Reflecting on library space through the lens of the pandemic

Before the pandemic turned our world upside down, I was working on some space-related projects at my library. A recent update to a small lounge area had a notable payoff. Collaboration with my colleague in the Learning Center was making slow but steady progress toward a renovation to expand and enhance our spaces and services in a Learning Commons model. The need for and value of this work were clear. The progress and outcomes were gratifying.

I’ve written a few times about some of this work and the opportunities and challenges of my lovely but tiny library space. The public health crisis has cast our space and these efforts to improve it, like pretty much everything, in new light. Obviously, slashed higher ed budgets and broader economic challenges suggest that there will be increased competition for limited resources to fund any space project, particularly a large and pricey one like our Learning Commons proposal. But the pandemic will affect higher education’s short-, medium- and long-term future in many arenas, not just fiscal; the impact on demand for and nature of library space is difficult to anticipate, reducing our ability to plan and advocate strategically.

In the short-term, space has featured prominently in the many meetings about the fall semester at my commuter campus and across my institution. Currently, my institution is planning for a mix of in-person, hybrid, and remote courses. At the core of our many space-related conversations has been the recognition that access to physical space matters even in this very virtual incarnation of higher ed, particularly for our most vulnerable students. On a practical level, we need to offer on-campus space (and resources) to students who don’t have access to reliable technology at home or whose home environments aren’t productive or safe. We also need to offer on-campus space for students to participate in Zoom classes sandwiched between in-person classes. Like many folks, we’re working out how to safely open and manage access to our space. 

Then, there are the more theoretical conversations about the sense of identity and community that physical (library) space fosters. We’ve cast our proposed Learning Commons, for example, as a welcoming learner-centered space where students can focus, study, collaborate, and access academic assistance. In our advocacy, we’ve cited the impact of the library’s and learning center’s physical constraints on students; they have had to vie for limited space or even leave campus, thereby missing out on opportunities to engage with services, programs, faculty and staff, and peers. We’ve argued that these missed opportunities reduce their ability to make connections on campus and build community. Library space helps our students dig in, connect, and belong. How can we attempt to recover or replace what we’re losing during this time? While perhaps not our most pressing concern given all the demands of planning for fall classes, it’s still an important one–for this coming semester and beyond. 

The medium- and long-term vision for our space projects, then, feels murky. Surely, expanding the physical library with more square footage would mean that we could accommodate more library users while complying with physical distancing guidelines. But it’s more than that. In our newly upended world, the assets and liabilities of all public space are thrown into sharp relief. The pandemic calls on us to reconsider how spaces are designed and how they’re used. How do we plan for library space projects in this time of uncertainty not just in higher ed but in our world? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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.

Here. Still.

Here we are friends. Things are still weird, wrong, scary, annoying, infuriating, comforting, isolating, easy, difficult, slow-paced, and overwhelming. I’m sitting at the IKEA desk I hastily bought before Texas shut down all non-essential business in April. It’s positioned at a window that overlooks two dumpsters and a parking garage, but the light is good and I can close the door to the room while my partner homeschools our son in the morning. We trade off in the afternoon and again in the evening. He’s a good partner, but I still find myself being the preferred parent these days, a source of endless hugs and reassurances that remind me of what it was like to parent a toddler.

This is my week to write a post for ACRLog and I’ve been struggling to come up with ideas that I think are worth writing about. I solicited advice from the ACRLog blogging team and colleagues on Twitter. Suggestions were all good and helpful, and ranged from topics like what an instruction program would look like in the fall to staying motivated over a socially-distant summer to misinterpretations of vocational awe to discussions of imposter syndrome and the reopening of libraries. The problem is that I can’t bring myself to write about any of these topics well. The library world doesn’t need another Libraries + COVID-19 think piece, certainly not from someone like me, who is still employed, safely working from home with an immunocompromised partner who is able to do the same.

What works for me while I work from home won’t work for you. I work around homeschooling an 8 year old, our family’s various therapy appointments, dog-walking, exercise, grocery runs, and making food my son won’t think is “the grossest thing ever.” My work is easy. I’m not making decisions about furloughs or layoffs. I’m not having to don homemade PPE to reopen my library or gather books for faculty researchers. I get to create online instructional materials and work on interesting projects. I’m always worried, but my worries aren’t your worries. I worry about my partner getting sick and his compromised immune system not being able to fight off the infection. I worry about my ASD son being so socially isolated and not being able to practice valuable social interaction. I worry about my parents and in-laws. I worry about being a family whose income relies solely on the success of academia, and one academic institution in particular. I worry about the most vulnerable people in the world right now.

So what is there to write and share? I can share that things that get me through a day. They probably won’t be helpful to most people who read them, but maybe if we all share what gets us through a day (maybe not today, or yesterday, but a day that was a good day) there’s something there for each of us.

Here’s where I reach the part of writing where a little part of me gives up and I just start listing things, or, what my friend Jo and I call the “F**k it. Here’s a list.” portion of my post. We’re all here. Still. Some in better shape than others. Let’s support each other. Organize. Reach out. Offer help. We all need it.

