By Allison Campbell-Jensen
Coping with COVID was the challenge of the year. COVID closed our buildings during spring semester. Dealing with it by working from home forced us to find new ways to do things. And our new circumstances fostered an appreciation for an application with a zany name — Zoom. (For some, it’s more a love-hate relationship.)
From student workers to the Dean of Libraries, everyone felt the impact of changes as they tried to stay healthy and to adapt. Here are some of their stories.
In it together
Student workers Maddi Burch and Ellie Stimmel are glad their supervisors at Walter Library reached out while the libraries were closed and continue to be caring. This fall, during their shifts, they write, “we are reminded that we are not alone in these uncertain times. We are part of an amazing community as students and employees.”
Before Walter re-opened, staff were learning about PPE at about the same time as they needed to be training students, says Amy Lewis, one of the co-supervisors at Walter. Lewis and the other supervisors invited all the students who could attend a Zoom meeting to welcome them back and orient them to the new, safety-first format of the Libraries. Seats had been moved, Plexiglas had been put up, and hand sanitizer was available.
A Google chat room made it easy for students to contact staff if they needed help. To boost the student workers’ spirits, the supervisors asked one artistic student to create whiteboard drawings expressing their gratitude and thanks. In addition, Lewis says, the supervisors and full-time staff created kudos boards, thanking them for being willing to work this fall.
The move to working from home pushed librarians teaching workshops and course-integrated instruction to go online, too.
“You have to completely revise your activities and what you ask the students to do — and you have to learn technology tools to do that,” says Philip Herold, Director for Agricultural, Biological, and Environmental Sciences.
Many Libraries’ instructors chose to record their sessions, which can take quite a lot of time because of the need for a script — and with this asynchronous method, they are not able to engage the students in active learning.
Still, the staff supported many individuals and labs via Zoom meetings. On the St. Paul campus, Herold points out, many graduate students and faculty in the plant, biological, and zoological sciences typically do field research in the summertime. COVID intervened.
“They came to us to do other kinds of research that didn’t involve field work,” he says. “We saw an increase in systematic reviews, scoping reviews, and meta-analyses.”
Early in the pandemic, library staff also took care of Leonard the Turtle, who had to check out of the Natural Resources Library before it closed. Herold helped move her tank to the home of Libraries’ staff member, Jan Fransen, where she still lives.
Curators in Archives and Special Collections found it challenging not to be able to access collections, says Director Kris Kiesling. “We’re pretty tied to our materials . . .,” she says. “Fortunately, we have a lot digitized.” If they couldn’t locate the exact materials for a faculty member, they would find something close to it.
Not being in the Elmer L. Andersen Library presented another issue. “When you have such valuable materials in the building, you want to keep an eye on them all the time,” Kiesling says.
Still there was a silver lining, as curators and staff kept busy updating online collection descriptions, focusing on diversity and inclusion, as well as modernizing language choices. Unanticipated was the result of people staying busy at home, cleaning out their houses and their files. “It has a trickle-down effect for us,” Kiesling says.
The Andersen Library now is open, by appointment, 16 hours a week, for University affiliates. “We’ve had a steady stream of researchers come,” she says.
The show must go on
Tayari Jones, author of the best-selling “An American Marriage,” was slated to appear at the Friends of the University Libraries’ NOMMO, a series that was going to re-launch under a new name: The Archie Givens Jr. NOMMO Speaker Series.
“First, we postponed it until May, thinking this would be over by May,” says Linda Greve, Program Director for Community Outreach. “Then we thought September.” Finally, they cancelled the event.
The Friends were able to offer virtual events in the fall. Pankake Poetry featuring Wang Ping was their first web-based event, followed by Behind the Headlines: Reporters and news consumers in a 24/7 media world, with Libraries and University experts and a Star Tribune reporter. To promote the events, Greve says, “we used to send print materials, but now we use social media. We’ve cast a wider net and that’s been extremely helpful.” Watch for more events this spring
Because of COVID, Director of Libraries Facilities & Operations Management Bernadette Corley Troge, the only essential worker at the start, went into campus twice a week from March to May to empty book drops, sort mail, and check on rare book rooms. She dealt with PPE — first, trying to scrounge supplies for health care workers, and then ordering it for Libraries staff. Her staff moved tables, printed and placed stickers to encourage social distancing, put up Plexiglas, and placed cleaning buckets all over the four open Libraries.
At the same time, Corley Troge says, she and her staff had to move along other projects, such as getting the right furniture for the Toaster, replacing electrical components of compact shelving with mechanical ones in Wilson Annex, getting data jacks activated in the new Health Sciences Library, and overseeing the Wangensteen Library rare books vault project. She made sure those continued.
New name, new space for Health Sciences Library
Years of planning went into the moves of the former Bio-Medical Library, now Health Sciences Library, and the Wangensteen Historical Library, says Erinn Aspinall, Associate Director of HSL Program Development and Strategy.
“We took a holistic approach to our planning,” she says, considering facilities, collections, and the integration of emerging technology with librarians’ expertise. While their move in the middle of a pandemic was a monumental effort that required coordination and collaboration among staff, computing services, and facilities, the preparation “allowed us to be nimble.”
In the remote learning environment, HSL staff have been reflecting on students’ needs by considering the whole person. Some may have noisy roommates, be surrounded by family, or have difficulties getting to campus. “Moving to recorded sessions, as a lot of our instructors have done, has really opened opportunities to get our instructional content, support, and expertise into the hands of our students when and where they need it,” Aspinall says.
