What Will the Fall 2020 Semester Look Like at the Library?

By Dale Askey

By Dale Askey

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As is everyone on campus, the Library & Museums portfolio is busily preparing for a fall term unlike any that we have all ever experienced. While we provided a broad plan to campus in June, I'd like to share some more details and offer some insights on how we have arrived at this point.

In many ways, the Library has long been preparing for the scenario in which we find ourselves, although coping with a pandemic wasn't necessarily on our mind. Academic libraries in 2020 are digital-forward organizations. Twenty-five years ago, nearly all books and journals arrived in print, while today that ratio has largely flipped. As technology became more sophisticated and content moved to the digital realm, we naturally shifted many of our services online as well. The Library has developed and implemented myriad technical solutions to facilitate the management of a wide array of digital content - both licensed and locally created - and to ensure reliable access for faculty and students from anywhere on the globe. The result: when the pandemic hit, we were already there online with content and personal assistance for students and faculty. We may not be in our buildings, but the expertise, problem-solving abilities, and friendliness of our staff come through in any medium.

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We have of course also made numerous adjustments to adapt to ever-changing conditions and to prepare for the fall term. Our physical collections remain closed to browsing, but we have implemented a curbside pickup service and are adding improvements - longer hours, more flexible pickup times, and an Augustana pickup point - as the new term starts. We have worked with many content providers to secure access to even more digital content, including enabling HathiTrust's Emergency Temporary Access Service that made an additional 1.8 million books available online. We implemented a new tool that allows instructors to create online reading lists that integrate directly into eClass. Although we have made efforts to secure access to ebook versions of textbooks, most publishers refuse to sell their textbooks to libraries in digital formats. We have also increased staffing for our chat and email assistance services.

We all must acknowledge that this fall will not be like anything we have experienced. Many of our library locations will remain closed. Cameron Library will have expanded access to the first floor and basement, but have a capacity limit of 150 with all study and computing seats available via a booking system to ensure that we can properly manage traffic and demand. While the curbside service will be as robust as possible, we realize that this is not a perfect substitute for browsable shelves. We have had to make difficult choices to ensure that as much of our collection is available to the most people possible, regardless of their geographic location since many students and some faculty may not be coming to campus or even be in Edmonton. Access to Bruce Peel Special Collections, the University of Alberta Archives, and the Research Data Centre will be possible on an appointment basis. Most importantly: we will all be wearing masks, observing physical distance, and cleaning much more than we normally would. Our website has further details on our fall plans. We also have a guide for students.

Other units in the Library & Museums portfolio are making similar preparations. The Bookstore will open both floors on August 31 as separate stores (no access via the stairwell) to support on-campus needs. The Museums staff continues to provide critical curation for collections as well as advancing many of their projects, such as further refinement of their search site and the creation of virtual versions of their exhibits. They are currently working on plans to enable researcher access to some collections on an appointment basis.

All of these preparations and adaptations have one goal at their core: protecting the health and safety of our entire campus community. As we see COVID numbers rising again in Edmonton and peer across the border at what is happening at US universities that took a more aggressive approach to reopening, this guiding principle seems all the more relevant as we head into new territory. Our objectives are to enable as much access to our collections and services as possible while observing provincial guidelines and aligning ourselves with the institutional response. While this does inevitably mean some restrictions and inconveniences, I can assure everyone that the expertise, dedication, and creativity of the entire Library & Museums team will be there to help us all get through this unusual time. No, it will not be a normal term, but there will still be opportunity for learning, discovering, and connecting. Together, we've got this.

Dale Askey is the Vice-Provost (Library & Museums) and Chief Librarian.