Staying connected during the pandemic: Nottingham Trent University

By: Guest contributor, Wed Sep 23 2020

Author: Guest contributor

Nottingham Trent University is a teaching and research University in Nottingham, England. It is the 13th largest University in the UK (out of 169) with 33,255 students split over four different campuses. Our Account Development Manager Catherine John spoke to Helen Adey about how the library at Nottingham Trent is adapting to distance learning during the pandemic and managing eventual opening up of the library

Helen Adey
Helen Adey is the Resource Acquisition and Supply Team Manager which means that she manages teams who do all of the collections purchasing for the library; so that's books, e-books, journals, databases. If anything is added to stock, whether it is physically or virtually, that comes through the team she manages. The supply bit of the job title relates to requests from students wanting access to something that the library does not hold; what would probably be called document supply or interlibrary loan which also falls under her responsibility. "Fundamentally we try to make content available to our students in how and when they need it, albeit, with some caveats!" says Helen.

How has the library dealt with returns of physical resources during the Covid-19 pandemic? Have you put arrangements in place to deal with students that have outstanding loans or are based abroad or in other cities in the UK?

We've tried to avoid this by saying to students “whatever you have on loan, hang onto it and we'll let you know when it needs to be returned”. We recognize that because the library is closed, there is no point in getting students to give them back to us because there is no one there to receive them. In essence, the University's entire campus is closed but the post room is open, so we very quickly extended the due date by which students have to return books. We've assured them that they will not be fined if they're late.

In some cases where there are final year students who've got items on loan we have put in place arrangements for them to return things because they're not intending to come back to Nottingham.

We have free post address labels, so the University pays for them to return their stuff. We've got a few international students who have gone back home with some of our stock. Like many other libraries, I think we are resigned to having to write off some of our print, as it seems almost inevitable that there will be some content that we just never see again.

Did Nottingham Trent have its own remote access solution in place prior to the pandemic? Did you take advantage of Springer Nature resources in securing remote access for your users? 

Yes, we already had remote access solutions in place, because we have three sites and many students live off campus in rented accommodation in Nottingham. When they are off campus, we use EZ proxy in the main and that is pretty well set up for any suppliers who offer it as an option. In some cases we've got suppliers who only offer off campus access by username and password. When we are setting up a new resource, one of the things we check is the off campus or remote access, so yes it is well established, and we have very few resources that are not available remotely.

How is Nottingham Trent adapting to distance learning during this time? Are you already delivering or planning to deliver online teaching?

Oh, it's a challenge certainly. We already had some distance learning courses where students will never set foot on campus. They have been running for 3 or 4 years now, but it is very small in terms of student numbers and the overall profile of the University. We already knew, even before the pandemic, that there was strategic priority at the University to try to extend online learning. We were already planning for at least one module on every course to be taught online only from September 2020. Before the pandemic we were still in the “Oh, my goodness, how are we going to manage this?” stage and because of the closedown, we've been sort of bounced into trying to manage that sooner rather than later.

When it comes to the issue of providing online access to core textbook titles, there are real problems in both the library trying to fund this, and in the library refusing to fund it. We know that a significant number of core items on our Resource lists are only available for purchase on an eTextbook licence and it remains to be seen how we will manage demand for this type of content if access to our print collections continues to be restricted in some way.

Is there budget available from faculty/ departments who really want this type of content or is the expectation that the cost will come out of the library budget?

As far as we know, it is a real mix. I think there are some departments who may be able to find money but who knows if that will continue to be the case. The financial challenges facing all universities are immense at the moment; across the sector, we seem to be talking about multi-million pound losses. NTU looks to be better placed than many but even so, we are still talking about very significant cuts. Many colleagues in my position in other libraries, have been asked to do modelling based on a 25% cut, 15% cut, 10% cut. That's the level of challenges that we've been looking at.

Lots of people I know have had that they're spending stopped, can't use their purchase cards or set up any new suppliers on University procurement systems. It is all about trying to hunker down and just preserve funds, as best you can at the moment, until we know what recruitment this year is going to look like. For us that will probably be slightly based on clearing, although increasingly clearing at Nottingham Trent lasts only about a day or two days maximum. Far more students are choosing Nottingham Trent as their first choice and are definitely coming here, but until we're at that point, the financial situation for next year won't be 100% clear.

