In March 2020, campuses across the US became ghost towns almost overnight. Libraries included.
A survey by the University of Illinois showed that 94% of academic libraries closed their doors, and 82% have been limiting their lending to phone and online orders. The future reopening of these libraries is entirely dependent on whether and when campuses reopen. Which is difficult to say for certain.
To open or not to open….
Several months on, the debate rages. When and how campuses should reopen is the question on everyone’s minds. With no national guidelines, each institution must make its own decision, driven by guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state departments of health. On the one hand, keeping campuses closed has meant massive disruption to students’ lives not to mention billions of dollars in lost revenue (which is potentially catastrophic for many institutions out there). On the other hand, it’s helped to stem the spread of COVID-19, which is unquestionably the right thing to do. But what now?
There’s no doubt that students are keen to get back, see their friends and enjoy campus life. However, faculty and other staff are showing signs of being more wary, perhaps because they’re more closely acquainted with the potential dangers of infection. But it seems now that the majority of campuses are planning to reopen in the fall – according to a recent survey by the American Council on Education. They found that over half of college and university presidents say it’s “very likely” that their institution will resume face-to-face classes for at least some portion of the fall term, while 31% say that it’s “somewhat likely.” Only 11% said it was “somewhat or very unlikely.”
The question now is not whether to reopen campuses, it’s how to do so safely.
It will only work if students change their behavior, according to Mitch Daniels, President of Purdue University. Campus culture will have to change radically – hanging out with friends will be strictly socially distanced, which is a bitter pill to swallow. Students will be expected to play their part in keeping themselves and the community safe. If Notre Dame and the University of Kentucky are anything to go by, institutions have plans in place for fever checkpoints, contact tracing, quarantine dorms, masks and social distancing. Some institutions are considering moving to a blended instructional model for the 2020–21 academic year.
So what’s the view from the libraries?
Libraries are faced with the same issues – how to keep their staff and customers safe. The ACRL offers guidance for academic libraries on how to prepare for reopening. Crucially, a phased approach is the most likely way forward, with some staff members working from home on certain days of the week, and opening the library space up bit by bit. Naturally, social distancing is advocated, limiting numbers of users at any one time perhaps with a ticketing system.
Harvard is planning a gradual approach to reopening its labs and libraries, employing infection control measures and modifying research spaces.
Purdue is planning to reopen its campus this fall. According to the Dean of Libraries, the uptake in virtual support and services will likely continue, in order to remain within safety guidelines. More spacious study space will be provided and plexiglass barriers employed to enable face-to-face service. And bringing staff back is about finding a balance, with home working for those who prefer not to come in.
An evolving situation…
Although huge progress has been made, the fight against COVID-19 is far from won. It’s impossible to say exactly where we’ll all be in a month’s time, or by the fall.
But remember, WT Cox are here to support the academic library community. In these uncertain times you can rely on us to help you through any challenging situations that arise. We’re here to keep you informed as well, so check back in for updates.
So take a look at how we can help at WT Cox. We’re known for our outstanding commitment – you are our business.
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