When Linda K. Colding, Head of Research and Instruction at Florida Gulf Coast University Library, and Rich Gause, Government Information Librarian at the University of Central Florida were presented with unique situations in 2020 due to a worldwide pandemic, they found ways to be successful in providing services to their students and faculty. In this article, they share their challenges, successes, and lessons learned with Library Connect.
University of Central Florida and Library Background
The University of Central Florida (UCF), the nation’s second largest public university, enrolls over 71,000 students and offers 105 bachelor’s degrees, 90 master’s degrees and 35 doctoral programs. UCF Libraries supports a subject-librarian service model that offers faculty “one-stop librarians” to support their teaching and research activities. Eleven subject librarians and six campus librarians cover 65 subject areas across 14 campuses.
After spring break 2020 all UCF classes moved entirely to remote learning because of COVID-19 concerns. During the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, most classes continued through online learning only. All of the UCF Libraries’ physical facilities were closed for five months, from March 19, 2020, until the fall semester began on August 24. Most library services, however, were available remotely. From late June through August a few library employees started working onsite to provide home delivery of print books from the libraries’ collections. During the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, most of the library employees continued to work from home and almost all subject-librarian services were provided remotely, including research consultations and library instruction sessions. University budget cuts for 2020-2021 resulted in hiring freezes that were still in effect as of spring 2021 and halted searches to replace three librarians who retired.
Downtown Campus Library
In August 2019 a new joint-use campus opened in downtown Orlando to serve more than 7,700 UCF and Valencia College students. More than 20 UCF undergraduate and graduate academic programs transferred from the main campus. The facilities there include the small Downtown Campus Library, which houses selected print books, but due to limited shelving, many books and resources supporting the relocated programs remain at the main campus library. The four subject librarians who cover the relocated programs adopted a dual-campus model, since they also remained responsible for some academic programs and duties at the main campus. They coordinated their schedules so that each was available downtown one or two days per week and shared two “swing space” offices with computer docking stations in the Downtown Campus Library. Two glass booths in the building lobby provided space for the librarians to meet one on one for research consultations with faculty and students. From March 2020 through the spring 2021 semester, everything moved online.
UCF Downtown Campus second-floor lobby with glass consultation booths for research consultations with librarians
The library continued all existing assistance remotely, through chat, phone, email and Zoom sessions. To avoid sacrificing walk-in research assistance from a librarian at the Research and Information Desk (RAID), UCF implemented the TeleRef@RAID service. A Zoom session hosted on a computer at the RAID runs continuously from the morning until the service desk closes in the evening. Librarians are assigned to one-hour shifts and log into the Zoom session from home. An online guide, including photographs of equipment and services near the desk, aids the librarian in guiding walk-up patrons.
Because folks walking by might not notice signs or the talking head on the computer screen, a student Reference Ambassador sits or stands behind plexiglass shields at the desk to provide a physical presence identifying it as a service point. The Reference Ambassadors can answer basic questions or give directions, but to maintain a safely distanced, no-contact operation, anything requiring interaction with a computer screen is directed to the librarian on the computer’s Zoom session.
TeleRef@RAID with librarian available on Zoom
Two subject librarians are on-site each weekday to troubleshoot problems and respond to requests from librarians working remotely. The on-site librarians can retrieve print volumes from the reference collection and scan pages to send to remote colleagues. The TeleRef@RAID Zoom sessions have been very reliable, but on the few occasions when a librarian encountered problems with their home internet connection, one of the on-site librarians was able to log into Zoom from their office until the next shift logged in.
Customer response to the TeleRef@RAID service has been very positive. The nature of the service limits it to walk-ins, and the library building’s fall 2020 gate count was 15 percent of the previous fall’s, but the count for questions asked at RAID was 20 percent, retaining a higher relative percentage of the available population.
