Adapt and carry on: Our response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Posted by Sara Volmering on

When you think of a library, you most likely imagine a building with people, books, computers, and places to sit, read, or study. But what happens when your library's physical space is closed for an extended period? We got to answer that question this year as the COVID-19 pandemic closed libraries across the state.

Kate Langan with MLA and APA style guides at home office.

Kate Langan grabbed style manuals to help students working on final papers.

On Mar. 16 at 3 p.m., the University Libraries closed all libraries on Western Michigan University’s campus in Kalamazoo as directed by the governor’s executive order. The initial order lasted through Mar. 30. At the time, we didn’t understand the scale of the COVID-19 crisis or how long it would be before our doors opened again.

“When the WMU Libraries were required to close our physical facilities, we shifted all of our resources to mobilizing our online services,” said Julie Garrison, dean, University Libraries. “Thankfully, the Libraries’ online infrastructure was already in place, providing 24-hour access to resources and a full suite of services our faculty, staff, and students needed to continue to successfully complete their research, instruction, and educational assignments.”

As the COVID-19 cases increased across the state, WMU’s campus closed, and summer courses moved online. It became clear that the closure would last longer than anticipated and that we needed to adapt our services and prepare our collections for a fully online learning experience.

Facilitating access to our collection

Convenient and easy-to-access online resources helped many students and instructors who rapidly shifted to distance learning. Usage of electronic resources, including ebooks and journals, streaming videos, and databases, increased during the closure. 

“The Libraries are a key resource, and with the loss of access to physical spaces, the ability to sustain – and grow – our resources electronically was more important than ever,” said Paul Gallagher, associate dean of resources and digital strategies.

Home office with scanner and computers.

Cecelia Moore brought home a scanner and table to continue digitizing materials for our digital collections.

Over the past decade, libraries have shifted more and more of their collections online as users seek out on-demand access to resources.

“Libraries, in general, have been delivering content electronically since the earliest days of computing, and that experience made us well suited to continue a high level of access and support,” said Gallagher.

“Our main priorities were keeping and maintaining unfettered access to electronic resources,” said Randle Gedeon, professor and acquisitions librarian. “Due to the nature of this crisis, this content becomes even more the very essence of the collection and perhaps even the library.”

However, not everything students and instructors needed was available online. Luckily, four staff members, Cherise Smith, Jacob Ewing, Julie Hayward, and Eric Bowler, were able to work on-site to facilitate access to the print collection.

Working on campus during the extended closure was much different than the average day of work prior to COVID-19. With no students, limited on-site staff, and closed buildings, the campus was deserted, making it much safer for library staff to enter the building. In addition to wearing personal protective equipment, on-site workers followed numerous safety protocols to keep themselves, and each other, as safe as possible. 

“We had signs posted at every door, elevator, and stairway saying whether we could use it or not. The place was completely empty of people, which was odd for a library,” said Jacob Ewing, coordinator, user services.

“It was very different being on campus while it was closed. At times, I felt like I was the only person around. I would go to Maybee Music and Dance Library or Swain Education Library to pull materials, and I would walk through these large empty buildings and not see a soul,” said Julie Hayward, program manager, user services.

The on-site team fulfilled requests from WMU students, instructors, and staff electronically or by UPS. Course reserves, interlibrary loan, and document delivery were in high demand as the spring semester continued, and instructors began preparing for summer and fall courses.

“While working on-site, we were responsible for completing the physical processing of interlibrary loan and document delivery requests from the WMU community and course reserve requests to support the faculty, especially when they were tasked with moving their classes online,” said Hayward.

While the work itself was routine, the safety precautions, high request volume, and constant operation changes were anything but.

“Scanning was previously a regular part of my job, but the sheer amount of scanning that needed to be done was new,” said Ewing.

“The biggest challenge would be the continuous changes. Many times, I would email a patron the next day with different information. Thankfully, they were very understanding,” said Cherise Smith, coordinator, user services.

It also became more challenging to fulfill requests as libraries began closing across the U.S. “Many libraries across the country were also closed, and it was hard to find lenders that were open and willing to send physical materials or scan from their physical collections,” said Hayward.

The team overcame these challenges by adapting and finding ways to meet the needs of our library users. They processed nearly 3,000 interlibrary loan and document delivery requests from Mar. 17 through Jun. 30. In addition, over 3,400 items were loaned to other libraries during this period.

Mobilizing online services and working remotely

We have delivered reference services by phone, email, and online chat for the past several years. These communications were critical to our transition to fully remote services during the extended closure. However, instruction and research consultations provided by our subject librarians traditionally have been an in-person experience.

Cat in front of computer monitor.

Carrie Leatherman's furry coworker is cute, but not a lot of help around the home office.

Our Instruction and Outreach department quickly developed a plan to deliver library instruction, research consultations, and skill-based workshops online. Our librarians collaborated with WMUx to increase the Libraries’ presence in Elearning by embedding subject guides in all courses and developing engaging instruction modules.

