COVID-19 and the Library School Experience: What Needs to be Changed?

Over nine months ago, I was sitting in my seminar on academic libraries in McKeldin Library at the University of Maryland. COVID-19 cases were on the rise and many universities were telling students to not come back to their respective campuses after spring break. As this was the last week of classes before UMD’s spring break, everyone was on edge about the inevitable announcement that was to come. In the middle of that class, students got the email outlining the 2-4-week remote learning game plan to “flatten the curve” after spring break. Less than 48 hours later, an announcement came out that students needed to get off campus as soon as they could and prepare not to come back.

As I schedule my final semester of MLIS courses, it hit me that that seminar was my last in-person class – and, fittingly, it was in a library. As we close in on almost an entire calendar year impacted by COVID-19, I can’t help but feel frustrated about so many things: rising case numbers, layoffs and furloughs across the United States, the fights about wearing masks, virtual learning at all levels of education, and the expectation that life keeps happening around us despite a global pandemic. Similar to Conrrado, earlier in the pandemic, I struggled to find a balance between remote learning for all of my classes and teleworking for two jobs. Let’s just say, I was relieved for Spring 2020 to end.

Even with these frustrations, I’ve been incredibly fortunate in so many ways during this pandemic: with remote classes and teleworking, I able to safely continue my education and maintain a flow of income; I completed a remote field study that I was able to carry into the fall (and maybe even this spring); and my family and friends have been healthy.

I know not everybody has been as fortunate; this is where I believe library schools can come in to assist students now and for the future. I believe that libraries will see a drastic change in the profession. In general, I imagine that higher education will see drastic changes to curriculums, teaching, and learning as a result of COVID-19. Even more so, I am hoping that library schools are looking to discuss changes in their programs for current and future students in response to the changes that libraries will face in a post-COVID-19 pandemic world. But, what exactly do I mean by that?

Management and Protecting Employees

One area that has been very active on library Twitter is #CloseTheLibraries and #ProtectLibraryWorkers. Early on in the pandemic, these trends emerged in response to public libraries trying to enact curbside pick-up and discussions on how academic libraries were “safer” to open sooner than public libraries. Nine months later, the conversation is still going on, with a much stronger emphasis on furloughs and layoffs, especially with the approaching new year. I believe that these conversations should be included in a management course geared towards LIS careers, with an emphasis on employers supporting their staff while also making the best decisions to keep them as safe as possible.

Emphasis on digital services

With remote learning and limited access to physical materials, patrons will be relying on digital resources for the foreseeable future. All libraries will be impacted by this increasing research need. Although a number of libraries had digital collections in place prior to COVID-19, the increasing reliance will require librarians to have more understanding of copyright law and fair use, budget and license constraints with digital materials, searching digital collections, accessibility, and privacy of their patrons and the associated data. Lisa’s April 2020 article does a fantastic job of explaining how digital reserves at her library worked during the early months of stay-at-home-orders. A number of different courses should include these conversations, especially those with an emphasis on information policy, law, and user services/experience. 

Job Hunting

I’ll be very honest: the fact that I will be graduating into a rocky job market in May terrifies me. The current library job market will not only impact recent and upcoming graduates; more likely than not, library jobs will be very limited for the next several cohorts of graduates. As prospective students may be weighing their options to attend library school, I think it is critical for institutions to reach out to students with any paths to could lead to a job opportunity: networking events with alumni and professional organizations (virtually or in-person, when the time allows), forwarding positions from the university’s career services office, and information sessions on navigating the LIS job market. Finally, although many students may be aiming to work in a library, it may be beneficial for LIS graduate programs to encourage students to look at jobs outside of the LIS field. As I recently heard a professor explain, you may not be entering your dream job right out of school, especially if you will be entering a rocky job market, and that’s okay.

Of course, these ideas do not have to be implemented overnight. Will it take some time for the world to settle, curriculum re-evaluations, and instructors to adjust their syllabi? Absolutely. But, sadly, the most vulnerable future librarians are currently in school now and will be on the cusp of major changes in libraries around the world. Graduate programs and individual LIS curriculums need to address these concerns – and many others – with their upcoming cohort and soon-to-be-graduates. These are the students who will be entering the field in the coming months; these are the students who can be ready to change the system for the next generation.

Photo by Jaeyoung Geoffrey Kangon Unsplash

Sarah is a second year MLIS student at the University of Maryland, College Park. Recently, she has developed an interest in law libraries and legal information literacy. Outside of class, she can be found binge-reading books and devouring coffee.

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