Are you talking about funds that the University will make available to the library?

Most funding comes on the back of the students you recruit, unless you're one of these institutions which has a lot of research money coming in. There's a definite link between student FTE and the amount of money that comes into the University.

From my understanding, international students generate more income for Universities than home-grown student, so there will be losses if fewer International students enrol and attend. There has been a lot in the news about students wanting refunds on hall fees for last term and challenges in terms of whether they should still be paying £9000 a year tuition fees. I think there is an underlying tension between the quality of the service that we think we are providing, and the quality as students perceive it, and all of this needs to been considered against the backdrop of reduced income and reduced finances and just a need to be prudent and cautious with resources.

We are acutely conscious of the risks if Nottingham was hit by a second wave or a local lock down. We are aware that we in a city with two universities and a wide student population coming in from across the world. I think we are all aware of the rate at which things like glandular fever, and colds and flu spreads amongst student populations. We are told that the risks of Covid transmission when you have many students in the same place at the same time are high. In the event that there was a local shutdown, we would be back into that same situation of having to try to manage things remotely.

Would you outline the different ways the library is delivering teaching during the pandemic with the advantages and disadvantages for each?

As far as I am aware, at Nottingham Trent is a real mix, I think. So in the past, we've been used to having big lecture theatres with 4 or 500 students in it and in a fairly traditional lecture type approach. A lot of work was been put into turning that into online teaching using MS Teams and Zoom during the closedown but even more preparation is underway for the start of the new academic year and a mixed mode of teaching

Are you using any different technology or special tools?

I think in the main most people have been using Microsoft Teams. Lectures were already being captured before the pandemic at Nottingham Trent, but think during the close down some of the academics have probably been doing Zoom lectures as well.

Do you collaborate with faculty and subject librarians to directly to assess the need here?

We make available a resource list management system which we had been using since 2009, and the academics know that's how they tell us what they need, and what they're recommending to their students, to support them in their teaching and learning. We've got a well-established process by which the academic builds their reading lists that then comes through to the Resource Acquisition & Supply team for review and processing. The Resource List system drives roughly 80% of our acquisitions and purchasing. In other words, Academics don't need to find a route to tell us what they want, it comes through the resources management system. Our Learning and Teaching Librarians are as also involved as they are the ones who offer help, support, and training for academics in how to build reading lists, and provide good practice guides in terms of how they should do it.

The Learning and Teaching Librarians also have access some central funds, which they can use to request purchases for those subject areas that may not relate to a specific module or a specific course but they are just things that we ought to have as a library. They can intervene and use that collection build budget for that, when they have time to do so. Like many other academic libraries, we have moved away from having subject librarians at Nottingham Trent and those team members are either called Learning and Teaching Librarians or Research Support Librarians. Their role now is much more about teaching support and skills training and far less involvement in collection development, collection management. 

One of the things that we are saying to lecturers as a result of the pandemic is that we expect access to core print materials in the library to be restricted, even when we're able to re-open. Our understanding is that we will have to quarantine print as it returns from loan and we don’t yet know about the extent to which we'll be able to let our customers browse the collections and touch things. We will be operating a click and collect type service, but the capacity of our libraries is going to be reduced, because we're going to have to be operating on some sort of social distancing model. Even if that's one metre plus, the capacity of our libraries is going to go down.

All of this is placing a far greater reliance on the core materials that are needed for teaching, learning and research to be available online. In some cases, we expect that the library will need to help find alternatives to the materials that academics have been thinking they were going to use, because they might not be available online at all.

 Or they might be available online, but only through a very restrictive or exorbitantly expensive license and that's really what I've been dealing with for most of this morning! Lots of requests for eTextbook materials which we don’t have the budget to purchase - I think it's going to be a bit of a rough ride this summer.

Have you had conversations regarding what would be the best format for your students as well as what is best suited for the sessions that you deliver?

