We’re Here to Help!
When the coronavirus pandemic struck the U.S. early this year, the University of Illinois faced a daunting task: how to complete the semester while stripped of typical college elements, such as in-class dynamics, hands-on lab sessions, checked-out library materials, and a swirl of cultural, sport, and social activities.
Still, humankind has always proved inventive in finding ways to transmit information—from clay to electronic tablets, papyrus to the printing press, the telegraph to telephone to Twitter, Skype, and Zoom.
And so too the University Library—arguably the most significant scholarly resource on campus—nimbly adjusted its services and personnel to quickly respond to faculty, student, staff, and public needs.
Whatever the Library was renowned for before the pandemic—its deep collections, expert personnel, and committed sense of service—it ramped up even more so in reaction to the crisis, becoming a kind of virtual Library on steroids.
That attitude is clearly displayed in the headline flung across its new COVID-19 resource page (www.library.illinois.edu/geninfo/covid-19/): “We’re Here to Help!”
“I want to assure you all that we will do what we can to ensure your success during these unusual circumstances,” Dean John Wilkin wrote to faculty about the role of the Library during the crisis. That role embraced three broad areas: adding online resources; offering support for online teaching and working; and continuing to provide services while protecting the health of both users and staff.
“Serving a disciplinarily broad campus, the Library already spends well over 70 percent of its acquisitions budget on acquiring electronic resources” said Tom Teper, associate university librarian for collections and technical services. “However, no matter how much we spend on electronic journals, books, and media, there are always gaps in what we can acquire and deliver to our users, especially during a time when access to physical materials is restricted.”
To help fill that gap, the Library embarked on a variety of solutions. It created a guide of publishers (guides.library.illinois.edu/expandedaccesscovid19) who recently increased access to their e-resources, a list comprising more than two dozen links to a wide range of disciplines, as well as more entertaining pursuits such as NPR concerts, the Metropolitan Opera, and Flipster magazines.
In addition, the Library partnered with other libraries and publishers to significantly broaden its offerings. It expanded ties with the HathiTrust, which offers a collection of millions of titles digitized from academic and research libraries around the world (nearly half of the Library’s 14 million-plus volumes can be accessed in the trust); Cambridge University Press ebooks; and ProQuest Academic Video Online, where users can find more than 70,000 videos to augment online learning.
The Library continues to provide its Ask a Librarian service, research instruction (in online classes), and LibGuides to support class assignments. It also pivoted to address new questions posed by the COVID-19 situation, ranging from how to access paywalled resources when off-campus to how to handle overdue items.
Support for teaching/working online
To enhance the brave new world of online classes and work-from-home environments, the Library has provided technical knowledge and assistance; the process, however, wasn’t as simple as saying, “Here’s a link,” “Here’s the book in digital format,” or “Let me demonstrate how Zoom teleconferencing works.”
Case in point: the heroic effort to help students in two civil and environmental engineering classes gain access to a critical handbook normally on reserve at two campus libraries. Wading through a morass of hurdles (including licensing, membership, copyright, vetting, individual passwords, limited online access, budget constraints, and personal safety), the lecturer, librarians, staff, and graduate assistants struggled for a week to come up with this viable (and legal) solution: Scan nearly 1,000 pages of the university’s print version and place them in an online box with controlled student access. The process—involving ingenuity, commitment, coordinated communication, and many midnight emails—elicited a wave of gratitude and amazement, summed up in this quiet but succinct response: “Wow.”
Service with a smile—and protection
With the closing of most of the university campus—and all of its libraries—through May at press time, staff quickly leaped to analyze how faculty/staff/public needs would morph with the crisis.
When the transition to online teaching was announced, within seconds George Gottschalk, director of acquisitions, began receiving questions from Library staff about how they could better provide access to materials. “The questions were not ‘What about me?’” he said, “but ‘How can I keep contributing?’ or ‘If they have enough laptops, these are the things I can do for the Library [from home].’”
These examples, Gottschalk said, showcase that employees’ first thoughts were about patron access and other “very selfless considerations.” Selflessness aside, the university has imposed strict guidelines to protect the health of library users and staff. All efforts aim at obtaining electronic sources before finally opting to deliver print material (for essential research only) while adhering to safety protocols.
The concerns run in both directions. In the Spring 2020 issue of “The Compendium,” a newsletter for UI library faculty, history professor Kristin Hoganson says she considers the Library and its services “a prime perk” of her employment at Illinois, “the bedrock upon which all my teaching and research rests.” Yet, while Hoganson has benefited from librarians’ adding materials and services online in the midst of the outbreak, she has hesitated to request print materials as a “cardiological precaution, stemming from the recognition that at the heart of the Library are the librarians who make the whole enterprise tick.”
“Without them, the Library is just a building that happens to hold books.”
And while faculty and students have resorted to online resources by necessity, members of the public are turning to the Library’s digital opportunities as a respite while sheltering in place. For Library Friend Julie Polonus of Peoria, Illinois, the online information at the History, Philosophy, and Newspaper Library, for example, continues to intrigue her. She reports using the website “for the old newspapers of various counties online, especially during . . . self-isolation. Thank you!”
This spring, as the coronavirus upended normal university life, Chancellor Robert Jones sent a video message to the campus community, saying, in part, “You are being asked to do something that has never been done before.” During this global emergency, the Library is responding and remaining both vigilant and relevant. It is a time, Gottschalk said, “that was—and will be—chaotic, exhausting, but very heartening.”
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