Things getting me through a day:

Clarinets and crafts: Observations from my apartment

Seven weeks ago, I wrote about week one of teleworking. A lot was changing then, and a lot has changed since. By this point, many of our semesters are wrapping up, we’ve taught at least once in this remote setting, and we’ve found new routines that govern our day-to-day. For me, I’ve led an online student showcase, judged research posters for a virtual undergraduate research exhibition, conducted four virtual interviews for my research project, and sat in on way too many Zoom calls. My eyes are much more likely to go cross-eyed these days and if I don’t need to be on camera, I’ll turn it off. Somedays I’m really jazzed on Zoom meetings, other days, I just don’t have the energy to engage. 

As I experienced seven weeks ago when writing my teleworking diary blog post, it’s hard to know what to say when you’re in a moment. My thoughts on that first week have changed the longer we stay in this holding pattern. I don’t have any big takeaways to share because we’re still in this experience. Instead, I want to talk about two types of experiences I’ve been having, both outside the immediate scope of librarianship, but both informing how I move forward with my own work, in an online environment, during this time. 

Clarinet & the research process

This is the fifth semester I’ve played in the Penn State Clarinet Choir. It’s a choir made up of clarinet undergraduate music education and music performance students, music minor students, one graduate student, and me, your resident librarian. I’ve played the clarinet for over a decade and when I started working a 9-5 librarian job, I emailed the clarinet instructor and asked if there was a way to play. The professor invited me to a rehearsal and ever since I’ve been a (relatively) faithful member of the group. As you might expect, the music folks scrambled in the move to remote, but I would say they know more about sound quality with Zoom than anyone else. The students in the clarinet choir still take lessons, performed for each other at two studio recitals, and are currently in the middle of recording their jury pieces.

In turning everything online, the clarinet choir got interesting. Since we can’t all play together, Tony, the professor, has been using this weekly time to discuss other elements of playing the clarinet. From how to run your own studio, to the qualities of a good reed, I’ve been learning a lot about an instrument I honestly only know a little about. But what I’ve loved the most about these weekly meetings, is seeing their research process.

Traditionally, when I show up to things beyond clarinet choir rehearsal, like a senior recital, my view of their research are the program notes I pick up and read several times throughout the concert. Sometimes there are sources, cited at the bottom, in a variety of citation styles. Those notes don’t really show me how this research influenced the student’s ability to play the pieces or what they thought about in approaching these works. We’ve now had two clarinet sessions where we dissect a classic piece in the clarinet repertoire. We talk about the historical context for the composer and piece, the urtext (original, authoritative intention from the composer) versus the other published editions, difficulties with the piece, how to teach others to play it, and important recordings that shape our understanding of the piece. It’s the research process I know well, just adjusted for the discipline I don’t know as well. In those meetings, I stay muted but in my head, I’m like this GIF.

via GIPHY

These online clarinet choir meetings are exposing me to the field of clarinet studies and I’m here for it. It’s nice to see these students, in their natural environments. They change their Zoom display names, wrap themselves up in blankets, eat dinner while we discuss Mozart, and have incredibly oversized posters of the clarinet (we love this).  

Crafts and Readings Via Zoom

I’ve always been a craft person. Homemade birthday cards, elaborate scrapbooks from that one summer between fifth and sixth grade, origami animals for a summer library display, and these days, zines and embroidery. Crafting has been a good way to keep my hands busy. Pre-pandemic, I crafted alone, or with a small group of gals. These days, technology comes into play. I took an online embroidery class from Spacecraft in Seattle, made a zine with Malaka Gharib, stitch with a friend in Cinncinati every Saturday afternoon, and bring friends together to make a zine every Tuesday. All of these moments showed me different ways of teaching and building community in online spaces. Especially for tackling new crafts, how do you help people who are not physically next to you? How do you build a sense of community in an hour-long Zoom call? What’s so comforting about doing the same thing as someone else and why do these virtual calls feel so different from the Zoom meetings that consume my Mondays through Fridays? These calls have become a foundation for these weeks in a way I wasn’t expecting. A small choice to set up a regular time to create has given me markers to help me through each week.

Beyond crafts, I’ve also been seeking out any literary reading events. I don’t know about you, but I’m struggling to get into books these days. Readings are the type of event that can kickstart me again, either into reading or just writing (which eventually leads to me wanting to read). I’ve now attended a couple of readings, each one using a different streaming platform. Some have been better than others, but that’s true, in-person or online. Again I’m struck by the ways people organize these events and how authors navigate talking to a screen, versus talking to a live, in-person audience. I’m curious if the format and organization of the event leads me to be more engaged or bored (and therefore, tempted to leave). Regardless of how much I enjoy it, it’s nice to have something on the calendar to simply attend, and not have to do any preparation before joining the call.

I assume I’ll publish another post in six to seven weeks. I can’t even imagine what things will be like, or what I’ll be writing about next. Just have to wait and see. What about you? What things have you noticed during the past two months? Anything that has surprised you?  

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?