Dean’s Update: Imagining a Post-Pandemic Library
January 12, 2021
In higher education, we have shared our experiences of continually adjusting to the COVID-19 global pandemic over most of the past year, from repeatedly altering services to adjusting our personal habits and spaces to work from home.
As we start the winter term, it is hard to imagine any new adjustments we will need to make before the time we enter a “post-pandemic” world. Let us leave 2020 to hindsight and look forward instead to think what a library should plan for—and implement—by next year at this time.
Two questions repeatedly surface when thinking about this within the context of changes in higher education institutions. What library practices might be more valued than before? What changes from this past year’s experiences will we want to continue as we shape the post-pandemic library?
As we imagine what the post-pandemic campus will be, some planners are questioning the “place of place.” Perkins and Eastman, an architectural firm designing academic environments along with workspaces in other industries, recently conducted a series of interviews with a range of academic leaders and experts and released a thoughtful report last month of their Learning Futures Project .
The authors do not mention space design until halfway through the 42-page reading. They summarize the difficult planning process of first projecting anticipated academic behaviors and programs for which spaces, intentionally designed for a purpose, will be needed in 2025. The report shares insights into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on numerous areas of academic practices, challenging us to think about what will change in our own institutions’ teaching and learning programs, research activities, campus community, financing and infrastructure.
The report also highlights the impact of this past year’s shift to virtual delivery of the academic experience on this “important rite of passage for so many young adults.” Viewing the campus as an “integrated ecosystem of activity,” the report asserts the power of place to bring people together for impactful social connections, and predicts “campuses that offer meaningful in-person experiences will increase institutional value, whereas campuses without a sense of place will miss out on providing that positive outcome.” Mounting evidence of isolation and depression as impacts of remote working and learning affirms the truths we held that students, faculty and staff crave being together.
In this broader context, the report’s insights on future campus planning recognize a changed value of the academic library. This year’s experiences emphasize transitions of the library from a place for collections and study to an integrated support system for discovery of information and data, and application of knowledge through resources, facilities, and personal guidance.
As we begin to reflect on the Libraries’ role in shaping Drexel’s post-pandemic “new normal,” we may very well continue the benefits of delivering some service functions remotely. Strengthening discovery systems and integrating licensed, purchased, open and shared access to information resources from anywhere and at any time will continue the library’s key obligation to ensure access to authoritative information and empirical data resources on which academic teaching, learning and research are increasingly dependent. Providing personalized consultations and group guidance from supportive and safe cyber environments will help students and faculty effectively navigate and evaluate information resources from the convenience of the physical places of their choice.
But the value of in-person contact to establish and maintain relationships critical to learning cannot be underestimated. Activating all our communication channels improves our ability to build trust, understand discomforts, and inspire the life-long quest for learning. Body language beyond the frame of a Zoom screen, facial expressions beneath a mask, audial clues heard when unmuted, and serendipitous conversations and unplanned meetings, all contribute to our social and empathetic instincts important for supportively partnering with others that underscore the academic experience. Our challenge will be to design and manage integrated and meaningful library spaces as safe hubs that facilitate the rich interactions between learners, content, and diverse expertise. Success will mean contributing unique and meaningful in-person experiences that increase the growth of academic learners and, by extension, institutional value.
In this issue of In Circulation, articles highlight recent Drexel University Libraries activities that help us imagine and plan for the post-pandemic library. A recap of the Fall 2020 ScholarSip event reinforced techniques to bring together (virtually) faculty and professional staff to explore one Drexel professor’s research on how COVID-19 has amplified societal inequities. Although we are grateful to Zoom for its ability to easily bring together intellectually curious colleagues from across campus departments, as well as others from across the country, we feel the technology’s limitations in stimulating serendipitous social interactions and friendships, a major objective of our signature ScholarSip program. Hybrid experiences will surely continue after the pandemic.
A summary of further adjustments made for winter 2021 document DUL’s redesigned services that enable utilization of physical environments by students, faculty and safe seeking minimal distractions, reliable WiFi connectivity, and safety to learn alone and amidst others. Libraries staff applied recommendations based on science and public health expert analyses to introduce innovative service accommodations to continue our support of academic activities, with high priority for enforcing health and safety precautions.
Finally, read about the new, engaging webinar series with discussions and tips on connecting to scholarship that the DUL will launch this month as we continue to work during the pandemic and prepare for a post- pandemic transition, hopefully sooner than later thanks to the new vaccines.
Happy New Year with best wishes to stay healthy, safe and well.
Danuta A. Nitecki, PhD
Dean of Libraries