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Dean’s Update: Transforming to The Hybrid Library

March 22, 2022

With a long historic identity of being a “place,” today’s library faces challenges of relevancy in a hybrid world. Does a library exist for staff if it is not occupied or for students if it is not seen?

For many in academia, the absence of seeing or touching the physicality of libraries leaves an association that it no longer exists. A friendly faculty member stopped me on the street a few years ago with a lament that he no longer uses the library—that I made it too easy for him not to come to the library anymore. This was said during a period when clients seldom imagined that engaging with a library could possibly go beyond entering its spaces.

For centuries, the images most associated with an academic library were its building and physical spaces, the books housed in them, and the knowledgeable, quiet staff who work there. Beginning in the 1990s, the image of an “innovative” library was one that fully embraced technology and the World Wide Web—a “digital library.” Discussions and programs focused on curating data, connecting to networks, and helping the clients who worked and studied remotely.

The relationship between the content and the environments where they are used raised the image of staff in library spaces providing “remote services.” However, it was the client—not the library staff—who was remotely located away from the library. Various library stakeholders perhaps had not envisioned other people in that model. It took the COVID-19 pandemic to accelerate experiences among all parties who engaged with their library to wonder, “What role does a library play if they are not seen within its physical spaces?” 

This past month, Drexel University leaders asked deans to reflect on what works and not during our COVID-19 adjustments to allow employees to have more choice in how they apply the campus flex work policies.

From the library perspective at least, it seems easier to provide client support one way or the other—to operate as we were servicing people on campus before COVID-19, or for staff and clients to be working remotely. However, adjusting to working on tasks and supporting others through a combination of both venues—the Hybrid Library—is a challenge with subtle nuances.

Do we have fewer staff resources or more productive employees when most chose to work more often from home? Does the focus and privacy that virtual communication tools provide students and faculty make remote consultations more comfortable than when conducted on campus? Can productive relationships with faculty and students emerge through connections made only via Zoom, online chat, or email?

At Drexel, students are coming back to campus and to the library. Their greater presence brings an enthusiasm and energy to campus unseen for two years. But do our clients know there are library staff available to assist them if they do not see them physically on campus? Do they find Drexel a welcome and inclusive environment when they see fewer staff in the library, let alone if they look familiar? Do they navigate and access resources as much as we thought through their mobile devices?

If interested in a few activities undertaken to explore the changes created to accommodate the Hybrid Library, read this month’s In Circulation featured articles. Our continued ScholarSip sessions still attract interest to hear ‘food for thought’ speakers whether by Zoom or in person, but the discussions are not serendipitous without proximity and refreshments. One cannot help but wonder if we are still strengthening a culture of cross-disciplinary curiosity and camaraderie around research as originally planned for the series.

Read about Drexel Libraries’ staff insights and reactions to working remotely or on campus during the ongoing pandemic. Learn about a student-prepared exhibit of a Latin American publishing movement that restores pride in the creative, experiential learning experiences an innovative teacher facilitated to raise campus awareness of diversity in ideas and approaches from other cultures.

I send happy springtime wishes as we remember the joy of greater personal interactions on campus but are not wanting to let go of new productive ways of being a relevant Hybrid Library in the future.    

Danuta A. Nitecki, PhD
Dean of Libraries