by John Lassiter (Director of Library Services, Georgia Northwestern Technical Institute)
An oft-repeated statement I have been hearing with increased frequency among library staff, faculty, students, and colleagues goes something like this: “… I sure will be glad when things get back to normal.” Yes, a little bit of normalcy would be great right about now. However, by “normal” do we mean the pre-COVID status quo of our own particular corner of the academic library world?
Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, I determined to shed my normalcy bias and asked myself if two-year and community college libraries would be the same after COVID-19. Academic libraries are a diverse group, as I know from having worked in various capacities for public, research, and two-year libraries for thirty-four years. The current and potential future impact from COVID varies according to their location, type of institution, institutional culture, and other factors. The conclusion I came to was that the systemic changes we were experiencing would ultimately change the library landscape permanently.
Before we delve into how things might be different, we will first need to consider some common characteristics that define the culture and academic environment of those institutions. Two-year and community colleges are not research institutions, and typically are non-residential. Many students take their General Education courses there and then transfer to local or regional institutions of higher learning. Outside of General Education courses, programs tend to be very hands-on and vocational in nature. Pre-COVID, many two-year and community colleges were also aggressively pursuing the expansion of online courses, and programs that were completely online. All of these factors, when combined, create an academic environment and culture which trends toward not being library-centric. Under these circumstances, library services and the “library as place” become vital in insuring the library’s role on a a campus.
Now that the pre-conditions and caveats are out of the way, we can look at the question so many of us are asking — “What kind of things might be different post-COVID?” I am no prophet, so I will not speak in terms of exact, precise changes in any detail. Rather, I will comment on some of the trends and areas of concern I have witnessed and their possible impact.
First on my list of concerns is the possibility that temporary effects and measures may (and often do) become permanent. Lower enrollment leads to budget cuts and furloughs. A reduction in staffing and fewer students on campus leads to reduced operating hours and facility usage. Fewer hours open and acquisitions cuts result in a smaller, less up-to-date collection, with corresponding reductions in physical item usage. The result is much like a combination of the domino effect with a rinse and repeat cycle. For those institutions that are non-residential, the effects of COVID-19 combined with a high percentage of enrollment that is exclusively online will, I think, result in a serious evaluation and reexamination of the traditional brick and mortar campus. In some ways, the situation may resemble the decline of brick and mortar retail establishments due to the growth of online shopping.
Many of us take for granted that libraries play an integral role in the life of our institutions. We do not worry about losing or even maintaining our relevancy. We do not pursue or contemplate it because we have never really had to. Sadly, not all academic libraries enjoy a high degree of criticality within their institution. Because of COVID-19, academic librarians from all types of institutions will quite possibly experience far more need to assert the value of the resources and services they provide. So how might a librarian in this position go about demonstrating their worth and proving their relevancy?
A great place to start is by having direct involvement in teaching and learning, especially when these are virtual. If you currently do not have a place within your Learning Management System (LMS), that needs to change. Librarians must have a seat at the Distance Learning table and take part in that conversation. One component of a stronger presence within your LMS may include new integrations that make it possible to embed library resources and services directly within LMS-based classes. How about “the textbook issue”? That has certainly taken on new urgency and meaning because of COVID. Is your library trying to provide answers and solutions? Academic libraries are greatly in need of a new model for eBook delivery that will directly support teaching and learning. Short of that new model, if your institution is actively pursuing Open Educational Resources (OER), volunteer to serve on the steering committee. Become a provider of the solution to your institution’s online learning resource issues.
Because of COVID, we will not be short of new challenges. The challenges will vary by the type and nature of an institution. The challenges will also vary by where the institution is in the reopening process, as well as the degree to which an institution has shifted to online learning. Quite honestly, sometimes remaining optimistic is the greatest challenge of all. Despite possibly sounding like Eeyore, I am really quite the eternal optimist. While not everything will be as it was prior to COVID-19, I believe there will ultimately be enormous opportunities for innovation in small academic libraries. Innovation itself is a challenge, especially on a reduced budget that was probably too small to begin with.
How about faculty engagement? My old face to face model of building relationships with faculty is currently on hold, and the virtual version is having very mixed results. Some faculty members transition well to a virtual environment, while others are struggling.
Lastly, I would like to touch, as an area of concern, upon the habits and routines of faculty, staff, and students. People are creatures of habit. Under intense stimuli or because of fear, those habits change in order to accommodate new circumstances. In response to COVID-19, faculty and students have changed their habits in many ways. Established routines have been broken. Old routines have been modified, but new ones have also taken their place. Where does it leave librarians if faculty and students get out of the habit of going to the campus library?
Many other as-yet-unseen factors and trends will conspire to bring about a sea change in how two-year and community college libraries function. The foregoing is strictly my personal opinion on what some of us may be facing very soon, if not already. I feel comfortable, however, in stating one thing as a certainty: The speed of change accelerated dramatically within our profession in 2020. My advice to anyone willing to listen?: Buckle up.