Not really as far as I know, but this is slightly outside of my remit. The University works very closely with the Students union as representatives of the student body, and my understanding is that we may not have much flexibility on terms of how we arrange and deliver sessions because of the need to comply with the latest guidance.

Even a 200 seat to lecture theatre could only get about 30 people in it probably with social distancing, so we do know that no lectures will be delivered in lecture theatre. Lectures in the traditional sense, will be all be delivered online, probably for the whole of next year and that's driven more by space and practicality, I think, rather than what a student may prefer.

Our Estate's Team have been working with our Health and Safety staff looking at the spaces that we have available and working out how many people can be accommodated, and then working with the Timetabling team to see how that works out in practice. ” I think, though this is not really my primary area of responsibility, that's how it's being sorted out because there's a limited amount of real estate available and it's a case of working out how we can best open in a Covid safe way. This has also had an impact on the library's opening. Libraries were not allowed to reopen until July and priority was given at the University to working out what they called General Purpose Teaching space so that the timetabling and the course teams could be given enough time and enough warning to work it out how teaching is going to be delivered in the new academic year

Are you running any events or programme in a kind of delivering online teaching?

Our learning and teaching team have had got a wide programme of training courses and very quickly, once the close down happened, they converted them so that they were available online. So things like how to do citations, how to frame an introduction, how to write effectively. We also have specialist Maths and Statistics tutors on the library staff for helping those students where maths may not be their primary subject but they need to do some statistical analysis. All of this training and support is being delivered online, both on Skype or on Teams, so that if a student is struggling, they can still access the help and support they need.

Over the summer there's been quite a wide program of library training and support events that were delivered as an online course. In some respects, in terms of what we've been delivering, it's been fairly business as usual, it's just how we've been delivering it that has changed. We have noticed really quite significant numbers, probably more than we would expect to turn up to face to face sessions. 

Have you seen a shift in the types of things that researchers want to know during this time and from whom? For example, how to make research data open when publishing a paper?

I asked our research support team about this and the answer came back was they had not noticed any change. Only one had noticed anything different and they have seen a big increase in researchers doing things like systematic reviews because they cannot get into their labs or only have restricted access. I think we have seen a slight increase in the amount of open access publishing. The payment of APCs come through my team, we managed that on behalf of the University, I can't be absolutely sure but it just feels as if there's been slightly more than I would have expected at this time of the year, but nothing huge. In terms of research data we already have a team member who works closely with researchers to preserve their data, because in many cases, that's a requirement of the grant funding so it's not as if that's new. I think most of that was in place before close down. So no huge shifts, only the systematic reviews, which have increased whilst we've been in close down.

Are there areas you feel publishers are well placed to help with in relation to information, resources and events for libraries and their patrons during this time?

Well, yes, definitely we've had a number of conversations with publishers. One of the services that we launched during the close down, and it's something that my team have been delivering, is, when a student finds something that's only available in print, they can ask us to find an online version at the press of a button. This request comes through to my team to find an online version. We had no idea about the level of demand that we were going to see. It was launched early April, so we were pretty quick off the mark with this. It the early days of the pandemic there was concern in the University that we might be seeing a drop off in student engagement, and it was against that backdrop that we launched the service to see how it went, and the first request came in 30 seconds after we launched. We must be now have received over 5000 requests.

Since mid-April it has been quite a concern, in some respects, about the number of resources that our students need that are still only available in print or restricted in some way. One of my big worries is whether we would be able to satisfy some of these over the summer vacation when the free textbook program that Jisc set up with major publishers finished at the end of June. We think it's almost inevitable that we're going to be asked for this type of service whilst the access to the libraries continues to be restricted in some way and we are going to struggle to meet the demand if the title that the student wants isn't available online e.g. we've had some requests for books about fashion from 1977, published by Thames and Hudson. The chances of that existing as an e-book are virtually nil. So one of the things we're going to have to look at, is if we analyse the subjects and types of requests we've received, what does this mean in terms of collections that we ought to be going out and trying to track down and acquire (if we have the money to do so)?

