Special Collections and the COVID-19 Return to Campus

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Paul Doty, Librarian for Special Collections & University Archives, St. Lawrence University.

With the Coronavirus Spring of 2020 behind colleges and universities, the time to reflect on a semester compelled online has immediately rebooted to planning for an uncertain fall. Attention turns from helping students cope with the dashed expectations of a sudden physical disconnect from campus to a tangle of financial and health and safety concerns. Assessing the situation has prompted some in higher education, notably the California State University System, to announce (or argue) for a continuation of remote learning. Some campuses, notably Wells College in New York State, have suggested their continuance depends on having students back on campus. As the practical matters of dorm life and classrooms play out amidst the ongoing pandemic, there is also going to be a need to articulate why a community should be on campus. Within this, special collections and archives can be restorative as academic life returns to its quality of sanctuary by providing tangible hands-on materials that demonstrate re-acclimatizing to the life of the mind anew.

A very useful summary of questions that librarians will need to address is “Now and Next: What a Post-COVID World May Bring for Libraries” on the IFLA Library Policy and Advocacy Blog. Two questions that are specially apropos for special collections are, ”Many of our activities have ‘pivoted’ to online – will they stay there?” and “Education has been disrupted and delayed – can we limit the scarring effects?”

Addressing the first point, the post asserts, “Nonetheless, the possibilities of digital – for learning, researching and accessing all forms of culture – will be clearer for all, and convenience may well replace necessity as a reason for using online tools” (Library Policy). This is doubtless true, and certainly how libraries have provided online services in a climate of necessity is an opportunity to assess future services, but life online does not life make. Much of the discourse in the media suggests a high level of student dissatisfaction with the unexpected online curriculum; one PBS study pegged this near fifty percent (Krupnick).

A university archives can reconnect students with the tangible manifestations of the institution wrought over its history. Of our relationship to information technology Neal Postman wrote, “Unlike television or the computer, language appears to be not an extension of our powers but simply a natural expression of who and what we are” ( 124). The relationship of language to the identity of the institution can be made clear in archival collections. Particularly, if students can see the papers of university professors or presidents, or correspondence related to the important work of the university—if they can hold those materials in their hands—then students have an ability to see the genesis of where they are in a very real way. This is a way to reorient from being online only—a lot of blood, sweat, and tears have gone into making online courses, but universities have to reckon with reestablishing community identity. Certainly, institutional identity will be revived within many social circles, but here is also an avenue for people to connect with the college through its archives. In so doing, it is also an opportunity to encourage faculty and administrators to reconsider the archives as a critical teaching tool for a university curriculum working to make academics bespeak the post-COVID-19 future students will need to consider.

The concern about educational delays and disruptions is addressed in another post on the Library Policy and Advocacy Blog titled “Storytelling in Difficult Times: Accessing the Past During a Pandemic.” The post tackles a number of questions related to technology and archived materials, and suggests that “In our modern, hyper-visual era, we are inundated with media…[though] stories don’t seem entirely real until we see visual evidence of them” (Library Policy, Storytelling). As academic communities regather there is a clear-cut need to again argue the case for the intimacy of our relationship with primary source material. Bombarded as they have been by news from medical and elected officials filtered through endless online spin, a post-COVID-19 student body will be hungry for the challenges in seemingly simple materials they can see for themselves and hold in their hands. How to identify handmade paper and to what aim watermarks work are investigations well recast as exercises interacting with the real. Having materials in hand to examine reasserts agency over events—obviously examining a book by Kelmscott Press is not going to mitigate the lasting effects of the events of March and April 2020, but it demonstrates creativity within the detail, that you can regain a sense of proportion and inspiration. Clues to whether paper is handmade or what watermarks on a flyleaf signify demonstrate that there is a story in the details which anyone, if they are willing to try, can decipher. These are discrete projects and discrete questions to reinstill a sense of agency in young people who have likely felt at the mercy of events.

Finally, as academic communities regather, archives are uniquely positioned to make the case for the essence of what a library is within the academic setting. Of course, how they will gather when they return according to yet to be articulated social distancing guidelines is still an open question, a prickly question when you would like to see classes forming as communities of readers to consider books. Alberto Manguel explained it this way when thinking back on the most legendary of all libraries, “as a public space the Library of Alexandria was a paradox, a building set aside for an essentially private craft (reading) now to take place communally” (31). Being a visible (visual if you will) argument for the primacy of reading within everything else a library does is a great role for an archives, a special collections department. This primacy will be asserted through the necessity of training critical skeptical readers, and this training can be greatly aided by studying original texts. Attempts by interested parties at major media platforms to try to create controversy over COVID-19 mortality data brought to the fore the need to know how to read data. One can find great explanations—a beautiful example here by John Burn-Murdoch, Valentina Romei and Chris Giles writing for the Financial Times—that underscore the need for experience with primary source material if one wishes to read to debunk (Murdoch). Special collections can emphasize the process through which students reinvent themselves in reading’s mental demands. According to a quotation widely attributed to American President Harry S. Truman, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” The physicality of reading demonstrated via studying old books and manuscripts can get the consideration of reading where it needs to be; it can inspire our post-COVID-19 student leaders.

