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The shifting landscape of online resources and making decisions post-pandemic: An interview with University Librarian Ken Dick

We spoke to Ken Dick, the University Librarian at the University of Portsmouth to find out how they adapted when faced with a library closure, and how they are evolving their practices looking forward.


What has been the biggest challenge of the pandemic?

Since March we’ve had 3 different service models. It’s been the biggest challenge, but also the most fun. We very quickly had to go from our normal delivery model that we were used to, to delivering something completely new, from a closed building. It was successful, but the next challenge came when we were planning to reopen, and we had to redesign what we were doing with a blended approach, considering what was happening virtually in combination with the building being open again. 

It’s rare to get an opportunity to completely start from scratch, or implement changes that you’ve thought about for a while that might bring challenge or resistance, but the situation allows you to try it out.

Some changes we’ve made to our workflows such as removing physical handling of stock or reducing face to face interactions. It was important to consider how we keep the benefits of the service without losing the human interaction between staff and students.

There’s a natural tendency for people to want to go back to how they always did things because it’s comfortable, but we are now processing things much more quickly and efficiently. From a management perspective, we aren’t going back – that will be a challenge to explain why we’re keeping certain measures in place and what the benefits of doing that are. We need to reassure them that it’s not about removing their roles, but about adapting and giving them scope to do more, which means more interesting things rather than just procedural practical tasks.


How have your decision-making processes been affected?

We’ve been making decisions more quickly. Historically we’ve tended to have decision-making processes that go through multiple levels and take longer than they probably should to make a final decision. We’ve realised we have the ability to make decisions quickly that are right and to act on those straight away. That will be factored into decision making going forward.

What became clear was the fact we had done disaster planning, like for a flood or fire, but not around business continuity. We knew how we would deal with those decisions, but not about how we would restart and build functions back up. Now we will be sure to think about that in order to give us the greatest flexibility. For instance, is it more beneficial now to supply staff with laptops, for use in work rather than a PC because it gives greater options for future working at home situations balanced against the greater costs? Another example will be how we balance the creation of reusable learning objects against the face to face delivery of information literacy teaching as the University adapts to the new normal.

In the vast majority of cases, more flexibility or acting fast is welcomed. There is a fear that is common about making decisions too quickly on the basis of ‘what if it’s wrong?’. The reassurance is that the majority of what we are deciding isn’t life or death and most things can be reversed quickly. It’s about confidence, and people become more used to it over time. It’s ok to make decisions on gut instinct because you don’t have all the information.


Any surprises?

We were surprised about how quickly we were able to implement effective change, and how much we were able to deliver virtually. We had never considered any of our services were suitable for full-time home working (although some of the team did work from home when needed) but we never considered that their entire role could be performed virtually. This has been possible and it was very successful. That was a really pleasant surprise. 

The other surprise was how difficult I found it mentally to go from what we had always tried to do with the library, which was put more in (more seats, more services and so on), to go to the opposite of that, to provide a space set up for social distancing. The action of doing it was easy, but the mental shift of changing the service and going against everything you’ve done so far was tricky. Seeing how much nicer the space looks and feels, and the opportunities that it presents has been great though. As social distances eases, we want to work with designers and experts to ensure the spaces are still working properly.  

How have you adapted to the increase in demand for online resources?

Like many in the community, we are rather unhappy with the majority of pricing on models out there from ebook providers. Publishers are trying to transpose a print model into the electronic world – but it’s much different, and isn’t working.

We made extensive use over the lockdown period of the Jisc free student etextbook programme and have analysed the usage of that in detail to see what was being used. Where etextbooks were having a real benefit was where they were integrated into an assessment. If that wasn’t the case, usage wasn’t that thigh. Part of that was the timing, of course, it must be said.

We have worked with specific publishers and aggregators at both Institutional and Faculty level to increase the provision of relevant e-textbooks reflecting that even with the work of Jisc the full provision of e-textbooks at the whole institution level was not possible financially for us at this time.