Publishers have a lot that they can do to help. We know that there are publishers who maintain print only because they rely on the print sales. I would hope that the pandemic demonstrates to them the short sightedness of that approach. What is going to be more contentious is those publishers who restrict access by making content available based on a cost per student for a particular time period. I’m not sure that they understand the scale of what we're talking about. Just to give you some examples - the University runs about 3000 modules per year. Each of those modules will have a resource list, and each of those resource lists will have anything from five to 800 items on it. That in itself is difficult to manage. There are probably 40,000 books on resource lists at Nottingham Trent. The only way we manage the provision of access is because the vast majority of them are available either to buy in print or they're available on a library purchase model, where the library can purchase, or, in some cases subscribe through an aggregator or through a publisher like Springer. The sheer amount of work involved if we try and supply access for eTextbook items is immense even just for three degree programs that we were already supporting on a truly distance learning basis. If we need to try to do this for at least one modules on every course, that's simply not scalable when the acquisition team is only about five members of staff! It just can't be managed with either the staffing resource or the total book budget we have got.

These eTextbooks are a recurrent cost and behave more like subscriptions. If the vast majority of your budget is tied up in a subscription, where the price increases by a certain percentage every year, which is almost certainly more than the percentage increase that we can hope for in our budget, (if anybody actually gets the percentage increase in their budget this year!) then it quickly reduces the available book funds, until there is nothing left

So, yes, I think publishers have got a huge role to play in facing up to the realities of how students are going to need to access and use their materials. Fundamentally, those publishers who make their content available in a way that libraries can acquire and manage relatively easily, whether from a financial or a technical point of view, are always going to be a preferred option as far as we're concerned. I think it is something that Springer is very, very good at.

Publishers have got a significant role to play in telling libraries about the content our students are trying to get to, but failing to access. As a library, have been very driven by turnaway and access denial statistics. It's very easy for customers to tell us that they need to access a journal and can’t manage without it! But when we look at the turnaways or the interlibrary loans data, the evidence doesn’t back this up. When access to Springer Protocols was free for a while we saw significant usage while they were free, and we've seen significant turnaways when free access was removed. That's quite compelling evidence in terms of possible uses for any unspent funds at the end of financial year. We would rather put our money into buying things where there is definite evidence of demand rather than just somebody saying, “Oh, I really need it!”

We do spend quite a lot of time, and are very willing to work with publishers to help them understand why some things work, and some things don't. The help of people like Peter (Abbey) is invaluable in answering questions like “if there are turnaways against particular pieces of content - what are our purchasing options and prices, that would enable us to translate as many of those turnaways into usage?”. There was a time when I was new and fresh in this, when you could ask what was the price of something and you'd be given the price. Now it is a far, far more complex environment in which to work out issues like pricing and purchasing options and what would we get if we went for this option and what would be the advantages of taking another course of action?

I definitely see a value in librarians working closely with publishers whenever we can, to try and pool our collective knowledge and resources to try and make as much content available to our users as possible.

Are you aware of Springer Nature free Covid 19 resources over this period?

Yes and we made sure that we communicated this our customers. Improving communication is another area, where publishers as a whole could help quite a lot. We were aware of many offers for what we termed “free for now content” – and in some cases we were not quite sure how long it was going to be free. Quite a few resources had an initial end date of the end of May, which was then extended to the end of June. After that, in a number of cases, things just went quiet so we didn't always know whether our access was ongoing or not. It was quite difficult to discover whether the content was still free to access, and if we lost access, we weren’t always sure whether it was because the free access had been withdrawn or whether it was some technical hiccup. Just being clear about what was free, what was available, and what access had been withdrawn, at a time when so much information was coming at us meant it was easy to miss that sort of communication, if in fact any communication had been sent. If the notification was in a newsletter or something where you might just skim read it, or intend to come back to at a later point, it made it even easier to miss vital pieces of information.

What would be the best way to communicate information for important information for e.g. free resources

 Anything that relies on somebody having to think “Oh, I'll go and check that today” is flawed, to some extent, I think. An e-mail that makes it clear in the subject line that this is an extension to the free period is something that would leap out at us. I know, in some cases, the information has been in a newsletter and we will have missed it thinking that “Oh, that's the latest newsletter, I'll come back to that at some point...”.

