The changing role of the library: insights from Charleston Conference 2022

By: Guest contributor, Mon Nov 28 2022

Author: Guest contributor

Almost three years on from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lively panel discussion at Charleston Conference 2022 considered how the role of libraries changed in the pandemic, whether those changes have remained, and how the pandemic has affected life and work on campus. It’s well known that libraries are under pressure, facing significant competition for limited resources within institutions. And while the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t the instigator of this pressure, it certainly added major new challenges, requiring libraries to adapt how they work and interact with their users

Our content collection, and previous blogs have already explored some of the challenges and changes created by the pandemic – from increasing digitisation to the need for greater collaboration. In November, at Charleston Conference 2022, Liz Mengel, Associate Dean for Collections and Academic Services at Johns Hopkins University, Greg Sheaf, Assistant Librarian at Trinity College Dublin, and Hilde van Wijngaarden, Library Director at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, discussed this further and looked at how libraries are adapting to the post-pandemic world. Here, we pull out some of the key themes of the discussion.

Libraries are busier than ever – but users don’t always want resources

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic bringing everything online, the end of restrictions has seen an increase in the number of people coming to libraries, according to the panellists. But their reasons for coming have changed in some instances.

We are seeing all of our study spaces absolutely rammed to the gills – even more than before the pandemic,” said Greg Sheaf, Assistant Librarian at Trinity College Dublin. “But what we didn't see last year is that translating into increased use of our resources. And our use of our print materials basically fell off a cliff.

Fellow panellist Hilde van Wijngaarden, Library Director at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, agreed with this assessment, citing her belief that while the students may not be using the library’s resources, they wanted to study in an atmosphere of knowledge, surrounded by books.

Both she and Greg Sheaf mentioned the challenge that libraries had faced in continuing to provide electronic resources post-pandemic, following price rises from publishers. This lack of provision of online resources encouraged students to look for other routes of procuring them, resulting in students using online resources that are not necessarily library-provided, even while studying in the library.

However, panellist Liz Mengel, Associate Dean for Collections and Academic Services at Johns Hopkins University, had not observed all these changes in her institution, saying that while there’s very little browsing happening within the physical library, use of resources has been consistent.

Libraries as a place of support for students

The provision of study space that inspires students is, as discussed above, already an important part of libraries’ roles within academic institutions. But the panel was also asked how else libraries can support students' well-being.

The panellists agreed the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on student mental health and well-being are only now beginning to be fully understood.

A few months ago, we were really worried about students not coming back,” explained Hilde van Wijngaarden. “Everyone could come to campus; it was open again. But the students weren't there. And we were right in worrying because we now know that there was a lot of loneliness. It’s only now that we find out how many problems they have, after coming back from that two-year period when they couldn't be with their fellow students.

In particular, she highlighted the issues faced by international students who hadn’t even been in the same country and so had no existing social groups within the student community. She explained that the library had undertaken several initiatives to support students in making up for the lost time in forming social relationships.

These initiatives included small thematic libraries – such as a Pride Library, a Green Library, and a Mindful Library – allowing students to connect over common interests. Book ‘blind dates’ were also organised to encourage face-to-face discussions about books.

Liz Mengel highlighted that at her university the focus on improving student mental health had begun prior to the pandemic and has only increased since. The library has been supporting this work by providing spaces for peer-to-peer counselling.

Greg Sheaf added that at his institution they’ve been putting more consideration into people’s different ways of working and how that can be better supported – for example, by providing different sensory spaces.

Permanent changes to ways of working

The panellists also noted several changes to ways of working that they believe are likely to remain following the pandemic. Chief among these changes was that staff were more likely to work in a ‘hybrid’ manner, with a combination of working remotely and working within the library becoming the norm.

Liz Mengel also explained that the way they check out resources has changed permanently, with users of the library often browsing and checking out what they need online before picking it up at a convenient time.

In addition, Greg Sheaf highlighted the ubiquitousness of video conferencing and how that has changed the way libraries can support users, being available at the point of need and able to see a user's screen without having to ask them to download new software or programs.

Finally, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the panellists highlighted the increase in digitisation, with Liz Mengel picking out the shift to e-books during the pandemic, even within disciplines that had previously been resistant to that change, as an example of how the move to online resources is continuing at pace.

The changing role and skill set of librarians

The changes in ways of working led to an obvious question – is the skill set needed by librarians being hired today significantly different to what it was in the past?

Unsurprisingly, increasing digitisation was also mentioned as part of this discussion, with skills like text and data mining, visualisation and mapping highlighted by the panellists as increasingly important. Greg Sheaf commented that librarians’ skills in setting up digital searches were becoming more important to – and more highly valued by – researchers.

The complexity of licensing has changed what we need in librarians significantly,” added Liz Mengel.” In terms of being able to read licenses and understand them and also in analysing the data from the use of the many, many resources we get [access to]. There are also skills that are required to do the kind of interinstitutional work that we're starting to do. Building collections collectively requires some really strong collaborative skill sets.

Hilde van Wijngaarden spoke about the fact that libraries are now being seen as ambassadors of open science, something that has increased in importance since the pandemic thanks to the way that open research contributed to the development of vaccines. This change in the work that the library does has made young researchers who perhaps aren’t sure about pursuing a research career consider librarianship as an alternative career option.

Greg Sheaf agreed with this, adding that he felt open science was far less niche and now more part and parcel of the research landscape. He highlighted that these changes are being reflected even in the role titles of librarians, with one of his colleagues recently being made ‘Head of Content Management and Open Scholarship’ – a position that used to be called ‘Collection Management’.

Get all the insights and the full discussion by watching the panel recording. And don’t forget to look at our ‘Changing role of the library’ resources

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Author: Guest contributor

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