Librarians Coping with Covid-19: An Outlook from China

Foster Zhang, University Librarian at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, remains hopeful that we can find yet more innovative ways to use technology as his institution is forced to switch to remote learning due to the Corona crisis.

This is the third installment in a three-part interview series on how libraries are coping with Covid-19.

Foster Zhang, who has been a librarian for more than forty years, sees many challenges for libraries with students and faculty working from home. A conversation about libraries and learning in an unprecedented pandemic.

De Gruyter: Please tell our readers a little about your university.

Foster Zhang: The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen [CUHKSZ] was established in 2014, and quickly became one of the most popular higher education institutes in China. It already attracts world-class researchers and top quality students.

From the day it opened, CUHKSZ offered Bachelors’ and Masters’ degrees as well as doctorates, all ranging in subjects from Economics to Business Administration and involving Faculties from Science and Engineering to Humanities, Social Sciences and Public Health. At the beginning of the current academic year the student body numbered 5000 undergraduates and almost 1000 graduate students.

Appointed from some of the world’s top universities, the Faculty members have brought with them or collectively developed a unique lecturing style that encourages independent thought by the students, places emphasis on practical analysis, and fosters state-of-the-art design of research projects. The University has secured some very substantial research grants. It has established ten research institutes and labs, all led by Nobel laureates or other renowned scholars. Graduates have demonstrated the success of the University by being welcomed to top research institutes around the world.

DG: What measures have you taken to address Covid-19?

FZ: In common with universities across the world, CUHKSZ has closed down all campus activities and adopted remote learning as the alternative method of delivering course instruction. Some of the academic staff come from North America, Europe and other parts of Asia, and have returned to their home countries, but are still delivering online learning from wherever they may be. The Library has had to find ways of offering all its services online and provide as much support as it can to both lecturers and students. This includes activities as diverse as providing a suitable online facility for reference materials, book search orders and deliveries, on-demand digitization of documents, lecture programs, instructions on how to use the Library, etc.

DG: Please tell us about the biggest challenges you are facing. 

“The greatest challenge for us has been that the Library’s traditional sign-on process, based on each user’s campus IP, quickly becomes unworkable when everyone is off campus.”

FZ: The greatest challenge for us has been that the Library’s traditional sign-on process, based on each user’s campus IP, quickly becomes unworkable when everyone is off campus. The Library has therefore been working closely with content providers and IT engineers to enable federated single sign-on for CUHKSZ users.

Without being able to see the students face-to-face, it is very hard to imagine what help they may need during the online class learning process. Students who are working from home sometimes also lack the opportunity to engage with interactive sessions and group study. To try to address these challenges, we have been expanding the range of content available by promoting relevant open materials that can be accessed online: for example, open lectures, speeches and recorded seminars. We have also developed some Library instructional videos showing how to use our collections. The Library has made an extra effort to promote such content through its webpage, social media, chat-groups and emails.

DG: How has it affected how you work with publishers? Have they been able to help you?

FZ: Academic content-providers such as De Gruyter have extended the range of content available to us and provided some content free of charge during the Covid crisis. In China, especially, we have been very grateful for their generosity.

Some of the major content providers have worked with us proactively to help us achieve single sign-on for everyone, getting this technology to work in a very short time. I have been promoting single sign-on for the past ten years, so I understand the difficulties, and I appreciate publishers’ help with this very much. I think that it may be only positive thing COVID-19 has brought to us: to get federated single sign-on finally accepted in China.

DG: Is there anything else you’d like to say? Can any good come of the Covid-19 epidemic and the workarounds you describe?

FZ: I think we can find yet more innovative ways to use the technology. My particular wish is to develop a more interactive way of exchanging data on how users from any given institute use specific materials at a particular time. This would help us to understand the user experience during an online lecture, for example – I’m thinking of something akin to Google Students: a platform open to all that allows a librarian or other interested party to query the usage of databases by everyone.

DG: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

FZ: In April 2020 I retired from my post at CUHKSZ. During over forty years working as a librarian I have been fortunate enough to be employed at Peking University, the Research Libraries Group, Dialog, Stanford University, Johns Hopkins University and, finally, CUHKSZ. The posts I have held have ranged from cataloguer to data-load specialist, from programming analyst to systems integration leader, from being a member of a library team to my appointment as a university librarian. I have never regretted my career choice: I have made many friends and I have always felt my work to be useful.

DG: Thank you!

This interview was conducted in cooperation with Goldleaf.

In order to support faculty and students affected by library closures, De Gruyter & our Publisher Partners are offering libraries free access to 75,000 eBooks on our website until June 30th. Librarians can register here.

[Title image provided by Foster Zhang]

Foster Zhang

Foster Zhang is a recently retired University Librarian at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen.

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