COVID-19 challenges and responses A university librarians’ perspective

Photo by Dianna Snape

The pandemic sweeping across the world is a global crisis that has shut down cities, closed borders and has created once-in-a-lifetime challenges and changes for many.

Here we talk to Kay Tucker, Law Library Manager at Monash University about the unique challenges faced by Australian University libraries.

How prepared was your Library to respond to the current crisis in terms of your “work from home” arrangements and capabilities?

When the decision came to work from home, the Library was prepared. Monash reacted quickly, moving in line with Victorian Government recommendations and setting up the support systems needed. This ranged from provision of technology kits for staff needing internet and laptops, training videos to help set up an ergonomic space, and discussion of work expectations and duties.  Two Monash branch libraries remained open with restrictions during this time, which allowed a small number of staff to continue working onsite. Much of our existing work could be carried out from home and other services were re-imagined in innovative ways. For example, a virtual Information Point was established to help students whether on or off campus.

Kay Tucker, Law Library Manager
Monash University

Importantly for Library staff involved in teaching and learning, we were supplied with the technology and training to help us quite quickly convert from face to face to online teaching and student support. We already had experience in creating eLearning materials, so we created more! Zoom become our go to tool and we became expert in breakout rooms, efficient muting/unmuting, monitoring chat, and virtual backgrounds. The supporting infrastructure has coped well, after the initial short period of global Zoom instability.

Emotional support was considered from the start, and Library Wellbeing Champions quickly established initiatives to keep staff connected.  Law Library staff have twice weekly invitations to come together on Zoom for a “Cuppa and Chat” and enjoy some social time.

What does the day-to-day operation look like today compared to a couple of months ago?

Our day to day operation working from home has become our normal. We hold a morning team catch up, then settle in to our meetings, teaching, research support, etc. - activities which typically make up our day, whether on or off campus.

All interaction is virtual; we have a virtual information point and a virtual research and learning point for students whether they are in the Library or remote. Books are quarantined for 3 days after use, so much of the workflow has changed. Changes are happening quickly and often, so we are agile.

What feedback are you getting from students on the current modes of teaching and learning?

Communication is always important and especially so when we don’t see each other physically. Keeping up our connection is working for us now, from our morning video catch ups to our real time chat discussions about how to best answer that tricky research question.

Our students are loving the fact that they can easily drop in virtually and ask us questions. Students studying from overseas have become much closer through Zoom. We’ve felt able to support our students and help to make them feel connected with the University. Students want the same things in an online class that they want in a face to face class - passionate teachers and engaging activities to help them learn. It is up to us to give them this.

Feedback from later year Law students especially, who in the past have not been able to get to the Library due to work or other commitments, have told us how they’ve appreciated the virtual research and learning service

What have been the main challenges over the last few months and how have you addressed them?

One of the big challenges for librarians, lecturers and students has been access to textbooks. Many students were suddenly faced with loss of casual work (so reduced income) and, with the Library closed, no or very restricted access to print only texts. Where no ebook was available, this caused added stress in an already stressful time. While some allowances were made by some publishers, there were still many instances where students could not access their prescribed or recommended readings.

I think that many first year students found it a challenge to establish a connection to the campus and university life when they started their course virtually this semester. They were looking for ways to connect with other students. Along with many other University initiatives, the Library played a role in helping to start some of those connections through our group workshops and consultations.

Not all staff have a quiet environment to work in, and some of our staff have had to cope with home schooling, noisy next door neighbours, and building works. Flexibility and consideration has been key during this time.

What changes have you made in your Library that are likely to permanently change the way you operate?

The Library’s preference in buying ebooks over print has been in place for some time, but since the COVID-19 crisis ebooks have emerged as an essential requirement for equitable access.  Lecturers are also now much more likely to consider ebook access when assigning their readings.

We will be keeping many of our virtual services, evolving them as the University continues to evolve, and taking advantage of our learning and experience to continue to support students and work in more agile ways.

The ability to respond to change and come together as a supportive group to make quick, informed decisions has been a positive during this time, and has shown us what we can achieve.

What opportunities have you acted upon since COVID-19 both professionally and personally?

I’ve taken the opportunity to learn more about online teaching, both pedagogically and technologically, and to try to incorporate learnings into my classes. This will continue as we explore better ways to engage students to learn in flexible ways. I think there are opportunities for publishers to realise that the provision of ebooks is essential to this way of learning. We’ve come a long in terms of databases and electronic journals and law reports, but there is a need to improve the models for access to electronic texts. Reliable and easy electronic access to the resources students need to learn and prepare for their future careers needs to be a given.

On a more personal note, I realise that I’m one of the lucky ones - I have a comfortable house, reliable services, a nice walking route at lunch times, and most importantly a good coffee machine! I’ve taken the opportunity to exercise more - walking, cycling, exercise videos and yoga – appreciating the extra time saved from the daily commute. I’ve been inspired by the incredible range of virtual galleries and concerts and taken the opportunity to tour some of the great galleries and museums of the world from home, and to hear amazing musicians combine to create concerts from their own homes.

Find the latest curated news, business updates and research materials to keep you on top of the current pandemic crisis via the LexisNexis COVID-19 information centre.

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