“A man will turn over half a library to make one book.” Dr Samuel Johnson, English lexicographer, 1775
Dr Johnson’s words were more prophetic than he knew. He lived in an age which thought of libraries as storage houses for thousands of codex volumes. And that, of course, is what libraries continued to be until the digital revolution which began in the 1990s with the digitisation of journals, and has become ever more sophisticated, until today some of the resources obtained from academic libraries are multimedia constructs which amalgamate “reusable objects” – or extracts – from many books and journals, the latter also available in several formats. Most university libraries in the UK now have “digital first” policies. The amount of budget devoted to print is small and shrinks annually.
The librarians who take care of these complex resources are themselves not simply guardians, but also skilled disseminators, negotiators and teachers – some have formal teaching qualifications and “team teach” with academics in the classroom, primarily to demonstrate the resources available and how they should be used.
Covid 19 struck the UK in early spring 2020. Most universities allowed restricted access to the library and other buildings on campus at first; eventually the government ordered them to close completely. Given all the effort and expense that had gone into building digital collections over the last twenty years and the rise and rise of remote access and distance learning, it might be thought that moving lectures and research online and relying mostly on digital resources would cause few problems. Was this indeed the case?
Gold Leaf contacted senior librarians at four UK universities to find out. Two – we have called them Sonia and Rosemary – work at traditional ‘Russell Group’ universities; and two – Frances and Heather – at post-1992 universities (or former polytechnics).
Academic (non)familiarity with digital resources
The first thing they noted was that most academics were not nearly as familiar with digital resources and how to deploy them as had been believed. Academics were nervous. They wanted “reassurance” from librarians. (Frances). “They did not know how to access resources off-campus.” (Heather). “Very few had experience of delivering online or conducting seminars online.” (Sonia). “Many needed to upskill on the use of the video recording software that had previously only been used within on-campus teaching rooms.” (Rosemary).
Librarians to the rescue
Librarians already knew that academic proficiency in accessing digital resources and using Learning Management Systems [LMSs] was uneven, but they were surprised by how many academics turned out to be absolute beginners. “One of our Library teams, Learning Technologies, runs most of our Institutional support for our learning platform, Moodle, and they were heavily involved with training and support.” (Rosemary). “They were all asked to record their lectures in advance (to offset connectivity and access issues) and there was immediately an obvious need for a captioning service, which wasn’t widely available across the university at that time … the library teams supporting lecture capture and captioning required additional resource and an internal bulletin board to help facilitate moving [library] staff resource around to where it was most needed.” (Sonia) “We spent a lot of time creating and recording asynchronous sessions/presentations for staff to then add to modules on NOW [the LMS] for the students. For many courses, recorded material replaced some of the ‘traditional’ sessions we would have delivered face to face; we still did a lot of sessions ‘live’ on Teams, especially inductions for new students, but for the more detailed sessions there would often be a recording for the students to watch, followed up by ‘live’ Q&A sessions.” (Heather)
Resource management and acquisition
As important as helping academics to become competent in online delivery was for librarians to ensure that the resources they needed were available. It was quickly discovered how many core texts were not available in e-format. In the UK, librarians were massively aided by the Jisc free e-textbook programme, to which most of the big academic publishers contributed at the start of the first lockdown. However, this was discontinued by the start of the academic year 2020-2021, after which some e-textbooks proved unaffordable – the charges some publishers made for simultaneous user access sparked protests from librarians across the UK. Certain libraries, predominantly those serving Russell Group universities, persevered with their policies of not buying textbooks, which triggered renewed interest in Open Access Resources [OERs], especially open textbooks. Libraries organised a range of coping strategies to deal with these problems, including themselves digitising as much content as was allowed under the terms of the Copyright Licensing Agency [CLA] licence; making greater use of Inter-Library Loan [ILL]; and setting up click-and-collect services to enable access to print books from the library.
What helped academics most
We asked Sonia, Heather, Frances and Rosemary to name between three and five things they did that really helped academics during this period. Aids mentioned by most of them included reviewing resource lists and obtaining as much of the content as possible in e-format; setting up a scanning service; encouraging academics to think early about the support they would need in the next academic year; and making the case for extra funding to cover all these new initiatives. Others were more individual: “We have started to see academics (especially in HSS) start to realise the benefits of Open Access. They have worked with the library to get a better idea of what is open to them and how to access it. And these are subject areas that have been pathologically against OA up to now.” (Frances). “Helping academics who had themselves paid for access but then had no idea how to make it discoverable or how to handle authentication.” (Heather) “Working in partnership with one of our book suppliers, we set up a service for postgraduate students and academic staff, where we ordered print books to be delivered directly to peoples’ homes. When we were able to re-open the library, we replaced this with a postal loans (and free returns) service.” (Sonia) “From Week 1 we set up an online temporary Webpage Support Hub, one each for Academics and Students, with FAQs and direct links to the library teams best placed to help.” (Rosemary)
What kinds of help do academics most need?
Asked what help academics still need as restrictions are only gradually being relaxed more than one year after the first lockdown, Frances says they still have a long way to go before they understand properly the business models and pricing principles operated by publishers. Heather says they still need help with resource list management and how to create their own online content. Sonia says she and her colleagues will work hard to introduce them to more Open Access materials. Rosemary says that long-term strategic teaching plans need to be put in place, because “it seems likely that off-campus study will be with us to stay – in some [subject] areas for the longer term – and that this will never fully revert.”
Librarians’ standing rises
However else the Covid 19 years of 2020 and 2021 are viewed by historians of academia in years to come, one thing is surely clear: that academic librarians swiftly stepped up to the plate and made possible the continued undergraduate education of countless students, by supporting new kinds of teaching with their resourcefulness and know-how. Nor has this gone unnoticed by their contemporaries:
“I just wanted to say, as the Summer Term/exam season kicks off, what a wonderful job the library continues to do throughout this pandemic. I am extremely impressed with the breadth of support provided, and the sustained efficiency with which the team responds to queries/requests/issues.
“I have been especially pleasantly surprised by the efficiency of the Purchase Request process – it’s perhaps due to the nature of the works I request, but I’m consistently impressed by the speedy and helpful responses. It’s so encouraging to see how readily the library invests in requested resources, and I really appreciate the effort you go to to identify alternative ways to access a resource when purchasing it isn’t possible. Postal loans arrive promptly, and the process of requesting them is wonderfully straightforward – I have used this service a great deal, and my research would have suffered without it. My sincerest thanks to everyone in all corners of the team for your hard work and support 😊.” [Academic based at Sonia’s (Russell Group) university]
Dr Johnson would have been astonished.
[written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]
This article was first published in German language on 26 May 2021 in “Digital Publishing Report, Sonderheft Bibliotheken” as well as on 7 June 2021 in “Digital Publishing Report, Sonderheft E-Learning“.