Yotam Kramer, Ex Libris
Academia was turned upside down in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with stay-at-home orders and understandable health concerns across the world emptying out institutes of higher education essentially overnight.
Suddenly cut off from regular and easy communication with students and faculty, librarians found it difficult to continue providing expected services, such as support for students, research assistance, course list consultation, and the like. They were also faced with technical and systemic challenges in their own systems, consortia and other academic networks, whether local, regional or global.
The rapid, pervasive move to remote solutions has irrevocably changed expectations.
Changing Expectations: Remote, Customized Services
The rapid, pervasive move to remote solutions across the global economy, including in academic settings, has irrevocably changed expectations.
Students and faculty made extensive use of remote learning and collaboration alternatives, even with simple workarounds like video-conference-style lectures. Organizations providing such alternatives quickly ramped up and, in many cases, adapted their services to meet the demands of users.
Similarly, libraries need to put in place solutions to meet their own needs and those of their academic customers for remote service. This entails providing purpose-specific online access to collection management and library administration, as well as to resource discovery, delivery, and more for academic users. Moreover, libraries would do well to incorporate greater agility in their services, both for the sake of responsiveness to changing expectations and in order to be able to quickly adapt in response to unexpected disruptions.
Transitions are Being Fast-Tracked
Some transitions that were already underway in many libraries are being fast-tracked and adopted more widely, as their value became suddenly evident.
The global use of ebooks, audiobooks and digital resources was already on the increase before COVID-19 hit. The crisis drove home for many the need to rapidly shift from traditional print, whether in the library stacks or remote storage, to more flexible, digital alternatives. This may entail replacing legacy systems, burdened by a patchwork of siloed systems or workarounds to manage non-print resources, to unified, more efficient solutions.
Interlibrary collaboration has also been trending up in recent years, but will surely see an even greater boost in the coming year. University libraries are realizing the value of sharing their burdens, so everyone benefits by diffusing costs and expanding collections. This could include a resource sharing network, collective bargaining with vendors, shared management costs, collaborative collection development, and more.
The Budget Pressures of 2021
As universities took a major financial hit immediately, and will probably see more losses of student tuition in coming semesters, libraries have to adjust to tighter budgets going forward. Analytics is key here to discover what content you are paying for and how much, as well as how e-content is being used in practice. This will help demonstrate a return on the investment in library assets and resources, or indicate where changes can be made to make available dollars go further.
Libraries will also have to reconsider all operational and capital investment on locally managed systems. There are direct and indirect costs – technical expertise, IT support (even within the university), upgrades, security, regulation adherence, etc. – which can be relieved by moving the operational burden to the cloud. On the other hand, alongside a lower long-term total cost of ownership, there is an immediate migration expense that needs to be taken into account as well. Another benefit, beyond the directly material, is allowing librarians to focus on more value-added activities, such as remote access and learning, by essentially turning over routine tasks to remote automation.
A Shift in Perspective
As a result of the highly challenging events of 2020, many academic libraries have understood the urgent need for agility, remote capabilities, collaboration, diverse collections, and more – all while facing the prospect of shrinking budgets.
Rather than pursuing more of the same, which will soon prove unsustainable, libraries are shifting their perspective. They are now bringing principles of enterprise resource planning (ERP) into collection building and management, interlibrary loan and library services, as well as their support for academic learning, teaching, and research.
With luck – and a deeper understanding of the “new normal” – the best is yet to come.
June 4, 2020