The staff also are seeking ways to facilitate clinical training and patient encounters. Once the Virtual Reality Lab is fully realized, for instance, students can better understand patients’ lives through experiencing their conditions.
The Health Sciences Library re-opened in a new space with new student employees who had to learn their jobs as well as safety protocols to prevent COVID.
“Our operations staff prepared everyone so well,” Aspinall says. “They have served as a model to maintain COVID-related policies in a way that still offers a welcoming environment for our users.”
The transition to working from home has been rocky for some and totally great for others, says Carissa Tomlinson, Director of Physical Sciences and Engineering. For those with small children, like herself, the lack of day care in the first months made work challenging. Yet whether with professional development or projects across the libraries, all of the staff either found work or had work found for them.
There are opportunities to do things in new ways.
“A couple of my librarians were interested in meeting up with science librarians around the state,” she says. They put together a list from a variety of sources and set up a Zoom meeting. Even though participants were distant, it turned out to be a great networking opportunity. In addition, “some people working from home find it more productive,” Tomlinson says. “We can move ahead in a lot of ways, letting people work where they feel comfortable.”
The creativity of folks in finding solutions strikes Jennie Burroughs, Interim Associate University Librarian for Research & Learning. History Day usually brings hundreds of middle- and high-school students to campus, but that could not happen this year. Richmond Kinney and Sunshine Carter negotiated with vendors to make some relevant databases accessible to History Day participants, which should help them. And Burroughs notes that business reference librarians Mary Schoenborn and Caroline Lilyard have found it much easier to schedule MBA student project team meetings when no travel is involved.
“It’s difficult for us as a land-grant institution right now to be only open to the University community,” Burroughs says. “We’re really looking forward to opening up our building to the public again in the future.”
Making it digital
“I remember being in 499 (Libraries administration) as news of COVID was really ramping up. It was clear that we were likely shutting down,” says Kate McCready, Interim Associate University Library for Content & Collections. “If we are a digital library only, what is core?” Clearly, Interlibrary Loan, E-resource management, and virtual reference were core. In addition, the Libraries arranged for temporary emergency access to items in the HathiTrust digital repository corresponding to our holdings.
At first, Interlibrary Loan and Digital Delivery were stymied by the shuttering of partner libraries. But as other libraries reopened, ILL could obtain titles and Digital Delivery staff gained access to the Libraries’ materials. The Interlibrary Loan staff has had to mediate requests to find out if patrons want physical copies or electronic copies. With about 50,000 requests a year to borrow items, McCready says, “that has taken a huge amount of work and a big shift to figure out how to mediate that with the staff that we have.”
The E-resource management team made it easier to report connection problems by putting a help button in every record, so that if patrons noted a link wasn’t working, they could notify the team immediately. Links change for a variety of reasons, McCready says; our numbers of notifications “dramatically increased.”
Another change was in the system for relaying suggestions for purchase. In the past, the Libraries relied on the liaison librarians to forward suggestions. During the pandemic, the team added a suggest a purchase form that any University affiliate can fill out. “So that was another creative way to try and meet those information needs — to have a quick, easy way for people to make a suggestion,” McCready says
As the Libraries face a space crunch, collection management and preservation has been looking for ways to reduce the footprint of our collection through consolidation of collections. “We also look at our serials, where we can buy electronic backfiles so that we can withdraw the print serial runs,” McCready says, which makes access more equitable for anyone on campus.
Changes due to the pandemic affirmed the Libraries’ direction, says John Butler, Associate University Librarian for Data & Technology. “This year demonstrated how well-prepared we have been for this past 25 years for a moment like this,” he says. “We moved into this with a long-established notion that we wanted to be an anytime, anywhere library. Not dependent on place.”
There are more opportunities. The HathiTrust experience demonstrates that digital library access and reading could be improved with a better user interface. Conferences have shown that virtual events can be attended by many more people by removing the barrier of travel costs. And, Butler points out, presenters can be invited from around the country and around the globe. We may want to rethink our priorities, he says. “The experience is giving us the license to make bold changes.”
Not knowing what changes she would confront, Lisa German began as University Librarian and Dean of Libraries on Feb. 28, 2020. “I had met some staff at a gathering on March 10,” says German. “A week later, we were closing our buildings and branches to help prevent the spread of COVID.”
During this time of uncertainty, she decided it was very important to meet with as many staff as possible. She wanted to keep everyone up to date, encourage them, and help create a feeling of community.
Daily check-in meetings via Zoom offered everyone an opportunity to ask questions of the Dean and the Cabinet members. “As we created our plans for the Sunrise re-opening of services and buildings, keeping our communications open was vitally important,” German says.
Growing trust and transparency also were essential as the Libraries dealt with the killing of George Floyd. “We had many conversations during our Zoom meetings,” German says, “and I also collaborated with our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Leadership Committee.” Through the medium of Zoom, she got to know Libraries’ staff better, and they, her — probably more so than if everyone had not been coping with COVID.
Washington Post, NBC News: McGee’s work top story for 2020
Rose McGee was highlighted for making a difference in 2020, by the Washington Post. McGee’s story was also highlighted as a top 2020 news story by NBC News.
McGee is the founder of the Sweet Potato Comfort Pie project, which she started after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a White police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.