Final Virtual Networking of the Year Brings Reflections on Staff Learning Journeys

Gaz J Johnson

The end of a very different year was a time to consider the skills, aptitudes and challenges of the continued online support pivot for academic library staff.

The final virtual networking event for 2020 was hosted at the start of December by Dr Sarah Pittaway (MSDG Chair, Worcester) and Dr Gareth J Johnson (Mercian Collaboration). The theme this time had once again been suggested from previous delegates’ feedback: Upskilling for an Online Norm. It has been a unique and demanding year for academic libraries, in terms of supporting their staff, students and services, and one where prior aptitudes and abilities have been challenged. Hence, it was agreed by delegates that this was a timely theme for some online chatter.

Among the topics discussed during the 90 minute event were:

Communication Skills: The lost of serendipitous conversations with colleagues and students was proving challenging in terms of finding new ways to work around this deficiency. While many library staff reported they had discovered how they’d become more productive during home working, it still required particular attention to new communicative skills and efforts to engage with colleagues informally. Nevertheless, where these efforts had been successful, they had been seen to help break down barriers in terms of appreciating colleagues living circumstances and gain an insight into their life experiences: with a resultant stronger team coherence emerging. Nevertheless, it was the discovery and adoption of new back-channels, rather than formal institutional routes, which had proved most effective in restoring some semblance of normality in interpersonal interactions.

Learning Needs: The immediacy of need for many library users had continued to be high in terms of providing support over this period. As a result, staff had needed to develop effective and workable protocols on how to progress or escalate queries across their distributed colleagues and team members. Difficulties in terms of assisting the less technically literate along with ICT glitches meant staff had needed to become more adroit at identifying workarounds than they had been previously. It was noted that for some staff, their own ICT skills were weaker than was ideal, which had led to some members taking the opportunity to retire earlier than planned as a result.

Expectation Management: Library staff had needed to develop routes to manage expectations with users unable to appreciate when their queries couldn’t always be resolved immediately, as there was no ready perception of the workloads face by library staff. Libraries had scored many successes and received praise for their efforts to support staff and students during the ongoing pandemic period. However, this had raised concerns that as more on-campus services resumed, staff would be supporting these in addition to the new online support activities, creating a gap between user expectations and library resource. With a recognition that post-pandemic the future form of the academy would be considerably different to what went before, library staff themselves needed to be prepared to continue to be flexible and operate within these newly emerging working paradigms. A return to the ‘old normal’ was not expected, but staff would need to find a way to communicate better with their user communities in terms of what was achievable.

Personal Upskilling: Hence, it was clear there was a need for a greater degree not just of ICT skills but also a consideration of how to make the best use of those platforms and services deployed for library staff to utilise. In this regard, a greater self-confidence and belief in personal adaptability was reported as a key trait for successful adaptation to distanced working. It was commented how library staff needed to be more prepared to break out of prior working patterns and platforms and to try new things for themselves, or risk finding themselves isolated and unable to function effectively themselves. A minor benefit of the new working circumstances was noted, as with everyone’s experiences differing there was now a wealth of new experiences to be shared. Consequently, it was suggested 2021 should prove a fertile time to personally and collectively reflect on and share this experience and knowledge with other colleagues and libraries within Collaboration events and subgroup meetings.


Our thanks once again to all those who attended and participated in this and previous virtual networking sessions. We look forward to welcoming you to future events in 2021! The next planned virtual networking event will have an ‘accessibility’ theme and be co-chaired by the MDF’s Laura Waller. Keep a watch out in early January on the website and twitter for when we release booking details.