How to keep the library at the heart of campus—from a distance

Two educators share the importance of the academic library as its role evolves during--and after--the pandemic

Over the past several decades, academic libraries have invested tremendously in digital services and resources to support research, teaching, and learning. When the pandemic hit, forcing colleges and universities across the country to shut down and limit in-person instruction, many libraries were left wondering how to similarly pivot their spaces–frequently and lovingly referred to by many as the “heart of the college”–to a digital format.

In response, a number have turned to experimenting with technologies to simulate library space virtually. At Ithaka S+R, we’ve studied how some have employed tools that are commonly licensed institutionally–like Zoom, WebEx, and Google Hangouts–for hosting group study rooms and responding to reference questions. Others have branched out to more interactive tools like SpatialChat and InSpace where users can move around more freely.

These virtual spaces have the potential to offer a great deal of the traditional benefits of in-person library spaces—like a sense of belonging and ability to complete serious work—at a distance. But the limitations of these spaces must be recognized as well. The lessons we’ve learned have sometimes run counter to the conventional wisdom of digital learning, but they are essential as libraries offer virtual spaces and services.

To engage–or not!

Over the last year at Emory University in Atlanta, we have learned that events and virtual spaces should be carefully planned around an expectation of engagement. These conversations may take place between library staff as they plan events in virtual spaces or with disciplinary faculty before a one-off instructional session. What are the expectations for student/patron engagement? Will there be an activity or a break-out room?

One important lesson that we’ve learned is that “Zoom fatigue” affects students deeply, so for library events we start with a baseline of “Zero Engagement”–a phrase borrowed from Christine Glon, Associate Law Librarian for Research Services–and go from there. This means that we place an emphasis on quick sessions, low patron commitment, and the opportunity for users to disengage. When anonymity in virtual spaces is hard to come by, libraries can offer low-engagement spaces where patrons can work with few expectations for reciprocation, while still having access to library staff who can answer questions or provide search tips. In this way, the space can function like a virtual reference desk without the added pressure of scheduling a meeting in advance.

Flex flexibility

This leads to the second lesson we’ve learned: embracing ambiguity. We’ve all experienced the topsy-turvy-ness of the pandemic response and, at the library, we’ve come to value flexibility in our virtual spaces. Despite our best efforts, speakers will still get locked out of Facebook Live events, guest speakers on Zoom will inevitably forget to unmute, or video will lag. Even more importantly, some elements that were once standard in a physical space are simply unproducible in a virtual space.

Formerly, physical volumes from the reference collection were carted to and from workshops or instruction sessions. Teaching learners how to use physical dictionaries and encyclopedias was as important as teaching them how to navigate the digital catalog. The reference collection hasn’t moved in over a year now, and we quickly learned that the online formats required a different type of navigation and reasoning. Flexibility in plans and pedagogy helped us succeed in each new challenge.

Define success

Finally, transitioning to virtual spaces means redefining success. In the past, library staff and administration measured success by the number of guests at an event, how often certain collections circulated, and how many reference interactions we held at the desk. Now, success might look like turning a live Zoom event into evergreen content for our YouTube page, learning a new virtual tool, embedding content into course LMS sites, requests for follow up meetings, or invitations to return to a class or course session. Over the last year we’ve learned that as our platforms shift, our goals must shift as well.

While creating these virtual spaces can be a challenge, it’s a challenge that academic libraries are well-positioned to face. Decades of transitioning from print resources to electronic ones, and building both in-person and virtual services, have prepared library staff to explore and shape new roles, keeping the “heart of the college” beating for its students, faculty, and campus communities.

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