Because all meetings at UCF moved completely online, casual encounters with faculty had to become more intentional. Online meetings can be efficient, but they do not provide ready options for casual one-on-one conversations before or after a meeting. Likewise, subject librarians could not wander over to their academic departments and poke their head in the door during faculty office hours. Subject librarians continued to make use of e-newsletters, emails and other outreach opportunities.
Most of the subject librarians use the library’s subscription to Springshare’s LibCal system to provide an online calendar for faculty and students to schedule one-on-one appointments. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most of these appointments were for face-to-face visits. Since all research consultations were conducted online from March 2020 through the spring 2021 semester, calendars for the main and downtown campuses were temporarily combined into a single file. Some librarians reported that they found themselves devoting more time to preparing for the online appointments since print resources that might be useful during the consultation had to be retrieved ahead of time and scanned so that they could be shared.
UCF subject and campus librarians have continued to ask faculty if they are interested in providing free or low-cost materials to their students by adopting an existing open text or replacing a traditional textbook with copyright-compliant open educational resources (OERs) or library-sourced content. From summer 2016 to spring 2021 this outreach initiative has impacted 950 course sections and 65,000 students, potentially saving the students $6.7 million. This initiative’s success resulted in the UCF provost funding a new full-time position in March 2019 for a textbook affordability and student success librarian to help subject librarians respond to faculty requests, search for alternatives and develop marketing about the program.
In March 2020, when all UCF courses moved to remote instruction, the subject librarians began to see an increase in the number of faculty seeking assistance in identifying online alternatives for their summer and fall course materials. One subject librarian teamed up with the scholarly communication librarian and an acquisitions librarian to provide a series of online sessions in May and June about ebook sources and copyright compliance. The first session was for subject librarians and instructional designers to prepare them to respond to faculty inquiries. The next sessions were for teaching faculty and graduate teaching assistants and were recorded to share with those who could not attend. The sessions were repeated at the beginning of the fall semester.
Florida Gulf Coast University and Library Background
Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU), located in Fort Myers, Florida, has 63 undergraduate programs, 26 graduate programs and seven doctoral programs with a total of 15,000 students. The library has 32 faculty and staff. The Research and Instruction (RI) department is home to seven subject librarians, a department head who also serves as a subject librarian to one graduate program, and an instructional support specialist who happens to have a MLS degree. These librarians conduct the bulk of research support for FGCU students and faculty.
COVID-19 Impacts on FGCU
Like most universities, FGCU closed its campus on March 16, 2020. A closure that was expected to be two weeks long turned into five months! During the spring and summer semesters, all classes transitioned online, and most FGCU faculty and staff remained off campus. During April 2020, no one was allowed on campus without a letter signed by the university president. Only a few key staff members from the Customer Services/Circulation department remained to process returned books. Some library faculty and staff returned to campus during the summer semester, but everyone was required to return to campus when the university reopened in mid-August.
After the fall reopening, 25 percent of all classes were held face to face. The remainder were either completely online or an on-campus/online hybrid.
COVID-19 Impacts on Library Services
When the university closed, the library continued providing services remotely through the rest of the spring and summer semesters. When considering what services to provide, the needs and safety of the students and faculty was the first concern, along with the safety of library employees. For the RI department, transitioning to virtual services was not difficult since it already provided chat, text and email research services. The library was fortunate that most employees had a personal computer and other technology to work remotely since the university does not provide computers. Those who did not have adequate technology at home were allowed to return to campus and pick up their work computers. The main consideration was hours of operations and staff schedules. Hours were reduced because the adjunct librarians who usually covered nights and weekends had been laid off. In the spring, research services closed at 6 p.m. instead of 8 p.m. This service continued through the fall semester, and transactions continued to skyrocket.
Additional research assistance
Although the library had only recently started providing online instruction, this was an opportunity to increase instruction sessions using Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Students were also able to continue meeting with their subject librarians virtually on Zoom and Teams. Because we all learn in a variety of ways, some students needed to visually see how to access or use a database. Sending the student a link to one of the virtual meeting platforms was an easy remedy.
