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The Library as an Essential Service

by Mary Ann Venner

Academic libraries are an essential part of the university experience.  The services, spaces and resources they provide support student success, faculty research and community outreach. As an active learning environment outside of the classroom, academic libraries offer a variety of spaces for students to engage in collaborative work as well as independent study.  As universities transitioned to online courses this Spring due to the coronavirus, libraries had to adapt as well.  At the University of North Texas (UNT), the Libraries were identified by campus administration as an essential service to support the needs of students and faculty in the online learning environment.  As changes on campus rapidly occurred, the Libraries' role as an essential service took on new meaning.

Most campus buildings closed when the shelter-at-home declaration made by county officials became effective March 25, 2020 in Denton County, Texas. However, it was decided that the main library, Willis Library, would remain open since we had about 1,200 students still living on campus in the residence halls. The services, spaces and resources offered by the library were a critical piece in the campus' efforts to provide support to students. The library remained open limited hours with limited services and limited staffing and all other library buildings were closed. The majority of library staff and student assistants began telecommuting.  As a library administrator overseeing public services, there were several priorities to consider.  We reviewed our services to see what we could continue supporting virtually and what we needed to temporarily discontinue. We had been moving in a good direction supporting the needs of online students, but with the transition to only online courses we had to adapt even more quickly.  Just as important was the need to keep our staff safe and support their ability to telecommute.  This included having safety supplies on hand for essential staff working in the building and providing laptops, webcams, hotspots and headsets for our staff and student employees who were working from home.  We reviewed our library public spaces, workspaces and workflows to identify what safety supplies were needed and how we could promote social distancing with effective signage and spacing of furniture.  We adapted our services to minimize contact with materials by routing checkouts to a self-checkout machine, closing our book returns, and temporarily discontinuing checkouts of print reserves and equipment except for laptops.

Supporting students and faculty

Several changes were made to our services to support the needs of students and faculty.  We extended the due dates for all checked out materials to the end of the semester.  Students were also able to checkout laptops and keep them until the end of the semester.  Since most students were away from campus, we waived late fees so they would not block students from getting access to library materials or completing university transactions like registering for summer classes or getting a transcript. Many students needed help getting access to their course textbooks so we assisted them with finding electronic access to the materials. We also assisted faculty with digitizing materials for their courses.  Research assistance was provided virtually through our network of various subject librarians as well as through our Ask Us Service.  We had planned on launching a new chat service this summer, but with the move to online courses during the Spring, we decided to move forward with starting the service earlier than planned.  It was one of the most popular ways students contacted the Libraries for assistance.  Changes in our services were communicated through a Continuity of Library Services LibGuide which was highlighted on our library homepage.  The LibGuide communicated the changes to our services in one centralized place for both our users and our staff to easily access.    The decision to keep our main library open was not an easy one, but it was welcomed by students who needed to access a computer or needed a place to study.  At the same time, we made sure our library employees had the equipment and materials they needed to assist our users remotely.

Supporting library employees

Having the technology and equipment necessary to telecommute was a priority for supporting our library employees.  We provided laptops and hotspots to employees who needed them.  Another priority was communicating updates on what was happening on campus and in the library.  Updates were emailed on a regular basis so library employees were aware of any changes that were taking place.  We also utilized tools such as Teams and Zoom to increase communication avenues and create collaborative networks where employees could share information and connect with their colleagues. We held planning meetings throughout the process to address needs as they arose and to discuss next steps. Participating in professional development opportunities such as webinars, online trainings and virtual conferences was encouraged and supported. Managers were encouraged to do frequent check-ins with their teams through virtual department meetings and virtual lunches to stay connected.  Library administrators frequently conveyed a level of understanding regarding telecommuting and how it brings its own set of challenges which are unique to the individual. Being understanding, reassuring and flexible as employees adapted to the new normal of telecommuting was a common theme mentioned in management team meetings as well as ways to promote safety and social distancing for employees working in the library.

Promoting safety and social distancing

Several steps were taken to promote safety and social distancing in the spaces of the library. Study rooms were closed.  Student use computers, printers and scanning stations were spread out. The number of chairs available at group tables was reduced.   Hand sanitizing stations were provided on each floor of the library.  Signage promoting social distancing was placed on tables throughout the floors of the building.  Masks and gloves were provided to essential staff working in the building.  Sanitizing supplies such as disinfectant wipes and disinfectant sprays were kept in stock and made accessible.  We spread out workspaces for essential staff and limited the number of people working in the building.  Access to the library was limited to only UNT students, faculty and staff.

The library's role as an essential service has remained constant although some adaptations have been made due to recent events.  Being recognized as an essential service by campus administrators, students and faculty has reinforced why libraries are so important and are valued for the work they do and the resources they provide.  Throughout these past few months library administrators, librarians, staff and student assistants have worked together to create a network of support for each other and the users we serve.  It is a balance between service and safety that administrators like myself constantly review to ensure we are supporting the needs of our campus community and caring for our library employees.

Copyright 2020 by Mary Ann Venner

About the author:  Mary Ann Venner has worked in academic libraries for over 20 years.  She is the Associate Dean for Public Services at the University of North Texas Libraries in Denton, Texas.