B.  (2020, April 6).  UT, BGSU move all summer classes online.  The Blade.  Retrieved from https://www.toledoblade.com/local/education/2020/04/06/ut-and-bgsu-move-all-summer-classes-online/stories/20200406076

Recommended Readings

Clough, H., and Foley, K.  (2019).  “Is There Anybody There?”: Engaging With Open University Distance Learners.  In J. Joe, and E. Knight (Eds.), Social Media for Communication and Instruction in Academic Libraries (pp. 151-172).  Hershey, PA: IGI Global.  doi:10.4018/978-1-5225-8097-3.ch010

Cowick, C., and Cowick, J.  (2019).  Planning for a Disaster: Effective Emergency Management in the 21st Century.  In I. Management Association (Ed.), Emergency and Disaster Management: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications (pp. 142-163).  Hershey, PA: IGI Global.  doi:10.4018/978-1-5225-6195-8.ch008

Dixon, J., and Abashian, N.  (2018).  Beyond the Collection: Emergency Planning for Public and Staff Safety.  In I. Management Association (Ed.), Library Science and Administration: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications (pp. 1494-1514).  Hershey, PA: IGI Global.  doi:10.4018/978-1-5225-3914-8.ch070

Mabe, M., and Ashley, E. A.  (2017).  Emergency Preparation for the Library and Librarian.  In The Developing Role of Public Libraries in Emergency Management: Emerging Research and Opportunities (pp. 61-78).  Hershey, PA: IGI Global.  doi:10.4018/978-1-5225-2196-9.ch005

Tolman, S., Dunbar, M., Slone, K. B., Grimes, A., and Trautman, C. A.  (2020).  The Transition From Teaching F2F to Online.  In L. Kyei-Blankson, E. Ntuli, and J. Blankson (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Creating Meaningful Experiences in Online Courses (pp. 67-84).  Hershey, PA: IGI Global.  doi:10.4018/978-1-7998-0115-3.ch006

Van Krieken, T., and Pathirage, C.  (2019).  Factors Affecting Community Empowerment During Disaster Recovery.  International Journal of Disaster Response and Emergency Management (IJDREM), 2(1), 15-32.  doi:10.4018/IJDREM.2019010102  

Column Editors’ End Note:  As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to severely impact institutions and libraries as they transition to an online-only environment and serve as emergency response hubs for COVID-19 updates and educational resources, IGI Global continues to actively publish the latest information in library and information science, online education and resources, and more, to better serve institutions, librarians, and their patrons.  Well in advance of the increased demand for electronic resources, IGI Global offers all of its research content in electronic format, including e-books and e-journals, all of which are available in IGI Global’s InfoSci-Databases (www.igi-global.com/e-resources/).  To learn more about the InfoSci-Databases, or to request a free trial, email IGI Global’s Database Team at <eresources@igi-global.com>.  Additionally, learn more about the research surrounding the topics in this article by checking out IGI Global’s Research Trend article “What Is the Role of Libraries During the COVID-19 Pandemic?” at https://bit.ly/3ckQCRd.


Submit a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


ATG Conferences, Meetings and Webinars 10/26/20

ATG Conferences, Meetings and Webinars 10/26/20 NISO Plus 2021 Call For Session Proposals! You probably know by now that NISO Plus 2021 will be a global, virtual-first event. What you may not know is that, unlike the inaugural conference in February 2020, next...

ATG Conferences, Meetings and Webinars 10/26/20

ATG Conferences, Meetings and Webinars 10/26/20 NISO Plus 2021 Call For Session Proposals! You probably know by now that NISO Plus 2021 will be a global, virtual-first event. What you may not know is that, unlike the inaugural conference in February 2020, next...

ATG News You Need to Start the Week: 10/26/20

ATG News You Need to Start the Week: 10/26/20 Expanded access to JSTOR and Artstor extended through June 2021 According to Library Technology Guides "As the COVID-19 crisis continues to disrupt higher education, ITHAKA is extending the JSTOR and Artstor expanded...

ATG News & Announcements 10/23/20

- ATG News & Announcements 10/23/20 - Initiative for Open Abstracts According to this announcement the Initiative for Open Abstracts "is a collaboration between scholarly publishers, infrastructure organizations, librarians, researchers and other interested...

ATG Conferences, Meetings, & Webinars 10/22/20

Don’t Forget! Apply for ACRL 2021 Virtual Conference Scholarships by October 23 The deadline to apply for a scholarship to attend the ACRL 2021 Virtual Conference is coming up this Friday, October 23.  REGISTER The ACRL 2021 Scholarship program provides...


Share This