Works Cited

Burn-Murdoch, John, Valentina Romie, Chris Giles. “Global Coronavirus Death Toll Could Be 60% Higher Than Reported. Financial Times. April 26, 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/6bd88b7d-3386-4543-b2e9-0d5c6fac846c

Krupnick, Matt. “Forced Off Campus by Coronavirus, Students Aren’t Won Over By Online Education.”  PBS Newshour, March 27, 2020. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/education/forced-off-campus-by-coronavirus-students-arent-won-over-by-online-education

Library Policy and Advocacy Blog. “Now and Next: What a Post-Covid World May Bring for Libraries,” Blog, April 6 2020. https://blogs.ifla.org/lpa/2020/04/06/now-and-next-what-a-post-covid-world-may-bring-for-libraries/

Library Policy and Advocacy Blog. “Storytelling in Difficult Times: Accessing the Past During a Pandemic,” Library Policy and Advocacy Blog. Blog. April 2 2020. https://blogs.ifla.org/lpa/2020/04/02/storytelling-in-difficult-times-accessing-the-past-during-a-pandemic/    

Manguel, Alberto. The Library at Night. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Postman, Neal. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Knopf, 1992.

For the Public Good: Social Distancing with Online Events

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Verletta Kern, Digital Scholarship Librarian, and Madeline Mundt, Head of the Research Commons at University of Washington Libraries.

Everything was going smoothly! This was an event we had planned twice before–third time’s a charm, right? We had been planning since September and were just hitting our stride when news broke that the first case of coronavirus had made it to the US, just north of the city of Seattle where our university is located. It soon became clear that what started as one small case was turning into something more, as Seattle became the epicenter of the US coronavirus outbreak in early March. With less than a month before our event launch, we faced a tough decision–should we move forward with planning for an in-person event for 150 people? Was it even ethical to ask people to gather in a confined space given all that was going on? Should we postpone to an unknown future? Should we cancel? Should we move this event fully online? Could we move it fully online in 21 days? What if we moved forward with an in-person event and the University closed operations, leaving us to cancel and deal with the messy work of canceling catering contracts, etc.?

“Going Public: Opening Scholarship to All” was designed to be the third in our series of annual “Going Public” events, which encourage researchers to come together to learn about and exchange experiences communicating research openly beyond the walls of the academy. The 2020 focus was equity in the production of and access to scholarship and we were excited to bring this work to our campus community. We hoped that shifting online would allow us to reach a broader audience beyond the University of Washington. With the encouragement of our wonderful planning team and the support of our Libraries’ administration, we began the scramble to convert our event to an online format in 21 days. Shortly after we made this decision, the University of Washington became the first university in the country to suspend in-person instruction in favor of finishing the quarter online. 

The shift wasn’t easy! We needed to confirm our presenters were still okay with presenting online and to talk with them about the possibility of recording their sessions and sharing them following the event. We revisited conversations with our five event co-sponsors to see if they would still be willing to co-sponsor an online event. We negotiated the purchase of a zoom webinar license to protect the privacy of attendees. We set up live captioning for the event to provide equitable access to all. And then we tested. And we tested. And we tested the technology more. We tested it ourselves. We tested it with our speakers to make sure they were comfortable. We assigned chat moderators to moderate the question and answer period. And with two weeks remaining before our event, we felt confident enough to launch registration!

Without the constraints of a physical space capacity to worry about, we opened registration with 450 spots, assuming somewhere around our normal 120 people would register. To our surprise, numbers rose quickly and by the time we closed registration 24 hours before the event we were at 269 attendees! Our largest group of registrants were graduate students, followed by staff and faculty. About two-thirds were affiliated with the UW. While our marketing campaign was not so different from a normal Going Public campaign in its content, it was conducted entirely online at a time when we were all beginning to look for ways to engage remotely rather than in person. Many face-to-face events at the UW and in Seattle were canceled in early March, and we suspect our event may have stood out as a rare online option at the time.

