With New Zealand about to move back from a ‘level 4’ to a ‘level 3’ restriction in the aim to combat COVID-19, we wanted to speak to Janet Fletcher, University Librarian, at Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) about how they have dealt with the crisis and what their plans are for reopening physical services on campus.
This interview was conducted on 24th April 2020, especially for the Talis Informer newsletter.
What have been the major changes that you have been experiencing?
We have been providing services as usual, but, of course, everything about how we do that is different. The university has now been closed for 4 weeks [at the time of writing] and during that time the library staff have been working completely online.
The university has done remarkably well in moving all its courses to fully online over the last few weeks. Students have been very engaged, and appreciative that they’ve been able to continue their studies with little disruption. This has been quite positive despite the situation.
From a library point of view, we’ve used this as an opportunity to engage with academic staff in a deeper way when it comes to providing access to digital resources. With support from our Provost, we have been encouraging academic staff towards an e-first approach. We want them to move away from digitisation of print resources, and seek alternative born-digital sources as much as possible.
Has the way you work with academics changed at all?
Our approach hasn’t changed, but this situation has propelled academic staff to think in a more digital way, which they may not have done so quickly before. Through existing connections, our subject librarians have been proactively talking with academic staff about how we need to find resources that are electronic. We’ve also given them support and help with finding resources online for themselves. They are keen to do this because they can see the value of it, especially in this situation with all teaching happening online.
Are there any news tools you’ve implemented?
We are all wedded to MS Teams now! From a communications point of view, 99% of talking to each other is undertaken by Teams. The subject librarians also engage with students and academic staff using Zoom. Otherwise, nothing has changed. Our library tools (such as Talis Aspire or our Library Management System) have stayed the same and we have just adapted to the situation.
How are your students coping?
I feel they’ve managed well with the shift because their resources are primarily online, many accessible through Talis Aspire, so they’ve been able to just get on with their study at home.
What I think students may struggle with is the situation at home, as it is not always conducive to good study practices.
You also experienced a difficult situation with an earthquake which meant you lost access to the library building, how did you deal with this?
Yes, in 2016 we experienced an earthquake which meant the main building on the central campus was completely closed due to structural damage. We didn’t have access to our building for three months, and we also had minor issues in other libraries for a few weeks after the earthquake.
Fortunately, this event happened during our quiet period (trimester 3), so the impact on students wasn’t as drastic as it could have been.
There was no access to our physical content though we were able to extract our short term loans collection for students to use. These were the key texts that we knew were important and difficult (or impossible) to find elsewhere.
The people most affected by this situation were the postgraduate students and academic staff who required access to primary reading materials from our print collections. It was at the time of year when such research was undertaken and it was quite stressful for this group. The situation was exacerbated because not only was our special collections room closed but the National Library of New Zealand and New Zealand Archives were also closed.
We did interlibrary loans for researchers who wanted access to general texts and we set up a network within New Zealand and beyond to enable this. That was very helpful. Our vendors also provided us with access to ebooks at very reasonable prices. They really stepped up and helped us. This created the opportunity to substantially increase our ebook collections and this has continued particularly as we live in an earthquake-prone part of the world. Of course, pandemics weren’t really considered then!
How did the library closure affect your librarians?
Without a library space on the main campus, we had to make other spaces work. We still needed areas for staff to work, at that time we were not set up for working remotely, and the staff wanted to be on campus too. We found spaces across the university for them, such as our other libraries or in computer labs. We had a library service up and running within a few days of the earthquake, including organising trolleys for holding books and computers to use. This was set up in the central Hub area on the main campus. Within two weeks we had most staff working back at the university in one location or another.
During this time, Talis Aspire was very important in supporting our academic staff in learning and teaching during Tr3. We even had one academic staff member saying “thank God for Talis Aspire”. The effort inputting their resources into Talis Aspire reading lists really saved the day.
Was your increase in the availability of digital resources spurred on by the earthquake, or was it more to do with a shift towards a digital-first approach across the sector in general?
In this region, we’ve been quite digitally-minded for many years. We have a model for buying ebooks and this certainly increased rapidly after the earthquake as it became apparent just how important this was. We’ve really just continued along that path. 94% of our budget is allocated towards electronic resources.
Next week some of the COVID-19 restrictions will be eased off in New Zealand, what are your plans for library services at VUW?
We intend to provide a small area of the Library for students who require better study facilities to use. The university has established procedures to ensure we comply with Level 3 guidelines.
We will also provide a click and collect and a click and post service for physical resources from the main library and the law library. We will also digitise items (within copyright law) for short term items that we don’t want to send off-campus.
Most staff will continue to work remotely, but we have called for volunteers, who will come in for half days.
Do you have any advice for other library leaders in Higher Education who are in the midst of this situation?
Regular and clear communication is vital, for library staff, students and staff of the university.
A great example is our Prime Minister, she’s been doing a fantastic job of informing the New Zealand population about the situation. The more honest, open, and transparent communication you give (and people can tell when it’s not those things), the more people will understand and accept it.
I think the library staff have been amazing here. There have been no complaints, they just get on with things. When you are dealing with people in stressful times who are out of their comfort zone, with uncertainty around what the future will bring, you just have to keep them fully informed. That is what our Prime Minister has done.
From a library context, I think these crises are opportunities for libraries to show how well they provide services to the university. Even though times are bleak, there are many silver linings where we can demonstrate our value.
In these situations, senior leaders at the university will ask “How is the library helping us?” We need to respond quickly and make it clear that we are ready and that our library services and collections are very much online. It is also evident that our library spaces are desired for study and we need to provide access as soon as possible. In our current situation, we have already received thanks for providing the small study facility and that we are doing our best to provide access to important print resources as quickly as possible.
Library staff are very good at finding the silver linings, they’re passionate about helping people and want to do the best they can. They really do enjoy being a part of the university and adding value. So, while it’s not the best situation, we can still demonstrate that we are prepared to do whatever it takes to ensure that our students and staff receive the best library service possible.
Thank you to Janet for contributing this interview.
Janet has been the University Librarian at Victoria University of Wellington since Dec 2015. She leads the Library and is responsible for developing its vision, strategic plan and implementation strategies. Janet’s interests include understanding our users’ behaviour and responding swiftly, recalibrating library spaces, and creating the right environment/culture for brave and future thinking library staff. Janet is also currently the University lead for the Student Success Programme. The Programme is responsible for reviewing and redesigning the University’s student services so they are streamlined, integrated and meet the needs of its diverse student population to achieve academic success.
This post was originally created for the Talis Informer, a quarterly newsletter from Talis aimed at those leading and influencing Higher Education libraries. If you’d like to receive the newsletter, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org. For even more content and discussion, join the Talis Informer mailing group here.