The day the libraries shut

Jisc's Faye Holst talks to library staff from around the sector around the challenges faced by university libraries during lockdown, and looks ahead to the way things will change.

The last time the library at the University of Glasgow shut for a prolonged period was about 52 years ago, while moving to its current building.

But rapid change is certainly not new for academic libraries. They have had to be adaptive and flexible to new innovations in learning and research for some time now, but never has change been imposed in such a short space of time – and it was hard.

When we announced the library was closing, there were a lot of people who just couldn’t believe the library had to shut down, too,”

says Martina McChrystal, director of library services at Glasgow.

The day of the lockdown will stay with me for a long time. It was a surreal situation, there were so many emotions and concerned students not knowing what was going to happen and we were trying to reassure everyone that the services would still be running albeit in a different way.”

Stockpiling books?

University libraries have traditionally provided not only print and online learning materials but are also often a base for student services such as pastoral care, counselling and wellbeing advice. So, closing was hard on many levels. “For many librarians, closing down the building felt a bit like switching off life support,” says Jenny Foster, customer support manager at Edge Hill University.

People were sort of panic buying the books by the bucket load and would come in and fill whole suitcases,”

adds Lisa McLaren, academic services manager at the University of Sussex

Almost immediately after the initial shock had receded, university librarians were finding ways of giving students access to online learning materials while having to adapt to remote working themselves.

A lot of people found it all quite challenging for the first week or two, but it’s amazing how quickly people have adapted,”

says McLaren. The University of Sussex has a diverse range of staff, with different levels of digital access. One member of staff was particularly anxious about working from home, especially as he had neither a smartphone nor a home internet connection. But the university found a way around these boundaries.

“We’ve given him the departmental laptop and a dongle and before you know it, he’s on Zoom with the camera on!” McLaren explains. “At first, he was very anxious, but the outcome has been brilliant. He now wants to work from home one day a week when this is all over”.

Flexible minds

The team at Edge Hill University has also faced-down previously unthought-of changes, explains e-resource and technical systems librarian, Ruth Smalley.

It’s been an amazing journey for my team. We’re not the most tech-confident team in the world but the way we have managed to adapt has been phenomenal. That confidence in being able to change and do things differently and use technologies will be a real benefit for when we want to implement new things in the future.”

Historically it seems that there’s been resistance toward librarians working from home, but the enforced remote working during lockdown has challenged that – it’s become clear that they can work off-site effectively, which should give librarians greater flexibility in future. As Karen Rowlett, research publications advisor at Reading University, put it:

It’s sometimes even easier to work online. Before the lockdown we were having some difficulty getting people to come to our training sessions, but now we’re offering online tutorials and we’ve had a lot more people than usual attending,” she says. “It’s so much easier to explain something by sharing my screen, for instance, when researchers and students need help with filling out online forms or submitting items into a repository.”

Free resources in doubt

While librarians have had to grapple with working from home, they have also worked tirelessly to give students and staff access to thousands of e-books made freely available by publishers. says James Anthony-Edwards, university librarian at the University of Exeter, reflects

It’s going to be interesting to see what publishers will do when this free access to all these e-textbooks comes to an end in June. W

e’re worried about what will happen when all the free online resources will no longer be free. We can’t pay to subscribe to them all, especially with universities now looking at cuts in income of 15 to 25 per cent.”

It’s now up to the sector to push back against unaffordable pricing models that don’t reflect library budgets and try and maintain access, adds Anthony-Edwards.

 It’s got to be about the sector and Jisc pulling together to represent us with the publishers. I think we need to focus our minds on both the cost of teaching resources and on journals and research resources. That overall cost needs to be kept in check.”

Reading University Library is also questioning the future role of publishers. Rowlett asks:

Why are publishers making Covid-related research openly available but other research, for instance on cancer, is not? Why is that hidden away from the greater good behind paywalls?”

And there will also certainly be questions from students and staff who have got used to easier access to resources during the pandemic. “What happens when that disappears again?” she says.

A new chapter

Nobody knows when university libraries will be able to literally open their doors again. Looking at Europe, where coronavirus lockdowns are tentatively being lifted, universities and their libraries have found themselves near the back of the queue for reopening, with campuses in several countries expected to stay largely closed to students until the next academic year.

The Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL) has sent out a questionnaire to try and take stock of what UK universities are doing in preparation for reopening the physical library again, but when and how this happens is still unknown. Martina McChrystal at Glasgow agrees:

“What we do know is that the way we’ll manage our collections and services is going to be hugely different. We don’t know much about how long the virus can survive on different surfaces but we’re gathering insight on that and are sharing information with our counterparts to prepare for reopening and an incremental return.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom. McChrystal is optimistic about the survival of the physical collections:

 I find it reassuring that the university of Glasgow has been collecting books since 1475 so some of our titles will have gone through plagues and epidemics before,” she says. “And they all have come through.”

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