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The complicated business of keeping books clean of COVID-19

How can libraries ensure their textbooks are virus-free and safe for students? Staff at the University of Sussex describe how they have risen to the surprisingly gargantuan challenge by creating a digital system with a human element at its heart. In their own words, here’s how they did it.

The building - keeping everyone safe

Tom Mountford, library manager, said:

“Opening the physical building was the first step to get the library up and running again after the COVID-19 lockdown - and there was a lot to consider.

"How would staff get around the building? How would staff move heavy objects when they couldn’t work in teams? How many members of staff would be able to be in the building at once? There were so many variables and outcomes.

"Our building is 1960s, with brick pillars and close bookshelves. It wasn’t designed for social distancing. Planning involved plotting all potential movements of library users and adding markings to the floor. But even that isn’t as straight forward as it sounds. For instance, if a student is just returning a book, they’re unlikely to want to follow a one-way system all around the building.

"The unions were a wonderful help (Unite, UNISON and UCU). They assured their members that the process would be safe, and they came in, walked the route and tried out the service, and staff fed back too.

"Once a plan was in place, and sanitation stations were dotted about, it was time to assess theoretically what staff would need to do on a day-to-day basis. This involved staggering arrival times (considering all the different departments), and taking on every last detail, from rush-hour traffic, to PPE collection and disposal.

"It was truly a team effort; every element of the building needed to be restructured to fit with the shifting world around us.

"Overall, students have been pleased with our approach, and grateful for somewhere different to go. Being able to come into the library again as trip out has added variety to their day, and it’s wonderful that we can provide a change of scenery and a warm, and safe, welcome.”

The people - staff mental health

Jane Harvell, director of library services and university librarian, said:

“If you’d asked me a year ago how we’d cope with a pandemic, the last thing I would have thought about would have been providing access to printed materials, but it soon became clear that our postgraduate students needed to get their hands on physical texts in order to complete their work. And so, click and collect was born.

"Libraries aren’t often high up on the university road-map, even though they’re vital for students, so we’re beyond pleased with the success of the new service, and the positive feedback we’ve had.

"Our staff have been invaluable to the library reopening, and they’ve been our main focus from the start. Without them, there is no library.

"I learned very quickly that you can’t plan further ahead than two weeks at the moment, which is difficult when it comes to protecting staff mental health. We’re focused on making sure everyone feels supported, so we’ve been careful to check on how they’re coping, helping them to get back to work if they feel able to.

"There’s nothing quite like a pandemic to encourage adaptability, and that’s something I’d recommend to anyone reopening now. Be prepared to switch direction at any time, and don’t be afraid to try different options."

The service - helping students get the books they need

Jack Coull, library assistant, told us:

“We get between 50 and 60 requests a day for physical texts, and after the weekend we often have over 100 to collect, so the ‘click and collect’ service is proving very popular. Art students, for example, heavily rely on the service. The texts they need often aren’t online.

"We wear PPE to handle the books, and wipe down every piece of equipment we use. You have to remember to replace gloves and follow protocol at every turn, even if you need to quickly put a book down to go and finish another job. Focus is key in that respect.

"The books students request online are left on shelves for them to collect, and returned books go into quarantine for three days.

"We also avoid contamination by keeping staff on certain tasks for a day, such as book collecting or manning reception. That way, there’s limited cross-over of staff touching the same computer, for example.

"The feedback has been great, the system is fast, and students feel safe collecting their books, it’s worked really well.”

Study spaces - navigation and distancing

Fiona Courage, associate library director, said:

"Our study spaces are now open, which is a huge achievement as there was a lot to think about!

"Face-to-face enquires and shelf-browsing won’t be allowed in the foreseeable future and there were lifts, computers, toilets, and student numbers restrictions to consider.

"All the hard work was worth it though, as the 40 slots are always fully-booked, with students booking in well in advance. The two-metre distance rule is in place, all seats face in the same direction, and desks are sanitised between bookings.

"We are looking at expanding the numbers for the start of term, which will mean looking at student access in the rest of the building: safe access to book stack, availability of bathroom facilities, and ventilation. This could lead to us investing in long-term solutions, such as desk barriers, moving of furniture, and possibly the redesign of our spaces.

"Just like everyone else, we have no idea what the future holds, but we’re preparing for every eventuality." 

What does the future hold?

As the success of the click-and collect service has shown, library staff have the nous and determination to make restructures work. But, as with most sectors, more challenges lie ahead.

One thing’s for certain though; even during a global pandemic, university libraries have remained at the heart of the student experience; steady lighthouses amidst turbulent waters.

Thanks to the dedication of staff, libraries continue to be a safe space for students, allowing them to continue their studies while navigating the ‘new normal’.