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VIVA: Member Spotlight: Washington & Lee University

Virginia's Academic Library Consortium

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Member Spotlight: Washington & Lee

Transformation through Pandemic: 

Washington & Lee University

December, 2020

Share a success story from your library’s shift online in response to the pandemic in the spring. How did your library change when campuses went online in the spring of 2020?

  • When Washington & Lee closed in March 2020, a small crew stayed onsite in Leyburn Library to manage services that could not function remotely. The Access Services department – Elizabeth Teaff, Laura Hewett, and Shana Shutler - supported interlibrary loan and curbside/contactless circulation. We were one of the few schools that kept our ILL loan services, including physical loans when we could, running through the spring and summer months. We also shifted quickly to providing curbside print materials as well as digitized local materials for faculty, staff, students, and community members. Special Collections – Tom Camden, Seth McCormick-Goodhart, Lisa McCown, and Byron Faidley – extended that work by providing remote reference and digitization services using physical items from the vault. A lot of what we did was lean into the skills we already have in our respective units, just in a deeper and more digital environment. Every member of our staff contributed significantly to our seamless digital transition. I would like to highlight the work that Kaci Resau did to buy or license a remarkable quantity of e-books and streaming videos, and that Mary Abdoney did to wrangle student workers and librarians into supporting chat and email reference services. Like our colleagues around the country, we adjusted to virtual learning by revamping our guest lectures, creating new modular content, and staying in touch via Zoom with each other and our constituents. The W&L library also teaches a minor program, “Digital Culture and Information.” The nine library faculty teaching courses this academic year all converted them to online, Zoom based formats, which was a tremendous amount of work. In the fall the library opened to W&L students, faculty, and staff in order to support access to the collections, limited onsite services, and student study/Zoom spaces. This also required a huge amount of planning in order to ensure safety for library employees and visitors. Elizabeth Teaff in particular did a tremendous amount of work developing the library’s reopening plan. This included liaising with Facilities and Public Safety, negotiating more restrictive operating hours, developing quarantine and safe-handling protocols for materials, finding socially distanced workspaces for staff otherwise in cubicles, and developing more robust contactless and self-checkout systems. Although mask enforcement was at times stressful, on the whole this planning stood up to the fall semester.  

What are you most proud of in your library’s response to the rapid shift to online services?

  • We never actually shut down when the library buildings closed from March through August. Instead, we became the “library without walls.” This was only possible because of the people who work at the W&L University Library. Without hesitation, I am most proud of the nearly two dozen people who work “in” Leyburn and Telford Libraries at W&L. I am proud of their willingness to pitch in to make sure that students and faculty were supported in ways that were equitable and sensitive to diverse needs while also following sometimes onerous public health requirements. I am proud of how they remained focused on ensuring that our students and faculty have what they need, even while they are dealing with their own family and personal crises during the pandemic. I am proud that they approached the crisis with flexibility, including deciding what services we can’t support for the time being. I am proud that they’ve been honest with me about their personal needs, when they were comfortable doing so. And finally, I’m grateful to them for being kind to each other and to me in my first six months as their director. The W&L library is handling four different upheavals this year: the pandemic, racial justice discussions centering on our institutional history and name, a renovation of about 20% of Leyburn Library to bring in our new center for teaching and learning, and a new University Librarian (me). Any one of these would be hard on a library. That these folks are succeeding in the face of all four is amazing. I am proud of these people. They can do anything.  

What is a creative solution your library staff came up with to meet users’ needs in this environment?

  • It’s hard to identify one “creative” solution in the midst of all of the small but novel solutions that we tried when tackling the problem of continuing necessary services while socially distanced to prevent disease transmission. On the one hand, surviving the spring and planning for the fall allowed us to let go of longstanding rules and assumptions. The pandemic gave us an excuse to address the problem of our furniture layout and style in a way that supported both the current crisis and the changes in how people use libraries in normal times. We are also renovating part of the library to welcome our new center for teaching and learning; as part of that renovation, we’ll lose some carrel space but gain lockers for storing personal items. A great advantage of having fewer students in the building is that we can relocate furniture easily. When the students return next fall (2021), they will find that we’ve redefined some of our floors to support different types of study, and have started a project to update and diversify the art in our spaces to be more supportive of our whole campus community. My hope is that this will let us create more welcoming and inclusive spaces for all members of our community. On the other hand, the need to move so many of our services to digital spaces or self-service pushed us to try out technologies and tactics that we’d not had the time, interest, or need to consider in the past. For example, our wonderful (and popular!) Special Collections unit had not experimented broadly with virtual or hybrid teaching. With so many courses moved to Zoom and the room capacity of the reading room halved, there was no other option than to go digital. Tom Camden and his staff worked diligently to adapt to digital pedagogies – all while operating under the increased pressure to digitize materials needed by faculty and researchers across the globe. This really highlighted how non-techy the reading room is! In order to teach a Spanish class with some students in the room, and others (as well as the faculty member) via Zoom, Tom and his staff worked with our Academic Technologies folks to wheel in a flatscreen with lots of cords. We are now using that experience, among others, to advocate for improvements to Special Collections’ public spaces.  

How did VIVA, either through resources or its collaborative network, support your community during the emergency switch to online learning? 

  • We are hugely grateful to our colleagues in VIVA and other organizations for being open and supportive of us and each other during this time. As a new director, I leaned heavily on the biweekly Zoom meetings that VIVA organized to bring member directors together for advice and solace. Those meetings helped me see different options, understand what makes W&L unique or similar to other schools, build needed connections with other directors, and provide a better level of service to my campus community than I’d have been able to do without the support of my Virginia colleagues. In addition, all of our spring and fall planning was only possible because of the help and guidance of VIVA's COVID-19 Resource Delivery Task Force. The task force went beyond resource sharing and recommended overall public services best practices. From sharing the results of local and national surveys, identifying common solutions across the state, and just being there for each other, the task force members were key to our success.  

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your library’s experience supporting and/or collaborating with your campus community in the spring?

  • One of the silver linings to the pandemic has been the development of new and stronger relationships with campus partners. In many cases these came about because of hard work on our part, reaching out to make sure our plans worked for our colleagues in Custodial Services, Public Safety, and Academic Affairs. We made sure that our plans were thorough and broad, and that they were prepared sometimes before they were even asked for. In others, the students did the work of highlighting how important our services and spaces are to their success, such as at a Student Affairs town hall. Emily Cook and Elizabeth Teaff have been the perfect ambassadors for the library in working both with Student Affairs and with our new Library Student Advisory Board. I was impressed that they were able to recruit the largest cohort to date for the LSAB, and have held several productive meetings with them by Zoom. The group even sat a full complement of student members for the University Library Committee – a first! I think it’s easy for administrators and others outside the library to forget how integrated we are – or should be – with the academic as well as social fabric of the university. This pandemic let us show off how we could be helpful in unexpected ways, and absolutely reliable to our core. We did this by giving credit to our staff by any communication mode available. As an example, our Instagram stories about how people (and their furry coworkers) were working either on campus or remotely helped remind people how accessible, friendly, and useful we are, even when we’re kept socially distanced from each other. While our fall term did not feel like it did in past years, our decisions gave us the best blend of access to collections alongside practices grounded in informed community health and safety standards. We are going into our winter term much more confident and experienced, thanks to our colleagues in the library, the university, and VIVA. Read more about our COVID-19 adaptations and services on our library website.