Other activities transformed into virtual activities. The traditional fall Welcome Back event turned into an online scavenger hunt. The FGCU Author Series annual reception also went remote. All of the recipients, including one in Australia, joined the FGCU president, provost and library staff to celebrate their accomplishments. In spring 2020, the RI department partnered with the campus Writing Lab to transform a previously scheduled drop-in research clinic to a virtual clinic. We found more students were interested in receiving assistance from the Writing Lab than the library. At the time, it made sense because the library was already providing virtual services while the Writing Lab was not.
The Customer Services department worked creatively and collaboratively with colleagues to meet user needs. It established procedures for delivering scans from the textbook collection, curbside pick-up and residence hall delivery, all with antiquated equipment and reduced staffing. One outcome of working together and alternating staff was that more staff were cross-trained on services. This resulted in improved morale and helped exceed users’ expectations. The library was also able to obtain a grant for new scanners for students and staff.
Textbook scanning announcement
Adversity Leads to New Services
The library staff looked at the past year as an opportunity to develop new services. Instead of opening the Research Desk, it offered a similar service at a shared space with the Circulation Desk called the Rapid Research Desk. This was a face-to-face service, albeit behind masks and transparent plastic shields. The idea was to provide a triage service and refer students to the chat and research consultation service if their questions took more than a few minutes to answer. During spring semester 2021, it operated three hours a day, Monday through Friday. Of just over 200 transactions, only 25 percent were considered research questions. The remaining 75 percent were directional, technology and referral transactions. The Rapid Research Desk was discontinued in summer 2021 to spend time preparing for the fall reopening.
Rapid Research Desk announcement
Reopening in Fall 2021
The library has yet to completely return to how it was prior to the COVID pandemic. When it reopens in fall 2021, we will need to address staffing issues. (The three adjunct librarians who were laid off when the library closed, and who covered 13 hours at the Research Desk, will not be rehired due to budget constraints.) Another consideration is that students are more comfortable using the virtual services, and those transactions may not decrease even though the desk will be open. Prior to the pandemic, the person covering the desk would also cover the virtual services, including a phone. With the increased use of virtual services and the reopening of the desk, transactions will likely increase beyond what one person can handle. The library needs to be prepared to staff both services, at least at the beginning of the semester. We are curious to see if students will continue to use the virtual services once the face-to-face service at the desk resumes.
Big or Small, We Had Things in Common
The libraries at the 12 state universities in Florida jointly participate in HathiTrust, a partnership of academic and research institutions. With most university libraries closed and their print collections inaccessible, HathiTrust implemented the Emergency Temporary Access Service (ETAS) to provide access to digital materials corresponding to physical books held by the institution’s own library. Subject librarians at both UCF and FGCU made very successful use of the ability to search the full text of ETAS books for online research consultations. The ETAS program did cause some frustrations for a small number of faculty and students who ventured onto campus to visit the library. If a book was sitting on the shelf but was available digitally through ETAS, the physical book could not be checked out.
Temporary Access to Non-subscribed Content
Multiple publishers of ebooks, online journals and streaming videos provided expanded access to much of their content between April and August 2020 to support remote learning. The libraries of both universities publicized the additional content only if it had subscriptions to the vendor platforms where the content resided. This expanded access provided UCF users with temporary access to an additional 330,000 ebooks, 2,400 online journals and 7,000 streaming videos. Faculty at both universities identified content that their subject librarian could consider adding to the library’s existing subscription. Most vendors incorporated the temporary access seamlessly, making it difficult to distinguish from items that were already owned by the libraries. Communication with faculty was key in helping them understand that most of the content accessible in June would not be available beyond the summer and that they needed to submit requests for specific items to be purchased if they planned to include them as course readings in the fall semester.
Whether at a large university like UCF or a small university such as FGCU, librarians were able to meet the challenge presented by a worldwide pandemic. They all faced unique situations, yet they successfully provided services to their students and faculty.
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