June 4, 2020

How Library Leaders Thought About Reopening for Fall 2020

Advising Leaders, Forecasting Trends

By Elliot Felix and Kelly Sanford

Editor’s note: In May 2020, brightspot held sessions with library leaders to understand how they were responding to the pandemic and preparing for their future. A lot has changed since then but the reason we brought these leaders together remains the same: there is value in collaborating with peers during a time of crisis to share concerns, navigate challenges, and move ahead together – and these ideas remain relevant for emerging from the crisis stronger than before.

In early May 2020, brightspot held sessions with leaders in student affairs, professional schools, campus architects, and libraries to understand how institutions were responding to the pandemic and preparing for their future. What follows is a summary of three themes cutting across conversations with 38 institutions as well as five lessons learned specifically from a conversation with leaders from 13 libraries. We are sharing what we learned in the spirit of helping others navigate challenges and move ahead. 

“We’ve seen a substantial increase in the use of online services and in demand for the classes that we’re providing. Now, we are looking towards summer and fall to get more sophisticated about how we’re delivering services.” – Library Dean

NYU Shanghai Library (Prior to reopening)

Part I: What are colleges and universities most concerned about for the fall?

A. Decision-making in the face of uncertainty is a challenge: Institutional leaders face uncertainty about the future of their institutions, as multiple drivers for decision making remain in flux. Although surveys indicate that many students are still planning to return to campus (or at least remain enrolled in some capacity), it remains unclear how these decisions may change over the summer months.

Along with enrollment uncertainty comes budget uncertainty, compounded by anticipated cuts made to state and federal funding. Finally, absent federal guidelines, institutions are stuck in the tricky place of planning around changing local health guidelines, which not only change in response to local virus prevalence, but also change as we learn about how the virus spreads. In the face of uncertainty, identify the trends – our whitepaper on the future of higher ed can help – and then use scenario planning to create the different futures to plan for. 

Chronicle of Higher Education’s Tracker on Reopening Plans (n = 830 as of 5/29/2020)

B. Adapting spaces for social distancing: Considering changes for the fall, adapting spaces for social distancing was an overwhelming concern across student affairs, professional schools, campus architects, and library leaders. Quantitative guidelines for precisely how much distance should be used for retrofitting new building and furniture layouts are just emerging now (e.g., Does 6’ apart translate to a 3’ radius, or a 6’ radius, when it comes to furniture placement? FEMA recommends 113 sf per seat) These concerns were especially acute when considering housing and dining facilities which traditionally rely on high density and shared fixtures.

The American College Health Association (ACHA) has released a set of guidelines and weekly webinars discussing various elements of campus life. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has a Reoccupancy Assessment Tool that includes a checklist of considerations and recommendations for reopening facilities. Regardless of what planning metrics are used, colleges know that the future campus will be less dense, and can start by assessing their existing spaces, tracking assumptions, and aligning strategies to phases set forth by governing authorities.   

AIA Hierarchy of Controls for COVID-19 (adapted from NIOSH)

C. Institutions need new norms for the new normal: In addition to changes in spaces, systems, and operations, new behavioral norms will be needed for testing, reporting symptoms, wearing masks, opting into tracking systems, off-campus activities, and much more. Once norms are defined, institutions must orient members of the campus community through communication and training, and maintain norms by modeling them (such as through designated peer ambassadors) and reinforcing protocols with consistent signage.

Creating and communicating the norms is the first step — monitoring and accountability come next. You’ll need to develop policies and protocols for accountability such as establishing monitors/enforcers, reporting structures for non-compliance, and disciplinary action. There are many resources out there on creating and maintaining norms; among the most accessible are Cialdini’s Influence and Sunstein and Thaler’s Nudge and the Heaths’ Switch. Perhaps the best way to think about this is with an analogy: if space is the hardware, norms are the software. They have to work together.

Poll results on the biggest challenge (n= ~60)

Part II: What’s on the mind of library leaders?

We held a conversation with 13 library leaders at higher education institutions across the country, both small and large, public and private. The leaders we spoke to felt the transition to remote work and remote service delivery had been successful. They expressed concerns about maintaining equity in access to library spaces, services, and materials as the university reopens. Anticipating fewer study seats in the library, librarians highlighted a need for identifying the broader network of study spaces across the campus. Finally, they are in the process of accelerating changes to roles for library staff. 

As libraries move to make spaces bookable (to manage inventory and enable contact tracing) and change service models to be more digital and self-service, there’s a risk that more vulnerable populations could be left behind.

  1. Remote work is going well. Fortunately, many leaders of libraries report that their staff have adapted well to the remote work environment. Going forward, libraries will need a remote work program and policy to determine who returns and who stays remote, along with tools, training, and adjustments to space and schedules. Leaders seek solutions that are safe so that more vulnerable staff can stay online and decisions about who works when and from where are fair and equitable. This flexwork program we created with the University of Minnesota might be a good model. 
  2. Providing library services online is also going well and processes got leaner. Library leaders shared that they were also able to pivot services to the online environment. Many did this using tools already available to staff and users like online chat, learning management systems, and Zoom. We did a webinar recently on this topic and provided some tips to apply what you’ve learned online to when you start providing in-person again. You can watch it here, see the presentation here, and access the free toolkit here and this post outlines some tips on lean processes. Looking to the fall, many libraries are planning to extend digital and self-service concepts such as self-checkouts, open hold shelves, and adding “get me a digital copy” buttons to eliminate touchpoints. 
  3. Ensuring equitable access to space, information, programs, and tools is a big concern. As libraries move to make spaces bookable (to manage inventory and enable contact tracing) and change service models to be more digital and self-service, there’s a risk that more vulnerable populations could be left behind. Toward this end, in our whitepaper on better supporting underserved students, we found that while first-gen students were more satisfied with library spaces than any student segment, they were among the least satisfied with library services, further highlighting that the need to develop new ways to reach and serve this group stems from before the pandemic.
  4. Libraries are part of a network of spaces on campus. As seat counts reduce to enable social/physical distancing and people limit their travel across campus to reduce contact, it will be more important than ever for students to know not only what seats are available in the library using tools like the Waitz app, but also to see the network of learning spaces available across the campus. University of Minnesota’s “Study Space Finder” and University of Cambridge’s “Spacefinder” are good examples of this.
  5. The roles of library professionals have shifted and will continue to shift. In the pivot online, many roles dealing with processing physical collections had to quickly be rethought. Some may not be needed in the future but other new tasks and jobs will emerge. In particular, library leaders expressed concerns about policing new social distancing norms, and the potential for this to damage their relationships with users and the welcoming and inclusive environment they strive to create. A new organizational design and more professional development opportunities will be needed. Building and strengthening campus partnerships (e.g., teaching and learning center, campus security) may also fill gaps. Working backwards from user needs to services to departments is a great way to be sure you’re aligned, as we explain in this article.
Waitz App to Measure Space Occupancy

We hope these reflections and resources help you move forward and we welcome your thoughts and comments. To complement this information, you can read our whitepaper on higher education after COVID-19 peaks, learn how students are feeling about the pandemic from our student experience snapshot survey, consult the resources we compiled on navigating the crisis, and refer to this article with guidance on reopening with care. Good luck as you move ahead! 

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