The business school has chosen Perlego for all of their students to provide online resources for students. This is an online subscription service which allows students to access an unlimited amount of ebooks and etextbooks within the Perlego catalogue.

Hannah Porter, Faculty Librarian for the University of Portsmouth Business School has presented a webinar on their adoption of Perlego. Watch it here.

At a university level, we are piloting the SAGE Catalyst project, providing 500 textbooks across Humanities and Social Sciences. At the University of Portsmouth that covers a lot of our faculties, so it has been really useful.

We have increased the funding going into a range of Evidence-Based Acquisition (EBA) and Demand-Driven Acquisition (DDA) schemes. We’ve explored Bibliu’s User Activated Acquisition model. 

We don’t have the funding to buy textbooks for everyone. The change in culture to teaching from a textbook isn’t quite there, although with blended learning progressing as it is, we may move closer down that line, but at the moment, we are looking at evidence-based acquisition to provision what we can.


How do you see these challenges being ultimately addressed/resolved?

Realistically, textbooks will continue to be key so I imagine there will be a pressure to develop the national model negotiated through Jisc given the work that has taken place so far.  I

expect continued scrutiny on the problems in the ebook market at an institutional and sectoral level which might help to bring prices down somewhat. Longer-term I wonder if open access will move into monographs in a similar way, but this will be a much more long term shift.


Do you see your print collections policies or practices changing as a result of the changing landscape?

Our collection management policy has preferenced electronic resources for a while. 

At the start of lockdown, we looked at all of our reading lists to see which items we didn’t have electronically, what we did have available, which was a surprisingly high percentage. In a lot of cases, we used this information to build on our collection. 

I think over time we will see our print collection reduce, we will be removing older editions and i doubt we will replace them with print versions. Print will probably end up as a monograph collection or special collection. I don’t think it’ll ever disappear completely, but print textbooks or similar materials are likely to be gone in 3-5 years time. I believe we will then just maintain a more special print collection. 

I expect us to always have a print book collection given the subject portfolio at Portsmouth, but this is likely to be based around visually-oriented subjects

and monograph type items in other fields. Until domestic level printing becomes very high quality, it’s likely our more design-focused students will still need those physical copies.

I also see collaborative print collections growing, possibly having print collections managed at a multi-institution level which means different titles would be shared with access agreements across universities.


What role do you think the library has in teaching and learning?

I think the library has quite an important supporting role, acting as a partner to academics, in terms of content and especially information literacy, digital literacy and ensuring that it is woven into courses at the appropriate time. 

It already plays out quite nicely here at the University of Portsmouth, our Faculty Librarian team have good relationships with the academics in their faculties and generally have the opportunity to be involved with those processes. The pandemic has highlighted the value of that relationship.

An area of change during the pandemic has been in the area of ‘how’ to position information literacy with an increasing emphasis on the provision, and embedding, of learning objects in many areas of the University.

Another change that we are seeing is an increase in the academics attending the library staff led virtual sessions which I think may further increase the role of the library in these areas going forward.


What has COVID-19 shown about the value of the library?

It has simply highlighted the good work we already do. 

For the academics, I think the pandemic has given them a much greater awareness of the challenges of providing ebook access as a result of the costs and the complexity of licenses and the supply chains. This awareness is helping academics see, and appreciate, the value in the content that we are able to provide for them and has led to valuable dialogue on this and wider issues.

During the lockdown, when the library was closed, we were receiving so many questions about when the library would reopen. It showed how important the space was to them, for the services but also as a social hub. It was frustrating that we didn’t always have an answer, but heartening to hear.

The first day we opened, at about 12 pm, we saw students in at 12.15, which was nice to see!



Thanks to Ken for contributing to the Talis Informer.

This post was created exclusively 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 For even more content and discussion, join the Talis Informer mailing group here.