Adjusting to the New Normal: Librarians Discuss Challenges & Opportunities

Supriya Kamath
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Ellen C. Kimbro is a Reference Librarian at Meharry Medical College, and Megan Toups is a STEM Librarian (Research and Instruction Services) at the Pius XII Memorial Library, Saint Louis University. Both Ellen and Megan began their positions remotely last March, right at the beginning of the transition to remote learning. 

During last week’s webinar on how librarians can balance online and offline user needs, Ellen and Megan spoke about the various challenges and opportunities afforded by the new normal. Below is a small selection of takeaways from their experience. Many more suggestions and experiences were discussed in the hour-long webinar, which you can view by requesting a free recording below.

Request a free webinar recording.

The transition to remote learning has created new opportunities

In Megan’s experience, the shift to remote learning has “really opened up faculty to think outside the box and be willing to integrate us.” For example, the library had the opportunity to integrate with a biology introductory lab class of 700 students and provide online tutorials to support them. In the face-to-face format, the course has many lab sections which often happen simultaneously, making it difficult for librarians to be available to all the students. Zoom enabled them to overcome that challenge: the team could address all the questions at once. 

Ellen’s library team has had the opportunity to dive deep into the institution’s learning management system. Being able to see what students are learning in a specific course every week is useful, Ellen notes: it helps the team narrow down which resources would best support the students and teach them how to use and access those resources. 

Students’ perceptions of the library have changed

Both Megan and Ellen agree that students have become more aware of how the library can support them. In Ellen’s case, the library was the only building in the library that remained open following the onset of the pandemic (with strict social distancing regulations) — this meant that many more students were coming to the library, and her team had opportunities to speak with them one-on-one about their needs, what they were studying, and if there was anything they could do to help. 

“They see that enthusiasm and they jump right on it. They immediately make appointments with us,” says Ellen. “The people that we’ve actually gotten hold of and talked with for a few minutes, they have a totally different perspective on what we can provide for them. They don’t see us as these old crotchety little people sitting in our offices. They really see that we want to educate them.”

Re-evaluating library resources 

Megan notes that budget constraints, combined with the increased demand from faculty for digital resources, has led to out-of-the-box thinking about what collection development is — it has led to the discovery of helpful resources outside of regular journals or databases, including science videos and medical simulations. 

Ellen also points out that remote and hybrid learning has highlighted the need to revamp certain library resources. Her team, for instance, is working on revamping the institution’s library guides to make them more user-friendly. They are also introducing additional course-specific guides, e.g., guides that describe the resources available for first-semester medical students. 

Meeting the challenge of publicizing library acquisitions 

Establishing relationships with different departments and university units helps Ellen’s team share new resources, she notes. For instance, they have formed a relationship with the university’s tutoring center, which is for students who are at-risk or struggling with certain subjects. Constant communication with the center enables the library to get the right resources to the students who need them, and tailor their resources to student needs.

Ellen’s team also has permission from faculty to send students notifications about new, useful resources for their course via Blackboard. “New content that we have, I can get in anytime I want,” she says. “And they’re fine with us popping up an hour’s worth of individual instruction that’s really going to benefit all their students in a particular class, so that’s been amazing.”

Drawing boundaries and prioritizing resource needs 

The demands on librarians to meet user needs and stay within limited budgets can be overwhelming. How can librarians tactfully draw boundaries, and choose which departments are a priority to serve over others? 

It’s okay to say no when you have other duties and priorities, notes Megan. “Saying no gently and providing them an alternative,” is one way to do that, she says. “I think [this] is hard for us because we’re in a helping profession…so yeah, remember it’s okay to say no.”

Ellen also highlights the importance of building relationships with faculty and deans — this affords opportunities for librarians to be open about the challenges and limitations they face, and opens the door to budgetary collaborations with specific departments when purchasing resources. “Establishing that rapport takes the sting out of drawing those boundaries,” she says.

To learn more about Ellen’s and Megan’s experiences and their approaches to balancing online and offline user needs, request a video recording of their session here