Librarians Coping with Covid-19: An Outlook from the United States

Scott Warren, Associate Dean for Research Excellence at Syracuse University Libraries, on how his institution is making sure students and faculty continue to have access to all the services and information they need in the recent Corona lockdown.

This is the first part of an interview series on how libraries around the world are coping with Covid-19.

“If we’re smart, we can learn from this.” Scott Warren, who has been working at Syracuse University for twelve years, sees a number of short and long term challenges for his institution ranging from accessibility to budget cuts – but he’s hoping for some potential wins, too.

De Gruyter: Please tell us a little about Syracuse University…

Scott Warren: Syracuse University (SU) is a well-established private university – it is graded a Carnegie R1, which means it has a very high research intensity, and is a long-term member of the Association of Research Libraries [ARL]. It’s 150 years old – its 150th anniversary was on March 24th, so many celebratory events were planned, but unfortunately the date coincided with the beginning of the lock-down to combat Covid-19 and these had to be cancelled.

We have 23,000 students – undergraduates and graduates combined – and about 1800 faculty. Our students come from all over the world. Syracuse grew after World War II and the rapid expansion of research funding in the USA. The GI Bill allowed returning soldiers to study in higher education and Syracuse was at the forefront to encourage this. We’re still known for working with veterans and recently opened a  National Veterans’ Research Center.

SU is comprised of thirteen schools and colleges. Prominent among them are the School of Architecture, the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Some notable programs include Disability Studies (in the School of Education) and research into cybersecurity in the College of Engineering & Computer Science and School of Information Studies.

Covid 19 Library Response
“Let’s beat Covid-19” – Falk College graduate student Grace Cogan serves as a deaf interpreter for Onondaga County’s daily COVID-19 briefings. Image Credit: Onondaga County Government.

De Gruyter: What measures have you taken to help the Libraries function during the Covid-19 outbreak?

SW: When the lockdown began, we had a brief transition period of little more than a week. At first a few staff were left on site while the rest moved to working remotely. Now everyone is working remote and the Libraries’ physical collections are not accessible; however, all the online collections can still be used.  We have greatly appreciated the free temporary access provided by various entities, prominent among whom are publishers.

Libraries staff have quickly transitioned to working with software such as Teams, Zoom and Blackboard. Our liaison librarians are still offering consultations and remain very busy.  We’re directing students to available online materials and coming up with ways to transition some of the services that would have taken place on campus.  We’ve been innovative: for example, the Head of the Digital Library Program and Director of the Special Collections Research Center collaborated on a project to add metadata to the digital collections; currently we’re working on Marcel Breuer Digital Archive and Street & Smith Dime Novel Covers. We’re “crowdsourcing” projects like these by redeploying some staff members whose work was more dependent on being onsite.  More about the Libraries steps to supply service during the pandemic can be found at our dedicated landing page.

DG: What have been the main challenges and what are you most proud of?

“The University’s summer courses will be conducted entirely online.”

SW: Not everything can be done as efficiently remotely, of course, and the shutdown has had an impact on faculty who are carrying out research. However, I am proud that we achieved the main transition very quickly – and since then it has become an extended lesson in working in new ways. The University’s summer courses will be conducted entirely online.

There are some potential wins, too: the forging of new partnerships, the creative use of resources.  We usually have about 150 library staff working across several buildings. In the past few weeks we’ve become adept at working through Teams, brainstorming together ways in which we can deliver as many services online as possible and relieve some of the pressure points for our students and faculty in this challenging time. Something that gives us pause for thought, though, is that our main library, Bird Library, is the busiest student space on the campus. It will be interesting to see what happens when we return to campus. It’s unlikely things will automatically go back to how it used to be.

“Budgets are bound to be affected as well. All sectors of higher education will be challenged, including libraries.”

Budgets are bound to be affected as well. All sectors of higher education will be challenged, including libraries. We depend on the University for our budget – we have wonderful donors who are actively engaged in thinking about best ways to help, but ultimately, most of the University’s funding, and hence the Libraries, is tuition-driven.

One of the main challenges for the Libraries is for all the staff to keep connected, to maintain morale.  We’ve introduced online Town Hall meetings and tried to give staff as much flexibility as possible – we know they have a great variety of demands on personal resources such as internet connection, which is now being used, for example, for home-schooling. Some of our staff live close to the campus, others in a rural setting; their ability to connect is critical.

DG: What’s happening to the students?

SW: Several hundred students, primarily international and some very highly impacted communities, remained in student housing on campus.  Our faculty and staff are doing an incredible job to provide the best possible remote instruction for all the students: it’s beyond providing the educational lessons but also supporting needs.  As a University, we’re figuring out how everyone can be flexible to fulfil our mission.  Our graduating students will have to wait for graduation ceremonies, likely in the fall.

DG: How have publishers been helping you?

What we’ve most appreciated from publishers has been their flexibility during this period.  There’s been an inevitable slowdown in some areas.  We’re still paying invoices and working out end-of-year budgets, but publishers recognise we’ve had to deal with new workflows, and they have too.  We’re grateful for their understanding, because uninterrupted access to resources is the most important service we can offer our patrons.

We anticipate that our budgets for the next academic year, like most libraries, will fall. We also expect most university presses, including Syracuse University Press, to see a sharp fall in sales during the 4th quarter.

DG: Tell us a little about yourself. What do you like doing to relax?

SW: I’ve been working at SU for twelve years.  I graduated with an MA in Library and Information Studies in 2001 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Prior to that I worked in public libraries. I became an academic librarian via a roundabout career path, but it was the best decision I’ve ever made.  I began my career at North Carolina State University, but graduated from Pennsylvania State University, so I’ve moved around the United States a bit. I grew up in a very small town – 700 people – in rural central Pennsylvania. We had one traffic light and you had to drive eleven miles to get to the next one. I have the best wife, two daughters, both still in school, two cats and a dog. I’m a long-time fan of swimming and I also practise yoga.  I like gardening and reading and I’m a sky-watcher.  When I get the opportunity, I enjoy travelling and hiking.

DG: What is your last word?

If we’re smart, we can learn from this.  What can we do better? What are the silver linings?  How can we be more open to ways of thinking about what’s key, what’s critical and how best to prepare for the future?  How can we do better with services delivered remotely, especially by librarians and publishers working together? And finally, we are a social animal. We will always need some points of direct contact.

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 via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain]

Scott Warren

Scott Warren is Associate Dean for Research Excellence at Syracuse University Libraries, USA.

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