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Dean's Update: Challenges of planning for a future with COVID-19

June 15, 2020

The disruptions of a global pandemic both instantly changed everyone’s priorities, and by necessity, how we frame the way we plan for a future. What makes this disruption so different from others for the Drexel University Libraries? 

The threat of this one coronavirus affects everything. Its presence quickly caused a global public health crisis, tragically with increasing infection and fatality rates. By necessity, safety and survival had to be the first priority for planning in every governed community, in every industry, and in every organization. 

One key difference in planning for the Drexel Libraries in the face of this pandemic is that the critical impact of aligning the Libraries’ resources and expertise to contribute to this first priority of health and safety is not immediately evident. Our current strategic directions, set three years ago, do not explicitly focus on how the Libraries can uniquely contribute to the University’s elevated civic engagement mission or application of its resources and expertise in clinical health services, medical research, and public health management to address this first priority. However, the Libraries’ flexible matrix organizational structure and strong staff culture of collaborative teamwork prepared us well to follow our institution’s set strategies to take immediate action to minimize the health threat of COVID-19 by closing physical facilities, while continuing our educational and learning activities by working remotely.  

A constant in the Libraries’ approach to plan for a future is that we try hard to envision unique ways by which the Libraries can contribute to the University’s ambitions, and we design and manage our tactics to align our resources, expertise and professional values to help achieve them. Our focus on potential and existing “unique” contributions arises from a recognition of the University’s limited capacity to meet its aspirations. We take and offer a partnership approach to strengthen, rather than duplicate, the institution’s dispersed and often siloed resources and expertise that are most valuable when they collaboratively address the University’s challenges.  

Among the Libraries’ unique contributions is its provision of cost-effective, central investment of resources to serve broad and diverse community dependencies on authoritative information. The Libraries also constantly envisions future improvements that enable equitable and cost-effective connections to scholarship—from student access to required readings, to researchers’ fair, accessible, integrated and reusable access to research data. In partnership with other university organizations that bring resources and diverse expertise, we actively explore innovative paths to mitigate risks of neglecting academic opportunities to do so while also protecting intellectual freedom and the privacy of those seeking knowledge and expression of their insights and opinions. 

The COVID-19 pandemic required us to act quickly and then to pause and adjust what we do. In March, many still imagined it might be a short pause, and we began to plan adjustments to what we did before, but with recognition of our co-existence with threats of COVID-19. At the time, the Drexel Libraries was working still on adjustments to its reduced capacity created last year from budget cuts and staff vacancies. The pandemic uncovered previous weaknesses in the institution’s capacity and infrastructure to meet its ambitions, and strategies emerged to “not waste the crisis” in overcoming them—a shortcut for shifting strategic priorities to manage change. The University took actions through setting up task forces to do so holistically across the institution. In response, the Libraries continues its challenge to articulate and demonstrate its essential contributions within the University.  

While in the midst of adjusting to these major challenges, the dramatic and painful events of the past few weeks require us all to shift priorities to address racism and long-standing injustices that threaten safety and lives, particularly of Black Americans. We have begun within the Libraries to do so with conversation among all staff, with learning more about our colleagues’ life experiences, with offering our unique contributions to institutional initiatives, and with joining our professional association statements and actions for change. Nowadays, there are few, if any, challenges that are more important to our core values and to our aspirations than these. The work of libraries throughout the free world is driven by deep commitments to ensure equitable access to true and authoritative information, to enable connections to research output and scholarship, and to protect intellectual freedom and the privacy of those who are inspired with a life-long quest to seek knowledge and responsibly express their insights and opinion. We have new opportunities to be partners in the University’s self-examination and be active allies against racism and injustice. 

This month’s issue of In Circulation highlights our long-lasting commitment to embed the Libraries unique contributions in Drexel’s culture. Read about two events the Libraries has hosted for several years to strengthen community and celebrate the generation and dissemination of knowledge. In both cases, we redesigned the events as online experiences, utilizing Zoom technology to bring together members of the Drexel community. You can read summaries of both the ScholarSip and the celebration of Drexel authors in this issue, as well as experience the events by watching recordings of them at your convenience.

This month we also share an interview with the Libraries’ Director of Administrative Services to offer insight into the impact of shifting priorities on many behind-the-scenes operations that keep the Libraries functioning. These are just a few of the many ways that Libraries staff have recently stepped up to apply their expertise and values to advance the mission of higher education as we all work to shift our priorities to be responsive and relevant to the world around us. 

Someday we will tell the story of how higher education not only survived the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic but how it—along with nearly every part of our society—has responsibly and deeply reexamined its values, what it stands for, and how it best contributes to making this a better world.

Envisioning this chapter of our shared story helps us effectively plan the upcoming phased reopening of the Drexel Libraries’ on-campus facilities. However, the tactics to do so will be most effective if they are integrated with improvement of our online services and operations as well—not simply looking at ways to return to the imperfect past, but holistically and optimistically reimagining, communicating and constructing the Libraries’ most critical contributions to higher education’s impact on improving society. 

We recognize that there is no one perfect path for each of us to follow. Our planning approach likely will always be a work in progress. We certainly do not claim to have the answer to success and may even conclude that seeking such an answer is focusing on the wrong question. As illustrated in this and past issues of In Circulation, the Drexel Libraries values learning through sharing insights from stories about  experiences and experiments—not just our own—as we strive to shape a thriving future. We always delight in receiving your comments.

Stay safe and safeguard the safety of others.  

Danuta A. Nitecki, PhD
Dean of Libraries