In March, 2020, many Georgetown community members were asked to continue their work remotely using internet-based tools and phone calls. Home internet connections, Zoom, frequent phone calls and emails became the critical links among many community members. Of course, other members of the community came to campus each day to care for students and staff still present on campus.
The remote work was abruptly started. Each affected staff member had to invent new ways of doing things.
However, many essential university functions involve physical materials. When the vast majority of work became remote, access to these physical materials became problematic.
In that regard, a central asset of any university is its libraries, which, in addition to their vast online resources, are filled with physical materials that are critical to teaching, learning, and research. This is a post praising the ingenuity and resilience of the main campus library staff during the pandemic.
The scholarship of students and faculty needed to continue, despite most of them being remote. Very creative procedures were introduced by the library to provide timely access to content that students and faculty needed for their work. While access to online content was well-suited to the remote environment, access to print took some creative thinking. Library staff developed a no-contact, “grab and go” process by which print materials could be requested and picked up at the entrance of Lau. In some cases, print materials were even sent by mail to students and faculty who could not come to Lau. As you might imagine, this required unusual flexibility among library staff, as well as special procedures that would ensure their own health and safety.
But the 21st century research library is much more than a set of online resources and physical books and documents. Lauinger Library provides many other functions that are central to modern knowledge production and dissemination. For example, the Gelardin New Media Center offers education in video production among a host of other media, like podcasts. As classes went remote, more and more of them asked students to create their own video or audio products. An interesting page to see some of the media and other library-supported projects is here.
Lau is also home to the Maker Hub – a space that contains a variety of equipment helpful in fabricating objects. Typically, the Maker Hub is an open, welcoming space that provides support for individuals and groups, as well as the Georgetown Entrepreneurship Program and many courses across the disciplines. In the early days of COVID-19, the Maker Hub contributed by making PPE of various sorts to protect community members. Like other services in the library, the Maker Hub switched from in-person encounters to Zoom, email, text, and phone to provide consultations for students and faculty during COVID.
Much of the spirit of the above is captured in the notion of “Lau Labs,” a customized set of one-credit experiences that can be added to a class. Faculty and librarians recently designed library-based practicums for several undergraduate courses in the College. Lau Labs are structured to encourage students to engage more deeply with course content and develop research skills and projects under the collaborative guidance of the faculty member and librarian. Adding a course credit for each Lau Lab, by increasing the previous three-credit course to four credits, conveys the value placed on students’ learning and knowledge making.
All of us are imagining which lessons of the pandemic will endure when we can do our work with fewer constraints from COVID-19. One lesson seems clear from the library’s rapid response to changing its services to meet the needs of the campus community. Novel uses of media production, teleconferencing, synchronous and asynchronous services, digitization, and timely dissemination of online and print materials were effective in the pandemic. These same approaches may continue to prove effective and valuable, especially as expectations that new-found flexibilities during COVID-19 will linger beyond the virus.
In thinking about our shared future, we realize that the total untethering of the library from time and place is neither possible nor desirable. These past months have proven that the physical examination of special collections materials, the casual browsing of books shelved next to one another, the opportunities for in-person conversations and hands-on group work, and the sense of community are important to us as students and faculty, and that these experiences are lost when libraries are closed.
The wisdom we all need in the future is the ability to discern the impact can a library have without physical interaction and what impact, with physical interaction. I suspect the library that maximizes both will be a deep and enduring catalyst to the knowledge production of the university.