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Challenges of Reopening the University Libraries: An Interview with the Libraries’ Client Access Experiences Staff

August 6, 2020

As Drexel University works to reopen the campus this fall, the Libraries is planning for a phased reopening of its four locations and resuming in-person services with proper social distancing and health and safety measures in place. The COVID-19 pandemic poses numerous challenges for libraries as they look to reopen—as it does for organizations in any industry—from rearranging furniture in physical spaces that meet social distancing guidelines, to determining best practices for providing in-person services.

This month, the Libraries’ Communications Manager spoke to two Drexel Libraries leaders, John Wiggins, Director, Services and Quality Improvement, and Katherine Fischer, Manager, Client Access Experiences, to discuss these challenges and to learn more about the Libraries’ plans for fall 2020.

Q: First, briefly describe your roles and what your jobs entails.

Katherine Fischer (KF): As the Manager of Client Access Experiences, I’m responsible for the staff-mediated services for the Libraries. I manage the program managers for Shared Access (who are responsible for resource sharing, reserves, and circulation), Information Assistance (who is responsible for connecting students with quick answers to informational queries) and other desk-based services.

John Wiggins (JW): And I am John Wiggins, the Libraries Director who provides strategic leadership and coordinates efforts to provide and improve quality customer services, working with Katherine and many others on our staff.

Q: What challenges are you facing as you create a plan for returning to campus this fall?

KF: Things are moving and changing very quickly, and there are no established best practices in the field to refer to. We have to make decisions based on the information available to us (which is also rapidly changing as new information about the virus becomes available). Trying to think of every possible contingency or possible scenario and plan for it is challenging.

JW: Katherine has identified the biggest challenges, though we count ourselves lucky to work in the library field, where information sharing, considering evidence, and identifying best practices are part of our DNA. Another challenge is extending our services on-site to support teaching, learning, and research that might need to be moved back online at an unknown point in the future. One of our approaches is to change as few workflows and policies as possible so our clients and staff can be confident in how to access the information, resources and services we provide at any given time.

Q: What factors are the Libraries considering as they map out their plans to reopen?

KF: Safety first! Our primary concern is the safety and well-being of our staff and clients. We are developing policy adjustments and putting new practices in place to guide use of our spaces and services with the safety of the Drexel community in mind. For example, at any time, we will schedule limited staff  to work in person from campus sites, while others continue to work from home, providing remote services—such as online consultations and research support—just as we’ve been doing since March. We are looking to the University experts who in turn are working closely with the city and state officials for guidance as we finalize our phased reopening plan.

Q: How are you preparing DUL staff for the return to campus?

KF: Open and honest communication is imperative. Our dean and directors regularly hold meetings with all staff to discuss University messaging and policies and how they impact the Libraries. We are using questions that come out of those meetings (and other discussions) to develop talking points and to help us with our planning. We are also seeking staff feedback—what services must be offered in-person versus remotely? What concerns do staff have about returning to campus or continuing to work from home? We are acknowledging staff concerns and working with individuals to make sure they understand their options and feel comfortable returning to campus if needed.

JW: I would add that we’re tracking and reinforcing the University’s safety information and guidance for our on-site staff, reminding staff of  Drexel’s Dragon Pledge—"our individual and shared commitment to take critical, proactive measures that keep each other safe.” We are trying to be as transparent with staff as possible at every step of the planning process. We want the Libraries staff to feel comfortable with what we are asking of them, while finding ways to provide our clients with the best possible services with minimal disruptions.

Q: What can the Drexel community expect when the Libraries reopens?

JW: As we reopen the Libraries locations, our unique informal learning environments will provide clients with space to study and work with limited distractions and access to Wi-Fi. We are focusing on ways to adapt our physical locations to support those individuals seeking to learn alone or sit amidst others to maintain their inspiration to focus on their learning; this translates to quiet and silent environments. Seating capacity in all locations will be reduced, and clients can expect to see signs and markers indicating where they can sit and to help them understand what 6-feet apart looks like.  

The Drexel community can also expect to see a new seat reservation system, which we are still finalizing. Library clients will need to reserve a seat online in advance, or they can contact the Libraries via chat, email or phone (during normal hours of operation) to ask for help making a reservation.

Checking out physical materials will also look a little different this fall. Research has shown that the COVID-19 virus can be detected for three days or more on different kinds of library materials. As a precaution, we may close the stacks to the public at all sites to keep the books and other materials quarantined. Instead of pulling books off the shelf themselves, library clients will request circulating books be pulled and held for them for pickup on campus or shipped to off-campus addresses. They can also request that book chapters and articles be sent electronically via email to download to their devices.   Currently, physical borrowing services are suspended, and physical books will become available via interlibrary loan and EZ-Borrow when there are libraries willing to share physical materials from their collections.

And of course, all clients entering the Libraries will be required to wear masks continually while in the Libraries environments and adhere to all University health and safety requirements. The health and safety of the entire Drexel community is our top priority, and we’re doing everything we can to make sure the Libraries are as safe as they can be while providing our key and unique services and resources to support teaching, learning and research at Drexel. We are excited to (safely) get back to campus, and we hope to see our Drexel Dragons in the Libraries very soon!

For more information and updates about the Libraries’ phased reopening plans for fall 2020, visit our COVID-19 Response website.