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Academic Library Reference Services Played Vital Information-Sharing Role During COVID-19
Research by Professor Marie Radford and SC&I Ph.D. students Laura Costello and Kaitlin Montague examines the ways academic library virtual reference services served as critical information hubs during the pandemic.
Research by Professor Marie Radford and SC&I Ph.D. students Laura Costello and Kaitlin Montague examines the ways academic library virtual reference services served as critical information hubs during the pandemic.

“It could be argued that COVID-19 prompted an upheaval in libraries unequaled in modern times except for the advent of the World Wide Web,” said Professor and Chair of the LIS Department Marie L. Radford, whose new article, “Surging Virtual Reference Services: COVID-19 a Game Changer,” published in March 2021 in College & Research Libraries News, explores the ways academic libraries supported their campus communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Written with SC&I Ph.D. students Laura Costello and Kaitlin Montague, this research explores the ways professional librarians and library staff, who provide virtual reference services (VRS) at academic libraries, adapted in March 2020 when universities closed across the U.S. because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  University librarians and staff began working exclusively from home for the first time, and they also needed to respond to a much higher volume of reference queries from students and faculty who were overwhelmed, confused and had discovered that often their college libraries were the only sources of information and instruction they urgently needed.

Their research, which includes surveys with 300 VRS librarians and interviews with 28 heads or directors of reference services across the U.S., showed that not only did academic librarians and staff succeed in continuing their roles as information hubs, but they ultimately became one of the most critical sources of information for campus communities while other academic offices were either closed or unprepared to function 100% virtually. As a result, the profile of university libraries has been raised. However, their research also shows their success came at a cost to the librarians and staff.

Academic libraries were able to continue their work without interruption beginning in March 2020 for a variety of reasons, Radford said.  Interviewees reported that when they had to shut down in-person services, the transition to fully virtual services was eased by an already robust array of online services and resources

“Libraries have been in the business of serving their users virtually for more than 20 years and have always been early adopters of virtual services. What does that mean? It means academic library services are very mature, librarians and staff have been well-trained and are effective, and they already understood how to provide excellent service that builds strong virtual relationships,” Radford said.  During the pandemic’s first 8 months, our research found that most participants experienced increase demands as VRS numbers rose rapidly, including the regular queries about coursework, plus encounters in which the students and faculty needed more general campus information about closures, billing, even the bookstore’s operation.

Radford also said her earlier IMLS grant-funded research with Lynn Silipigini Connaway of OCLC Research, showed that students often preferred to use VRS -- because of the convenience -- even before the pandemic. “VRS has always meant students did not have to leave their dorms or homes to conduct research with librarians. They could just chat with a librarian online to find PDFs for journal articles and other shared e-resources or to get instruction they needed to complete assignments. These services were in place and were already very convenient and students love that.”

The results of their research for this paper revealed overall that “in some ways the COVID-19 pandemic has acted like a light shining on academic libraries revealing things that aren’t new – such as that libraries have been providing virtual reference service and e-resources for a long time.”

However, while their research showed that university libraries fared well during COVID-19, They also discovered that there are still serious issues that surfaced during the pandemic that need to be addressed. Radford said these issues involve changes libraries need to make that are as profound as the changes they made when the internet was launched.

During the pandemic, these involved the need for the whole academic library organization to learn new systems (such as sophisticated phone routing systems, or virtual collaboration tools, such as Microsoft Teams), all at once, under pressure, and under conditions where they had to figure it out by doing training sessions via video conferencing tools, such as Zoom.

Other issues Radford cited include the personal cost to librarians who were working much longer hours; a reduction in staff from people retiring early out of fear of becoming sick and other reasons, lay-offs and furloughs; and budget cuts. Without financial resources, libraries can’t provide the virtual services and e-resources that became in much greater demand because of the pandemic.

Radford explained, “There are always retirements at academic libraries, but the problem during the pandemic was that when people left, the jobs were then frozen. So, other already very pressured staff had to pick up the work. Then there were also layoffs and furloughs. The impact of those meant that whoever is left was really feeling stressed because they are doing the work of other people who have left – and at a time when the workload is already more challenging. All our interview participants agreed that their work has become much more intense since March 2020, and that they were striving to do the best that they could, under trying circumstances and with a good deal of uncertainty.”

Librarians also reported a problem with work-life balance because of the pandemic. “They were getting calls all the time, emails from supervisors in the evening and on the weekend. Chats, email, and calls from library users were given priority, so often librarians and staff were putting in more extra hours.”  Additionally, extra training was needed for some who were not accustomed to online VRS systems. VRS requires some of the same skills as face-to-face – knowing how to find the information, or to deliver instruction as needed, and being sensitive to the level of stress that the users were under, by being compassionate and tolerant.”

In addition, librarians also had to adapt to providing virtual instruction for the Information Literacy Instruction (ILI) they taught mostly in person prior to the pandemic.  “While librarians were used to using video conferencing or were embedded in course delivery systems, such as Canvas,” Radford said, “because of the pandemic, suddenly every student at almost every university became an online student overnight. Faculty unaccustomed to virtual course delivery also needed to transition to these systems rapidly. So, librarians had to contend with rapid increase in VRS volume, needed to adapt to providing online library instruction, and became coaches for faculty in many cases.” A second paper Radford, Costello, and Montague have written about ILI during COVID-19 has been accepted for presentation at the Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE) and publication in the 2021 conference proceedings. 

“The pandemic sharpened focus on our core strengths of providing excellent and equitable service to all users, and pushing increased access to high-quality, reliable information to combat misinformation and disinformation, especially during crisis,” the three wrote in the article. “Our research serves immediate, future, and historical purposes, helping librarians to: a) continue adapting to the ongoing pandemic, b) build resilience to respond to any unforeseen disruptions or crises, and c) serve as a record of the incredible academic librarian response to ensure that their users and institutions would move ahead, even as the world shut down. Our research has overwhelmingly shown that amid the confusion of institutional closures, librarians led their campuses in uninterrupted service to their communities.”

“How much will all these game changes that COVID-19 hath wrought continue?” Radford asked in the article. “This remains to be seen, and much hinges on our professional vision, decisions, values, and will. Service excellence is an individual choice, made in the midst of every encounter.”

Discover more about the Library and Information Science Department on the Rutgers School of Communication and Information website


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