Digital Reserves: A Pandemic Tale

For those of us in the academic library world, the past few weeks have been an eye-opening experience. Like every schoolteacher in the world, our faculty had to convert their instruction to digital content in a hurry. For library staff, this became a race to try and convert traditional, print-based course reserves into digital lists, seemingly overnight.

I work in a physical science library that supports Chemistry, Astronomy, Physics, Earth Sciences, Geography and Environmental Studies. Prior to the chaos of the past month, I had pretty much pulled together the 50 courses and had them ready for Spring term. In some cases, these courses had 2 or 3 books on them; but others had forty. Then, the rumors began that students may not return to campus from spring break; which started conversations between the librarians, academic deans, and department heads about what that would look like. But no hard decisions had yet been announced by the college, so we were all in a waiting game. Then, like everyone else, the decisions came fast and furious: students were told to leave campus and not return and staff were told first to work on site, then rapidly that changed, too.

Library administration determined they wanted a minimum amount of staff on site and that all of our libraries would close. Staff who supported courses would order as many electronic versions of core texts as we could and hope that they would be loaded and ready by March 30th. Materials that were delayed or impossible to get would be scanned, mainly a few key chapters so that students who lived in countries or states that were having trouble getting their course materials could at least access them digitally.

The takeaways for many of us and the conversations that are already happening have much to do with publishing and the difficulty for libraries to purchase or lease textbooks and research materials in situations such as this one. Yes, there were many publishers who opened up content and got rid of their embargoes, with MacMillan, Cengage and Cambridge serving as examples. In addition to them Archive and HathiTrust are making it possible for multiple institutions to access materials. But, in many cases, the texts our faculty wanted to use were flat out unobtainable. Given the uncertainty of when we will return to normal, I believe that libraries and researchers need to begin to identify open-source materials and library-friendly publishers who recognize that all of our budgets are already greatly impacted by this crisis.

We succeeded in getting through our first week of term. We still rush ordered digital materials, and yes, our dedicated on-site crew scanned as needed. The remote coordination and teamwork made us all feel like we were still doing the job we love, supporting our patrons and faculty. Our Slack channels are filled with thanks and tips on where to get groceries without getting out of our cars; and if we have to do this for another term, well, we got this. Be well.

Photo Credit: I Brian CC

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