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Dean’s Update: Communicating when the message keeps evolving

August 7, 2020

The Drexel University Libraries (DUL) is certainly not unique in spending the summer addressing how to reopen on-campus library support of a university during a pandemic. Librarians and other professional staff in all types of libraries around the world are addressing how to provide virus-free access to shared physical information resources, and to manage safe physical spaces for clients to occupy with care for their own and others’ well-being. Those of us fortunate to have reliable Internet service and access to e-resources also are addressing how to continue and improve remotely delivered, affordable access to critical information resources and convenient guidance from library experts to navigate information services in cyber spaces. 

I re-read this first paragraph, observing that it captures what we have repeatedly expressed during other Augusts, except perhaps for greater use of “safe” and “physical” over earlier emphasis on “electronic” in our DUL narrative. Through In Circulation, we highlight initiatives and operations by which the Libraries develops services, manages resources, and evolves staffing capacity to achieve its core obligations to the University. We are not changing our mission-driven obligations to ensure access to authoritative information resources, to deepen Drexel’s connections to scholarship, to build informal learning environments in physical and cyber spaces, and to model a collaborative and entrepreneurial organization. Then what makes communicating about our preparation for a new academic year so different this month, with unprecedented changes during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The pandemic affects at least three key responsibilities within the DUL that depend on reliable, clear, authoritative and accurate information. These include evidence-based planning, managing staff capacity, and shaping client expectations. Here are a few insights into our communication activities around these tasks that have emerged this past month.

Evidence-based Planning

We read news reports and watch televised briefings, and quickly realize that, in the past several months, knowledge about COVID-19 has evolved on no set schedule and from no single source. As a result, planners who seek evidence to guide decisions must be agile and pivot in making plans on how to adjust operations to respond to the health impact of the pandemic.

At Drexel, a campus committee has been set up to coordinate planning and communication of recommended precautions and adjustments to operations campus mangers should follow. The committee protocol seeks feedback from a separate Science Advisory Group composed of Drexel experts in public health, infectious diseases, and environmental engineering. This Science Advisory Group reviews evidence issued by local and national government and research organizations for our local setting.

The DUL follows campus recommendations—trusted to be evidence-based—in planning space elements and expectations of client behaviors while in our managed facilities. Staff are also tracking research conducted by the REALM project on risk and the duration of trace presence of COVID-19 on materials found in libraries. We sought confirmation from the University’s Science Advisory Group of our plans to handle and quarantine physical books.

By working with campus Facilities and Occupational Safety & Health departments, we also raise awareness that the Libraries’ informal learning environments have more flexible space and furnishing designs than formal classrooms and labs, and thus we seek different advice on conditions to manage safe client and staff interactions. 

DUL staff who most directly experience the impact of the fluid and changing communications during this pandemic are the ones revising services offered on campus in physical library facilities. In this issue of In Circulation, you can learn more about their challenges through reading an interview with two seasoned leaders who are adjusting our informal learning environments and services to offer access to physical materials during the pandemic.

Managing Staff Capacity

Understanding the challenges beyond the workplace that our staff face affects our estimates of human capacity to manage changed services and operations conducted on campus. We are trying our best to bring back staff to campus—at least during the fall term–on a rotating basis and only for work requiring on-site presence. Everyone will continue some activities remotely from home.

As we are designing ways to provide shared use of library seats for alone and amidst learning, we have identified the need for more staff to be onsite than before to manage access to our physical facilities. However, with a limited number of staff anticipated to work on campus for the fall, we are also limited in the number of hours per day (and the number of days per week) we can open our physical environments and provide on-site services. Not only will the number of available seats be reduced to meet social distancing precautions, but with anticipated fewer staff working on campus, the number of hours per day and per week the Libraries is open to clients will be fewer this fall than last year.

How to communicate the results is a challenge both due to the changing calculations of furnishing designs and staff availability, and the need to be prepared at any time to return to total remote delivery of services if the city restricts openings due to changes in the numbers of cases and health response capacity.

Shaping Client Expectations

As an organization committed to service quality improvement, the Libraries aims to manage client expectations. This requires understanding of our diverse clients’ perceptions of excellent services and of the DUL delivery of actual services, as well as clear statements of our service deliverables. Both communications are always challenging in a large, multi-faceted university, but nowadays we are faced with adjusting expectations among clients who may not fully understand what it takes to manage reopening an academic library while addressing health and safety, as well as fiscal restrictions.

We have worked to seek feedback and vet ideas, but ultimately are often debating whether to present the “new normal” for the coming year as “what we are changing from what we did before” or “how we are creating new solutions for new conditions.” I also find it difficult to continue a service communications principle I often promote—to present what we can do over what we cannot, or put otherwise, ”avoid using ‘no’” in presenting the Libraries’ services.

I recently read the August update that Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress, shared. There are tips of communication to take from her straightforward, clear and positive communication of news that the Library of Congress remains closed but is rich in its remote services. We will look to Dr. Hayden, and others, as we continue to find new ways to extend our support for teaching, learning and research at Drexel and also to find ways to communicate our offerings during this challenging and rapidly changing time in our history.

Danuta A. Nitecki, PhD
Dean of Libraries