We were aware of the Covid 19 resources as well. It's not a huge area of research at Nottingham Trent but those who are involved in the area t have very much welcomed that those free resources.

Do you have plans in place for the eventual opening up of the library? If so how are you planning to do this effectively and safely?

The plans are still developing as we speak. We were able open and operate a click and collect service before the beginning of September. We are still working on being fully open for the start of term but there is a lot to be worked out on how we do that in a Covid safe way and how we can operate the necessary track and trace requirements and a booking system for reserving a space to work in the library?

How we maintain social distancing is an issue for us as a library, and I should imagine many other libraries will find the same. The University can do modelling based on how long students will need to be on campus for teaching because that some will be face-to-face in some form and the rest of the time they will be online. A real concern is that the students will all be back in Nottingham and we know for sure that students, even if they haven't got lectures or anything that they have to be on campus for, like to come to the library either because it's warmer, safer or it helps them get their study head on. Modelling may not apply to the library because normally students come in and use the library in their droves. Our biggest library is in the city centre and it has six floors. There are many concerns about how we mange access; what do we do about 24/7 opening because on the one hand, the longer we're open there will be times when it's quieter, but also there’s fewer staff on duty. How do we maintain an effective Covid safe way of operating?

I think, at the moment, we don't think we won't be open 24/7 because there's got to be some time for cleaning. I know of at least one library that's decided to cancel all of their print journals and print standing orders, partly to help fund more electronic access but also because there's a lot of time of staff effort that goes into managing that print. If we're going to restrict access to print collections or if access is only going to be partial how is that fair and equitable? There are all sorts of issues like this to be resolved.

If you're a part-time student who only comes on campus on one day and the book that you want is on seven-day loan and it comes back the day after you're in and then it has to be quarantined for 72 hours, just how do you manage that service? We need to find ways of supporting the needs of students who are doing their best to study under enormously difficult circumstances. I think the word “challenge” is overused but how are we going to get through this and do it well. We don't just want to get through it, we want to do it well both for our academics and our students, who've got a real challenge and especially those who were coming to University for the first time, who may have had expectations of what it was going be like. How do we make that an experience that still works, when so much of what of what they are expecting University to be like make have changed or disappeared?

How is the Library currently planning on re opening, are you consulting with other departments within the University?

We're working very closely with our Estates department and the Health and Safety Team as well.

We understand that the opening of a new area has to be subject to a risk assessment so we are working through those things with them. Where we've got desks, do we have to have the Perspex screens up? What are we doing in terms of possibly one-way routes, so you go in this way, you come out that way. What do we do where there are study spaces that are actually next to or in-between the print stock? If we can't allow students to access directly the print stock, how do we stop them doing it? How do we keep it safe if they do because the library is based over six floors, and we can't completely police that. 

Who will be responsible for enforcing safe practice?

I think it really is a challenge for everybody at the moment because the rules keep changing, and we need to keep adapting to new circumstances. We know that students will be reminded of their responsibilities to keep themselves and other safe and we will all be doing our bit to try and ensure everyone’s safety. All my team are working from home, and our office has now been converted to additional student space to allow more of them to study and be taught in an appropriately socially distanced way. 

Do you have a specific date, when the library will reopen?

We we're saying that we expected to be open for 1 September but we would like to be open before that if we possibly can. Now plans are in full swing for us to be fully back up and running for the start of term.

I don't envy my customer services colleagues whose role is all about supporting students in the library. Many of them have been furloughed, whereas most of my team, have been working from home and delivering an online version service really well.

I think we have all been surprised about how well everyone has coped, and how quickly things have sorted and people are getting on and doing stuff. It’s amazing, isn't it how people are adapting to the situation and just getting on with getting the job done?

How has your university been dealing with the effects of the pandemic and how do you stay connected to staff, researchers and students? If you would like to work on a case study with us please contact us.


Author: Guest contributor

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