by Bob Nardini (Vice President, Library Services, ProQuest Books)
That wasn’t a question we asked when the pandemic began. Back then, in March, as we were sent home from workplaces, as schools closed, as shopping the grocery aisles was like a treasure hunt, we’d expected to be back in the office by summer; wondered when the spring school term would resume; hoped, at the store, we’d managed to buy enough of the necessities to last.
That’s when the idea arose for this issue of Against the Grain. I thought, at the time, that the issue might be a retrospective account of how academic libraries and their parent institutions came through a period of historic disruption, when everything that had been normal suddenly wasn’t. And that’s partly true; the contributors to this issue do recount the steps libraries took to face COVID-19. How Zoom became their central artery. How their print collection became problematic in ways nobody anticipated. How members of the teaching faculty needed the help of librarians in ways they’d never thought about.
But today — in mid-November 2020 — much of this has become routine. The spring’s emergency measures are now daily library S.O.P., the “new normal,” a phrase by now we could all repeat in our sleep, and probably do. While the news at last brings encouraging, credible reports of progress in development of an anti-COVID vaccine, case counts and death counts are on the rise, nobody knows how or when a proven vaccine will be distributed, and when it is distributed, how many people will decline to take it. Nobody knows for how much longer campus spaces will be desolate, classrooms will stay locked, libraries operate in a half-closed, half-open state.
Today, when we wonder when libraries will reopen, we also wonder how much of what has changed will never change back. We all sense that we’ve entered a new stage in the history of academic libraries, but none of us knows exactly what that means. We know that budgets and staffing are bound to be affected; but to what degree, we don’t know. We know that many people have successfully adapted to remote, online work, teaching, and study; but we don’t know how beneficial that’s been, and we know, too, that many people haven’t done well. We know that electronic resources of all kinds will be the core of teaching and learning; but we don’t know if the structural models of an industry, now so central to higher education, will adapt so that fewer people are prevented from using these resources. We know that print will not disappear, but we don’t know quite what to do about it. We know that the social and racial inequities in society at large are reflected in the world of higher education, and within that in the services provided by libraries; but we are unsure of being able to make a difference.
We do know that one day, COVID-19 will be under control. And we know when that day comes something will have changed, for academic libraries and for the larger world. In this sense, the pandemic will never end.
As John Lassiter puts it in his contribution to this issue, “Old routines have been modified, but new ones have also taken their place.” John, today the Director of Library Services at Georgia Northwestern Technical College, a multi-campus, two-year college located in Rome, Georgia, has worked in all kinds of libraries over his long career. One thing he knows from those years is that “temporary effects and measures may (and often do) become permanent.” Will the students and instructors who have learned how to operate away from campus, with little or no need for the library, return to their work as they did it prior to COVID-19? Or are they more likely to stay away? Every library, John believes, is going to need to prove its value in a post-COVID world. He has suggestions on that, and ends his contribution with a two-word piece of advice all librarians would do well to follow.
If there is a librarian anywhere who has deeper experience with academic library consortia than Kim Armstrong, I’d be surprised. Kim, who has worked for several groups, is today Executive Director of the Orbis Cascade Alliance, an organization based in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. For her contribution to Against the Grain, Kim interviewed ten colleagues who direct consortia from coast-to-coast across the country. The pandemic has been a “clarifying event” for consortia, Kim writes, one that will require them to demonstrate their value to membership. In saying this, Kim echoes the advice John Lassiter gives to libraries about their own local communities. “When do we move out of crisis mode,” Kim quotes one of her fellow directors, “and think about our strategic directions? Where do we want to be after COVID?”
One thing that will certainly happen, long after COVID, is that librarians who succeed us will sometimes wonder what it was like, in 2020, for a frontline librarian to face this pandemic. One place they will look to find out, or should look, is this issue’s contribution from Erin Gallagher, E-Resources Librarian at the University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, and David Isaak, Director of Collection Services for Reed College, Portland, Oregon. Erin and David, who formerly were colleagues at Reed, have recorded a conversation with one another that extended from June to September. Curious future researchers will learn a lot from Erin and David, but so will readers today, who will also have the chance, now that it is past, to relive with distance the early, chaotic days of lockdown. Did you realize communication can be more challenging in a small organization, such as Reed, than in a mammoth library, like Florida? Have you been in Zoom meetings with “hot fire in the chat window,” that weren’t “a big happy love fest?” Do you know anyone who used to be “so anti-camera” pre-pandemic, but now is “so happy” on Zoom to see the faces of colleagues? The focus for Erin and David is team leadership, but they touch on all kinds of issues, small and large — to echo the title of their contribution — and I promise you will enjoy reading their joint take on these pandemic months.
Because none of us has seen anything like it, it’s natural to think of COVID-19 as unprecedented. That’s not true, of course. Plagues have afflicted society throughout history, including in our own time. Gracemary Smulewitz, longtime Head of Collection Services at Rutgers University, now retired, reminds us of this. She’s based her contribution on a New Yorker interview with Gianna Pomata, an historian who reflected on how the terrible Bubonic Plague of the fourteenth century caused a break with centuries-old ways of thought that led in time to the Renaissance. In her own field, the history of medicine, Pomata described how the scholastic medicine of the Middle Ages, based on a fusion of ancient texts and astrology, came to be overturned in favor of an empirical, scientific approach. Waves of new creative thinking will emerge from our own pandemic, Pomata believes. Gracemary thinks that Pomata is right, and concludes her own reflections on a note of promise for academic libraries, where, she writes, we have “a lot to hope for and to work for.”