All 269 attendees received an email with a Zoom Webinar link about 24 hours before the event; this email cautioned them to refrain from sharing that link with colleagues (who could instead contact us to register). We hoped that by sharing the link in this restricted way, we would head off any “Zoom-bombing” or other malicious activity–things that were just beginning to hit the news. Then, on March 26th, they joined public scholars, librarians, and experts Nikkita Oliver, Chris Coward, Jason Young, Negeen Aghassibake, Lauren Ray, Gillian Harkins, Clarita Lefthand-Begay, and Linda Ko for a keynote, short talks, and a panel on inclusive research design. Sessions covered topics from libraries as spaces for public engagement (Oliver) to equity in research data visualization (Aghassibake).

Although our link-sharing strategy worked to prevent Zoom-bombing, we did belatedly learn the importance of creating a code of conduct for online events like ours when a UW attendee began making inappropriate comments in the webinar chat. Going forward, we will use event codes of conduct based on our UW Libraries Code of Conduct, with procedures in place to make sure all attendees understand our expectations and what will happen if harassment occurs. 

Along with the importance of a code of conduct and other tools to address malicious use of Zoom, we also learned the importance of timing for online events like ours. We originally planned a six hour in-person event with simultaneous talks attendees could choose between and workshops scheduled over the lunch hour. To make the shift to online manageable, we cut the workshops and decided to run the day’s event from a single zoom webinar account. As a result, we were able to cut the event down to five hours. We limited ourselves to very short breaks between sessions, reasoning that attendees wouldn’t need to move between breakout session venues. While this was true, we learned that people wanted longer breaks to combat the draining nature of starting a screen for hours on end. Although we traded off moderating chat, the length of the online event proved exhausting for our symposium planning team as well. In future online symposia, we will build in 10-15 minute breaks and stick to a three to four hour event. Overall, the hours selected for the event seemed to be accessible across multiple time zones as registrants from the west and east coasts as well as the Midwest attended.

Credit for the successful online shift of “Going Public: Opening Scholarship to All” is due to the creativity, enthusiasm and hard work of our planning team along with the support of our Libraries’ administration and our wonderful event co-sponsors. Thanks in particular go to our planning team: Joanne Chern, Robin Chin Roemer, Beth Lytle, Sarah Schroeder, Elliott Stevens, Sarah Stone, and Christine Tawatao. Due to this collaborative effort, we were able to successfully social distance yet still share our message of equity in the production of and access to scholarship to a wide audience at a time where research communication and access is more important than ever.  

What Does Teaching Online Look Like Now?

This is not a post about tools and software for teaching online, holding class lectures via Zoom or Microsoft Teams, editing on-the-fly instructional videos, or developing interactive lessons in Articulate Rise 360.

Yes, my colleagues and I are doing these things and trying our best at them. But we are also anxious, tired, busy, scared, distracted, lonely, overwhelmed, frustrated, etc. You get the idea. We’re all doing the best we can under the circumstances and finding joy in the little things: Playing Animal Crossing, watching our child’s face light up when they figure out a tough math problem from the homeschooling curriculum, holding video chat parties with friends, texting while watching Drag Race together, etc.

We’re also teaching and interacting with students and faculty who are feeling all the same feelings and doing all the things they can stay healthy and comfortable. So what does that mean for all of us librarians now (or continuing to) teach online? What does, or what can, our teaching online look like now?

It is:

Compassionate
Students may have children, parents, or extended family at home. They may be dealing with hunger, food insecurity, safety issues, or depression. They are likely scared, worried, and anxious about their health and the health of those they love as well as their ability to participate in a class successfully. In short, we don’t know students’ situations and we can’t make assumptions about their state of mind, internet access, health, or well-being.

What we can be is empathetic and compassionate. We can build in allowances knowing situations are less than ideal right now. Move from making things mandatory to making things optional enrichment. Do away with synchronous anything and let people learn at their own pace as they are able to do so. We can stop creating hard deadlines and look at ways to learn together.

Pared down
We don’t need to cram in all the content we normally would in a session or in a semester class into the online classroom. What do students really need to know? NO, REALLY? You may find that it is FAR LESS than what standard curriculum dictates.

My son’s teacher sends us a grid every week and asks us to pick a few activities to complete. It’s self-directed, a fraction of what they would learn in the classroom, but it’s enough. My partner is re-evaluating his class content and stripping it way way wayyyyyy down to just the essentials.

Messy
The videos, lessons, webinars, and learning objects we create are going to be messy and unpolished and that is good! We might excuse them by saying, “This is not my best work,” but it is amazing work. It’s the best work we can do during a global pandemic and that work is worth celebrating.

Connected
If ever there was a time to focus on the human side of online learning, this is it. Don’t make it just about the content. Focus on the students. Give them time and opportunities to connect to one another and to you.

How are you tackling online learning during this time?