A new study investigating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on virtual reference services in academic libraries has found that librarians made extraordinary efforts to help students, faculty, and staff during the early days of the lockdowns when other campus offices suddenly closed, and libraries became urgently needed central “information hubs.”
The paper, “’Death of Social Encounters:’ Investigating COVID-19’s Initial Impact on Virtual Reference Services in Academic Libraries,” was published in the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology and was coauthored by Professor and Chair of the LIS Department Marie L. Radford and SC&I Ph.D. students Laura Costello and Kaitlin Montague. Costello also was also recently promoted to Director for Strategic Planning and Assessment for the Rutgers University Libraries.
“Academic librarians made extraordinary efforts to help students, faculty, and staff during the early days of the lockdowns when other campus offices suddenly closed, and libraries became urgently needed central 'information hubs.’"
The primary goal of their research, Radford said, was to discover what happened when library buildings were closed and physical reference encounters across the in-person service desk became impossible. The tean set out to explore the impact on virtual library services and, especially, the virtual relationships between librarians and library users, a focus of Radford’s research since 2005.
To date, Radford said, this is the only published study the authors are aware of that examined the role of academic libraries during the early stages of the pandemic and is based upon findings from two national surveys conducted between March 2020 and December 2020 and 28 in-depth interviews with librarians who have direct responsibility for virtual reference services (VRS).
“Early in the pandemic the libraries became the ‘campus hub,’ because when all of the other offices were closed, such as student services, the registrar, and the bookstore, college students and faculty members reached out to the library for help,” Radford said. “ Libraries and librarians already are well-known as trusted information resources. When all staff on college campuses had been sent home and office buildings were closed, with no one left to answer phones, and with all classes pivoted to online instruction students, faculty, and staff turned to academic libraries which became hubs of vital information.” Why were academic libraries so well poised to offer this help? Radford said that academic libraries have very mature live chat reference and email reference services, as they were early adopters of virtual reference, using live chat since 2000, and email since the early 1990s. So, they were able to leverage well-established synchronous virtual services that other campus offices, such as the registrar, had never used before.”
Their research revealed many other important findings about the role academic librarians played at this time. One finding was the dramatic increase in live chat reference, AKA Ask-A-Librarian. “In addition to two national surveys with 300 responses, we interviewed 28 academic librarians who were in charge of their university’s VRS. 71% of those we interviewed for this project said chat reference encounters rose, in many cases going up dramatically, and they used words like ‘skyrocketed,’ to describe it,” Radford said. “This increase continued even after other offices had resumed contact, as many students and faculty members found these services to be effective, convenient, and safe, with library staff providing knowledgeable and friendly help.
Another big impact on the librarians, Radford said, was the greatly increased demand from faculty members for help with online instruction. Radford said serving this role was not new to them, but managing the increased volume was. When suddenly every single course needed to be taught online quickly, faculty members who had never taught online courses were frantically looking for help, and they found it at the academic libraries, where the librarians had been long trained to assist. Their expertise became crucially important to universities in the lock-down and subsequent semesters of expanded virtual learning platforms.
“Librarians were used to helping faculty with instructional technology,” Radford said. “But what was different was the increased volume of urgent requests, from large numbers of faculty members. So, the issues were about the volume, not the subject matter, as well as the angst coming from the faculty. Plus, this was all happening in real time -- students left for spring break and when they came back everything needed to be moved online. One silver lining to the pandemic’s effect was because of the spotlight being shone on librarians’ hard work and expertise, the profile of academic libraries was raised, as administrators became more aware of the amount and type of work the librarians were doing, especially regarding instructional technology.”
When suddenly every single course needed to be taught online quickly, faculty members who had never taught online courses were frantically looking for help, and they found it at the academic libraries.
Radford said while students were afraid and stressed at the beginning of the pandemic, and sometimes took their anger or frustration out on librarians, their research showed that by December 2020 most of our survey respondents reported that students were openly expressing their appreciation and gratitude to the librarians for their help. Another finding was the increased demand for digital collections, particularly for ebooks.
Their data, Radford said, also showed that the challenges college students faced during the pandemic were much worse for those who were not economically affluent. “We saw clear proof of the impact economic disparities had on students,” Radford said. “Those who did not have Wi-Fi or access to a computer at home were doing all of their assignments on their phones. Some of the librarians told us they tried to help the students by extending Wi-Fi out into the parking lot so students could drive up and connect, but they reported that this wasn’t much help for those less affluent students who didn’t have cars.
However, Radford said, later in the pandemic, when they re-opened again, academic libraries loaned students laptops and hotspots, another practice that has continued at many universities.
Their data, Radford said, also showed that the challenges college students faced during the pandemic were much worse for those who were not economically affluent.
“Academic librarians truly stepped up and made heroic efforts to be a source of constant support for students,” Radford said. “They adopted an attitude of ‘whatever it takes,’ and put forth a tremendous effort to engage with students and do their utmost to help them during this difficult time. They pivoted to expand existing services, and, in some cases, to create new services, such as individual and class video conferencing, to help the faculty, staff, and administrators as well. They also worked well as virtual teams, encouraging and helping one another, despite increased work burdens and the emotional labor involved in interactions with stressed out students.”
Asked if the rise in use of virtual services in university communities will likely continue and if to academic libraries will continue to be known as the “go to resource” for help with instructional technology in the long tail of the pandemic and beyond, Radford said that there are many lingering questions that will be the focus of a continuing study she and her two co-authors will begin soon. Stay tuned to find out what the “next normal” will be.
More information about the Library and Information Science Department and the Ph.D. Program is on the Rutgers School of Communication and Information website.