We have heard a great deal about front line workers this year – nurses and doctors and all those working for the NHS and its counterpart national and medical organisations throughout the world; teachers; members of the armed forces; delivery men; and those who toil at jobs in retail when they’re allowed to go to work and put a brave face on it every time there’s another lockdown and they have to stay at home and forego some or all of their wages and contend with the ever-present threat of redundancy. Like everyone, we are full of awe and respect for all of them; but there are people who are not working in the front line who have also been performing incredible feats of industry, endurance and imagination to secure benefits for others throughout this strange and exhausting year.
Top of our list at Gold Leaf are academic librarians. We are familiar with their activities because we work with them all the time; and their achievements this year have been truly astonishing. Within a week – and sometimes within 48 hours – of the first lockdown in their respective countries, academic librarians the world over swung into action. They arranged for students, lecturers and researchers to access online resources remotely; they arranged click-and-collect and scanning services for those reliant on print; they opened up space for research and study in the library as soon as they were able for those who were disadvantaged by having to work from home.
This might all sound quite routine: surely academic librarians have been moving to online resource provision for the best part of twenty years, and with ever-escalating rapidity during the last decade? It may be true that this is the case; but it doesn’t detract from what they have had to accomplish in the past nine or ten months.
In the first place, the Covid restrictions have perforce alerted them to the proficiency – or otherwise – of library users when discovering, accessing and using online products. This includes library users at all levels, from senior academics and researchers to first year students. Librarians have discovered that certain very eminent academics, including those who have been extolling the virtues of digital publications for years, have had very little direct experience of using them. As for students – many librarians smile at the use of the term “digital natives”. It seems that people of all generations vary massively in their online capabilities – one librarian even said that some of her younger librarian colleagues did not know how to use all their library’s digital holdings; but in the main it is the librarians who have been teaching everyone else.
Instruction from librarians to other university colleagues has not been limited to advice on how to access and use digital products; a more time-consuming and far-reaching task they have shouldered is to help academics design online lectures and seminars. Last spring it quickly became clear that taking a routine face-to-face lecture online as it stands does not work, particularly in Arts and Humanities subjects, where many lectures are scheduled to last for more than an hour. Librarians have been coaching academics in how to combine technologies – video streaming with ordinary Zoom and Powerpoint, for example – to make online lectures more interesting; and finding ways of covering topics “shorter but with a deeper dive” to accommodate digital attention spans. Some initiatives have been so successful that at universities where some students in a cohort have been invited to a face-to-face meeting while the rest of the cohort joins it online, many have preferred to ask for the online option.
The digital products themselves have also required attention. Despite the ever-increasing, ever-accelerating demand for digital resources – many universities now have an “e-first” policy, some even and “e-only” one – catering for remote resource provision has highlighted the fact that many resources are still not available in e-format, particularly textbooks; therefore, librarians have had to work hard to find viable alternatives. This may include investigation into open textbooks, which are increasingly becoming of interest to both academics and librarians. Publisher-provided e-textbooks sometimes present a further challenge once they have been located: the business models employed do not always work for library budgets, so librarians may not be able to purchase all they would like to; again, the only option is to spend time looking for alternatives.
Despite all these obstacles, difficulties and challenges, as they reach the end of this year academic librarians everywhere have earned massive gratitude from the communities they support by solving every problem that has been thrown at them, usually with great tolerance, humour and ingenuity. In 2020 academia has suffered many blows and setbacks, but one hugely positive outcome of the Covid pandemic is that having to address it on behalf of their patrons has raised the profile of librarians. The value of the work they do has now been properly acknowledged, in many instances for the first time. Librarians of the world, we salute you!
We wish all the readers of this blog a very happy Christmas and a happy, healthy and successful New Year. We have been massively grateful for all your interest and support during this strange and difficult year and look forward very much to engaging with you again in 2021, when hopefully the future will look a little brighter for all of us.
Linda, Annika and James