Looking Back to Look Ahead

An abridged conversation with Andrew White, Caleb T. Winchester University Librarian at Wesleyan University. Nicole Kang Ferraiolo, CLIR’s director of global strategic initiatives, interviewed White.

Let’s start by having you introduce yourself.

My name is Andrew White. I’m the university librarian for Wesleyan University in central Connecticut. We are either a very large liberal arts college or a very small research university, depending on your perspective.

Can you tell me a bit about those first months of the pandemic? What did you feel you needed to do to respond in your job?

By late February, early March, we knew something was going to happen, but we had no idea what that was going to look like. We wanted to send staff home as soon as possible, but we had no idea if they were going to suspend classes. Was the semester going to continue in person or was it online? The provost called me in early March to ask how the library could support fully online classes. And so I began working with the entire staff, with the library leadership, and then with other campus stakeholders. We were pretty confident that we could deliver the bulk of materials that students were using digitally, since well over 80% of our materials budget is allocated to databases, e-books, and streaming media. So we started with the premise that we’re going to deliver as much material and as many services as we possibly can online. I think we spent most of March and a good portion of April frantically trying to figure out what that would look like. It’s been both a sprint and a marathon this year. I’m very proud of the staff. Everyone stepped forward. They shouldn’t have had to, but they did.

What are some of the ways you adapted your services?

Our reserve service was still primarily physical prior to COVID. That is, we would provide ebooks when the faculty asked for it, but our first instinct was to provision the physical text. And so we shifted. Our reserves platform was about a thousand years old and we knew we needed to upgrade at some point, and this seemed like a good time to move to a new platform. And we completely converted to digital reserves, which is a very different set of workflows and workloads for our staff.

The guiding principle that I used with the staff is: whatever we have to do to get the materials to our students and faculty, let’s do it. We certainly took advantage of the Internet Archives’ openness, increased our use of Hathi Trust, and decided we were going to be brave about fair use. Our faculty and students certainly appreciated it.

After our stacks closed, we turned on the feature in our integrated library system that allowed faculty and students and staff to check out a book online and we put it in a bag for them and they could pick it up on the library steps. We also mailed books to students studying remotely. Our goal was to extend the library to where they were, and that’s a service ethos we’re going to continue post-pandemic. Our students and faculty embraced our digital-first emphasis.  While they have told us how much they miss our spaces and the tangible nature of our unique collections, it will be interesting to see whether this embrace continues and the impact on our acquisitions practices and budgets.

What are you expecting life on campus to look like in the fall?

We’re requiring all of our students to have vaccines and we are expecting most, if not all, of our students to return to campus. Most classes will be fully in-person with some social distancing guidelines. I think we’re likely to move from six feet to three feet, which allows us to put more seats in a library and back in classrooms.

The question now is whether library employees will continue to work from home or not. My general sense is that because of the kind of library we are, because of the kind of school we are—which is residential, high-touch—that I would expect everybody to return as soon as it’s medically safe to do so.  But there’s no firm date yet for when that’s going to happen. Of course that could all change by the time this is published.

What are some of your takeaways from this past year?

I’ve been at Wesleyan since 2018.  A lot of the work we had done for the first year and a half that I was university librarian was around change management and how we want to be a library in the 21st century. There was a lot of very attentive and thoughtful and appropriately paced work to bring people along, and then the pandemic hit and it all went out the window! And now, if we ever questioned our ability, our capacity, our skills to manage change based on external factors, we should have no doubt. Of course we won’t always like it, but we can do it. And I’ve reminded the staff, over the course of the past year, that this has been really hard on everybody, but be proud of what you’ve accomplished! I’m trying to avoid using the term resilience, because that is very problematic in a lot of ways. I’m really grateful I was at Wesleyan when this went down because as a library and an institution, I think we were well positioned to weather this storm.

 

CLIR’s COVID (Re)Collections series explores responses to the COVID-19 pandemic by library, cultural heritage, and information professionals. Stories are proposed by the authors/contributors and reflect their personal experiences and perspectives at the time of submission. Learn more about the series and share your own story here.

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