“[We had] to make sure the WMU community had the information resources they needed while classes were online-only, and to spread the word to our liaison departments that the library was still open virtually even though the library buildings were closed,” Carrie Leatherman, associate professor and science librarian.

Employees who were able to work remotely set up makeshift workspaces and found ways to keep connected despite the unusual situation.

“I remember going in and grabbing all the MLA and APA style manuals from course reserves in March, so we could have them for students working on final papers. I delivered copies to my colleagues around town. I am glad we have them at home with us. I refer to them all the time,” Kate Langan, associate professor and humanities librarian.

Megan Brown and kids at table.

Megan Brown's office mates became a lot younger when she started working remotely.

“I was able to obtain a scanner, a large table and material from at least five separate projects that my department had been working on or had in the works. Getting the scanner and table to my house was the biggest challenge, literally and figuratively,” said Cecelia Moore, coordinator, digitization projects.

There was also an added challenge for parents and caretakers to balance remote work and home life.

“My kids were home all day with us, of course, so until school was out, we had to figure out a schedule to manage both my part-time hours and their school schedule,” said Megan Brown, coordinator, user services. “It worked out really well that their Zoom sessions happened to be scheduled just as I was ending my work shift for the day, so that was extremely helpful.”

For some librarians, the closure separated them from their physical collections but offered time to prepare for the future and advance the digitization of unique collections.

“Much of my work, and the work of several of my colleagues, is focused on teaching, facilitating research, and caring for physical collections. This work was difficult to perform fully without access to materials, so I focused on projects related to digitization and description of materials, research, and professional development,” said Sue Steuer, professor and special collections librarian.

Two monitors and a laptop on a table.

The more screens the better for Sue Steuer when working remotely from home.

“The team who was working, largely our faculty, was involved in developing two COVID-related research projects, completing requirements for a grant, consulting on future grants, trying to reschedule events planned for the future, and planning for a safe return to campus for our staff and students,” said Steuer.

Unfortunately, some employees could not work remotely due to the nature of their work, facility closures, and limitations put in place by the university. The public health crisis and political upheaval added to the stress of this unprecedented time.

 “The biggest challenges were dealing with uncertainty, fear, and low morale,” said Steuer. “These factors combined with constantly changing governmental, medical, and University-related news, made it difficult for those waiting to come back to work and for those working at home.”

Returning to the library

After extensive planning for a safe return to campus, we reopened Waldo Library’s lobby on Aug. 3 and the first floor on Aug. 17. To reduce the potential spread of infection, Zhang Legacy Collections Center is open by appointment only, and Swain Education Library is closed for the 2020-21 academic year. Maybee Music and Dance Library in the Dalton Center has been permanently closed. These collections will be relocated to Waldo Library and will continue to be available during the transition.

WMU is delivering fall courses through a variety of methods: online, hybrid, and in-person. Many services continue to be offered online to support learners and instructors working remotely.

“I am proud of our ability to quickly relax normal operating practices and develop innovative and flexible ways to meet the information needs of our community during a completely disorienting and stressful time,” said Garrison. “Although our doors were closed, we remained dedicated and fully responsive to our community despite the pandemic.”

“I commend our staff in staying focused on what was important, supporting our patrons. To be fair, their success was no surprise. Libraries are centers of information, and have continually provided support in whatever format and method is the most current,” said Gallagher. “While the shift to move physical services online was abrupt, the fact that staff made the transition so flawlessly speaks to the value we share of servicing our patrons wherever, and however, they prefer to engage with information.”

COVID-19 Pandemic Timeline

  • March 9: Spring courses resume after spring break.
  • March 11: WMU President announced that all spring courses would move to distance education March 16 through April 3. Dorms and dining halls remain open. Events with more than 100 attendees canceled.
  • March 16: All spring courses move to distance education. More than 4,000 course sections move to distance delivery.
  • March 16, 3 p.m.: All Libraries facilities closed by Executive order. Library employees shift to remote work. WMU campus remains open.
  • March 20: WMU President announces distance education extended through term, work arrangements changed to focus on essential work only.
  • March 23: Stay home, stay safe executive order issued, closing all non-essential businesses, schools, and college campuses. 
  • March 24: Campus buildings and most residence halls close. 
  • March 31: Summer I courses move to distance education.
  • April 1: First WMU community member tested positive for COVID-19.
  • April 24: Stay home, stay safe order extended.
  • May 14: Summer II courses moved to distance education.
  • June 1: Stay home, stay safe order lifted; campus remains closed except for essential services.
  • June 15: President announced in-person classes resume Sept. 2 with courses moving online after Thanksgiving break. Fall break will be canceled. Class capacity and classroom size limited. Additional delivery methods, including hybrid, asynchronous online, fully synchronous online, and partial synchronous online offered.
  • July 17: WMU’s safe return plan announced.
  • Aug. 3: Waldo Library’s lobby reopens.
  • Aug. 17: Waldo Library’s first floor reopens. Campus buildings reopen.
  • Aug. 25: Residence hall move in begins.
  • Sept. 2: Fall classes begin.