Collections, Access & Support Form Heart of the Conversation at Networking Event

Gareth J Johnson

Our fourth virtual networking session tackled the practicalities, frustrations and triumphs of running an HE library service during a pandemic.

The first virtual networking event of the new academic session took place in late October, hosted by Sarah Pittaway (Worcester) and Gareth J Johnson (Mercian Collaboration). This time they were joined by ten colleagues from across the Midlands, representing nine different institutions in total. As with previous sessions a few warm up questions around a chosen subject opened the event, and after a hesitant start the conversation began to flow.

Topics debated this time included:

Digitisation: With lockdown and remote working demand for digitised material is at an all time high, especially in those subjects not well served by eBook materials. In many cases staff resource was being considerably challenged by user demands, reportedly far more than would normally be the case even during the busy first term. While click and collect services continue in some locations to provide access to physical materials, for others these had been withdrawn to allow staff to support other more critical services.

Library bio-cleaning: The question of who was performing the extra cleaning necessary to comply with pandemic biosecurity requirements was addressed, with issues from ensuring the right kind of supplies to the dilemma of closing or not closing for enhanced cleaning periods. Dealing with related out-of-hours library usage was a related concern for those libraries still accessible to customers outside of normal working office hours.

Masks: There was much discussion around the right approach to ensuring library visitors wore the correct protective equipment, and the effectiveness of differing approaches for compliance and monitoring. Additionally, the issue of recognising those users with exemptions for legitimate reasons was touched upon with the visibility and awareness of the Sunflower Lanyard scheme being mentioned, although it was noted wearing these didn’t always equate to mask-wearing exemption. The importance of keeping a positive attitude was noted in helping everyone recognise their responsibilities towards keeping each other and the community healthy and safe.

Physical Staffing: From discussions it was clear there was a wide divergence between delegates’ institutions and their different approaches to staffing their physical libraries. Some teams were back but working physically distanced from all colleagues on campus. Others were working in specific bubble teams and alternating days on campus. A few were barely present on campus at all and in one case didn’t expect to be back until 2021 at the earliest. Prophetically the topic of the anticipated next lockdown was touched on, with some libraries clearly ready to pivot back to online only delivery more readily than others.

Postal Loans: There was quite a bit of discussion around postal loans, including from those institutions who had extended the service beyond registered distance learners, and were now dealing with the resultant challenges of negotiating with the institutional postroom about the increased traffic in and out of the library. Some stock was reported as going astray, as with any postal service, but thankfully no one reported it had reached a level about which they had become overly concerned. However, balancing the needs of a vastly increased distance learner community and number of texts in postal circulation had introduced a range of new managerial and operational challenges for all staff involved. Changes to loan periods and inducements to return were also touched on, with fines largely abolished or frozen for now.

User Engagement: It had been clear there had been some major successes using ‘library chat’ platforms to resolve user queries in an effective manner across delegates’ libraries. Naturally, for some staff using these unfamiliar platforms had required a rapid upskilling in digital communication technologies. Delightfully, in many cases feedback had highlighted how these online approaches had actually served to enhance enquiry services over the traditional face-to-face model. All the same, delegates lamented the loss of body-language cues in engaging with students via text or video interfaces, which added to difficulties in understanding their needs and communicating answers to them.

Customer Perceptions: Meeting these had been both challenging and a priority for most library services. One minor concern was reported as some students unfavourably comparing local library responses with other those offered at other universities. With the varied responses, different building configurations and staffing resources offering complete parity of service across the region was clearly not unrealistic. There had also been some necessary expectation management undertaken, with an extreme example of academics failing to grasp that their library was unable to offer an hourly ‘Uber Eats’ book delivery direct to their doorstep. Despite these issues, library staff were clearly working above and beyond the call to try and deliver the best possible services they could for their staff and students.

The session closed after 90 minutes, with delegates being asked for their feedback and suggestions for the next virtual networking event. This is now scheduled for Tuesday 1st December, with a focus on ‘upskilling for the new online norm’ to start discussions. Book your place there today!


About Virtual Networking Sessions

These online informal discussion sessions are designed to appeal to staff working at all levels and sections of the academic libraries, with topics for discussion largely driven by attendees' interests. Each event is loosely structured around informal discussions of interest, common concerns and shared experiences around the region, making use of the Zoom video conferencing platform to connect people. An initial discussion topic based on feedback from previous events, is normally introduced to initiate conversations, but by no means remains the event's focus. Increased screen-time too was reported as fatiguing for all involved.


Read more about past events here: