Always at the heart of the university, the library during lockdown is a lifeline for many students. But library directors are struggling to balance the needs of their students and staff.
It’s been a tough few weeks, since we reopened after the Christmas break.
The most recent Scottish Government guidance allows university libraries to open in the context of education and a reason for essential travel. But many students remain on or near campus and lack good study spaces or technology, so it is really important that we try and provide an environment and information resources to them.
However, to minimise contact under the tightest Scottish restrictions (‘level four') we are required to prevent access to our shelves. As a result, students are now solely reliant on our click and collect service, whether or not they choose to stay in the library to study or return to their accommodation.
Welcoming but safe
We have done a huge amount of work to make sure the library is safe and have liaised very closely with the university’s health and safety team. But having to restrict access, and prevent our students browsing, flies in the face of what libraries are for, so we find this hard to do. At the same time, we totally understand that they make our buildings safer for both students and library staff.
We want our libraries to be welcoming spaces; and social environments that promote scholarly studying, learning, exploration, and discovery. We continue to try to help our students thrive when they visit by delivering more and more digital content and support to them when they are learning online.
So, stripping back our services has been hard.
Due to the very latest restrictions, we have had to keep two of our libraries closed and only our main building (the Sir Duncan Rice Library) is open at the moment. We’ve also had to reduce occupancy, which in normal times would allow more than 1,000 visitors. Last year we reduced this to about 260, and now we are limiting it further to 150.
We’ve had to tape off our shelves and put notices up saying ‘do not touch the books’. This feels ridiculous on one level: a library preventing access to its books. But we understand why we must do all we can to limit the risk of viral transmission. We also quarantine books for 72 hours on return, in line with international guidelines.
Helping where we can
We are seeing a few hundred students come through our security gates every day, and as we have asked them to ensure they have an essential need we want to do our best to provide for them.
I feel so sad for students experiencing university like this and am so pleased we can do something to help them. At the same time, my colleagues are very concerned about working in this environment, so I am trying to ensure many can work from home, and those who need to come in have at least some days working from home.
I believe we are striking a good balance at the moment between student needs and staff confidence. We do need to remind some of our students that they must wear face coverings at all times (this is a legal requirement in libraries in Scotland) but on the whole they are doing the right thing, which helps reassure staff.
We have now removed study spaces on the floor where front desk staff offices are based, and they feel more secure knowing that they aren’t surrounded by students at study spaces. We also carry out risk assessments with all staff before they come back to campus and the university is very sympathetic to concerns; we seek to reassure people that it is safe rather than insisting they return if they aren’t sure that it is.
These challenges are very demanding on all of us and we are often exhausted by them. Even just having to wear a face covering all day while doing your job is really hard, which is another reason to ensure people can also work from home for at least some of the time.
So we are doing our best and I think we are doing it very well indeed, especially as the rules change, regularly and often at very short notice. There is an impact on our strategic work while we respond to what is urgent.
We need to find time to support the university’s Research Excellence Framework submission, of course, but further development of our scholarly communications service is hard to find time for.
I’m also concerned about the time needed for very important publisher negotiations this year; not just for me and my colleagues but for the academics and committees we will be coming to and asking for time and feedback.
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