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Dean's Update: The Libraries’ return to modified old environments and adjustments to create new academic experiences

September 17, 2021

“Return to campus” is a phrase we read and hear voiced with great hope--and with caution--on campuses across the country and within local communities as we continue to weather the impact of the pandemic.  At Drexel, the Libraries has explored, since late spring, how we will interpret this phrase.

We rose to the challenge to balance the University’s strategies to deliver our students’ dreams of on-campus, socially active, energizing academic experiences, with the realities of uncertainty that COVID-19 and its variants pose on our city and campus communities.  Philadelphia is no different from other urban academic settings where large numbers of students arrive at many local colleges and universities and join community residents in responding to mandated pandemic precautions and in holding diverse attitudes toward vaccinations.   

In this issue of In Circulation, we both offer a toast to the start of a new academic year and share a few insights into how we are shaping the Libraries’ fuller return to campus—to the extent illusions of being able to control such plans are realistic.  

The Libraries’ strategic leadership analyzed our capacity to provide support during this academic year (as we had done prior to the pandemic) and associated financial limitations that went into effect prior to the shutdown of most on-campus services in March 2020. We began with an assessment of progress made on our strategic goals set for 2017-22 and analyzed what realistically we could complete this new year and what we would defer to reconsider during the next strategic planning phase.   

We reviewed evidence about the use of services. This included data such as the occupancy of intentionally designed spaces for self-directed learning; circulation of physical information resources and equipment; downloads from selected licensed e-resources; requests to access other information resources through our various resource sharing arrangements; questions asked to locate items; and requests for guidance to navigate the increasingly complex landscape that connects learners to scholarship.  We identified the many gaps created by the loss of nearly 20% of staff and acknowledged that initiated recruitment will not likely be completed for those positions prioritized as most critical to support the academic dependencies on a library. We assume we will not likely improve our staff capacity for most of this academic year. 

We imagined other ways to improve the Libraries’ human capacity and explored employment strategies that are new to the DUL. We always have reviewed and redefined position descriptions with each recruitment of long-term employees. Under current conditions, for example, we modified a business librarian position to create a data-oriented specialist position that will provide support of pedagogy and research programs in a variety of colleges beyond business, media, and engineering, for instance.

Student co-ops—hired not as student workers, but as entry level professionals—have offered invaluable insights on the expectations and perceptions of college students and those new to workplace cultures. We also rely on temporary hourly and outsourced specialists to help us in the short term as we imagine alternatives.

By the end of summer, we felt confident in our analyses of ambitions, resource capacity, and prioritized values to map what we want to do this year and what we simply do not have the resources to do. Following as well the Provost’s ‘guiding principles’ of customer service, organizational flexibility and proper behavior with staff and clients, we mapped all evidence with our available resources and conclude with a high level summary of the AY22 DUL deliverables—those interested in specifics can search our website to find what the DUL is offering its clientele this term.  

Additional details about what we have in store for the upcoming year are raised in this issue of In Circulation through an article on return to Fall 2021, and another on the launch of two new online systems to deepen engagement with the University Archives and other research assets, particularly ones produced at Drexel. We still have much to look forward to doing as we assert our contributions to the campus strategic plan and model an organization that is driven by high expectations for quality service, evidence-driven decision-making, trustworthy engagement with clients, and the design of space for self-directed learning.

September finds the Drexel Libraries’ staff intentionally and repeatedly working to understand what are essential and unique dependencies on the Libraries, what positive changes we introduced to accommodate pandemic precautions, and what benefits from the academic experiences of the pandemic we will continue. We foresee fewer client retrieval of physical information resources as we continue our email and mail service of books and articles. We plan to restore our on-campus event series, including ScholarSip, ScholarSnack and an annual authors celebration to continue to build campus community. 

On the horizon, we will watch and slowly will address possible challenges to personal reader privacy when our clients log into the Libraries’ search engines, are authorized and validated for retrieval but then must add personal information to proceed to read the article. Upcoming issues of Drexel In Circulation may certainly continue exploration of these thorny issues.

Meanwhile, raise a toast for the start of a new academic year, and stay tuned to further explorations DUL will address.


Danuta A. Nitecki, PhD
Dean of Libraries