Boxer Library Shifts to Digital-First Model
Charlotte Beyer, MSIS, AHIP, was a month into her promotion as Library Director of RFU’s Boxer Library when the coronavirus pandemic required major changes to library operations in March 2020. Tables and study carrels were removed to accommodate physical distancing. Print materials and study aids — such as bone boxes and dry erase markers for white boards — were removed from circulation. The risk of these materials transmitting COVID-19 was too great.
Other resources, such as journals and digital textbooks, were already available electronically, although Ms. Beyer said she knew they would need to expand these services as much as possible to accommodate higher usage levels during e-learning and remote work.
“We have really shifted to a ‘digital first’ model when it comes to accessing information during the pandemic,” she said, noting that this applies not only to e-journals but also textbooks and even book chapters when copyright and licensing agreements allow. “Some textbooks just aren’t available with a digital license, but we actively acquire as many e-books as we can to increase student access whenever possible.”
Ms. Beyer notes that expansion of these and other resources was part of the library’s longer-term plans, but the pandemic accelerated the timetable for implementation.
The Librarian Is ‘In’ (Online)
One of the biggest challenges was making sure students and faculty could still contact the library staff for assistance. Like many RFU employees, members of the library staff have largely been working from home since the start of the pandemic. The solution? Implementing an oft-requested online chat program, and also connecting with library patrons via Zoom.
“The Student Library Advisory Committee often requested the launch of an online chat service for reference questions prior to the pandemic in March 2020,” said Ms. Beyer. “We were in the process of evaluating this type of service, and then the pandemic accelerated our plans when we launched it in March.”
When a topic requires more discussion than can be quickly addressed by chat, patrons can schedule a reference appointment via Zoom. Not only does this allow an option for face-to-face contact (sort of ), but the video conference technology offers an added benefit that isn’t part of a traditional in-person meeting.
“One benefit to Zoom appointments is, with the student or faculty member’s permission, we can record the Zoom meeting and then send a link to the recording so they can refer to it at a later time,” Ms. Beyer explained. This allows the patron to have the information on hand as needed, accessible at their convenience. She expects this option to remain available going forward, as long as there is interest.
Reconsidering Library Design
While the use of digital resources has spiked as demand rose due to remote learning and work, the library’s physical spaces have remained open for those who still seek a quiet space to study. “Some students have said they still need that space, it’s part of their study routine. For others, it’s about just needing to get out of their house or apartment for a while, particularly when they have two or three roommates who are also home trying to study or work,” Ms. Beyer said.
Much of the library’s furniture has been removed, with the remaining tables and study carrels spaced 8 feet apart. Students place signage on furniture they’ve used to indicate it needs to be disinfected before further use. Ms. Beyer noted that the pandemic has led to a rethinking of library design in institutions across the country. “Before COVID, libraries contained lots of open spaces. Now, the thinking is some open space is OK, but there will also still be a need for some physical separation.”
Although “digital first” is becoming the norm for accessing library resources, Ms. Beyer is quick to point out that it won’t become the only way. Electronic resources work great for some people, while others can view them as barriers to finding what they need. Ms. Beyer says she and her team are committed to meeting students where they’re at, whether in person or online. “Some students will still prefer that personal connection and want to drop in, and we’ll be here for that,” she said.