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?

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