Overdue: Closing Libraries

While many colleges and universities have closed their libraries, others say they can't operate without keeping them open.

March 19, 2020
 
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As institutions scale down face-to-face operations to essential personnel only during the pandemic, librarians on some campuses say they’re recklessly being put into that group.

Rutgers University’s faculty union, affiliated with the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers, for instance, demanded Wednesday that campus libraries be shut down and move entirely to online access.

“We have been arguing with Rutgers management for days about closing the libraries, but can no longer wait,” Rebecca Givan, associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at the New Brunswick campus and the union's vice president, said in a statement. “By every reasonable interpretation of what is an essential service in this crisis, our libraries do not fit that description and must be shut down immediately, while offering online services and remote access to all who need it.”

A Rutgers librarian who did not want to be named, citing fear of retaliation, said librarians are “expected to keep the libraries open and staffed despite the fact that most services can be provided remotely.”

Rutgers won't consider mailing physical items where necessary to users’ homes “because it would cost too much,” the librarian added, recalling internal discussions. Such decisions amount to “forcing staff to risk their lives by having to come to libraries, and forcing the users to do the same,” the librarian said, “because that kind of a cost doesn't appear in an annual report.”

This week is also spring break, meaning that the university could have closed the libraries and spent what is a quiet week even in typical years “planning optimal remote services for when the students are remote and working next week.”

According to a running list of Association of Research Libraries members, 71 institutions have closed their libraries entirely. Some 21 -- including Rutgers -- have moved to restrict library access to university ID card holders only, and 33 have limited their hours. As of Wednesday evening, five member institution libraries were open with no change in hours: Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and the Universities of British Columbia, Chicago and Wisconsin at Madison.

Institutions closing their libraries are handling the transition in various ways. Princeton University, for example, has ceased all in-person services until April 6 but will open its Firestone Library for two hours per day through Friday for students and faculty members who need to retrieve their materials from carrels or study rooms and pick up books on hold. No other access to collections will be allowed.

Rutgers said in a statement that its libraries remain open because they are “essential to educating our students while the university remains open and operating.” In particular, libraries are critical to meeting mandates about online instruction, as they provide access to 1,000 computer terminals, the statement said.

“Access to the internet through these computers is essential for students who for economic or other reasons do not have access to the internet in their homes.”

Librarians have pushed back on this rationale, however, saying that there are other ways to address computing issues, such as renting laptops. Asking students to travel to campus to use public computers puts them at risk, too, these librarians also say.

The university said its libraries are being operated “in a manner that is consistent with state and federal guidance and in a manner that is safe and does not put our students or the employees at the libraries at any heightened level of risk.”

The libraries are now closed to the general public to control crowds, for example, and security personnel will break up gatherings of more than 50 people, though more than 50 people may be in the library at any given time.

Calling the situation “fluid,” the university said it asked library leaders to “develop a plan that requires the least amount of staff in the fewest number of libraries that will still allow the university to meet its obligation to our students.”

Rutgers' librarians were also given flexible options in terms of telecommuting, according to the university's statement.

Katie Anderson, chair of the library faculty and advocate of closing the libraries, said that “more library staff and faculty have moved to remote working so there are fewer people in the buildings.” There are “of course, still concerns for those left for the minimal staffing.” In Anderson's location, librarians are still expected to show up in person for their assigned reference desk hours.

Mary Lee Kennedy, executive director of the Association of Research Libraries, said in a statement that research libraries “are and have provided online services for decades.” As campuses move online, she added, “research libraries are right there with them.” So with “this shift during an unprecedented viral outbreak, ARL members have staff health and safety at the forefront as they respond in ways consistent with their institutions -- including the use of physical spaces.”

Kennedy added, “Our members support all library employees, student workers, as well as part-time and non-exempt employees.”

The American Library Association and the affiliated Association of College and Research Libraries were even more direct in respective statements.

“We strongly urge the closure of in-person services at academic and research libraries,” the ACRL said. It also urged libraries “to ensure that all library workers receive fully paid leave, including health coverage while libraries are closed.”

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, professor and coordinator for information literature and instruction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s University Library, is helping run a separate, self-reported study of library responses to COVID-19, through Ithaka S&R.

A write-up of the study thus far says that libraries are “radically changing their service model or closing altogether, providing for increased social distance and staff and user safety.” While many libraries have closed, those that remain open, even if for limited hours, “continue to implement safety and social distancing policies with a sharp rise in the number canceling programs and in-person meetings.”

“Somewhat remarkably,” however, the study says, “regular communication to staff with updates and guidelines on safety measures” is reported in less than two-thirds of libraries.

Hinchliffe said in an interview that research and academic libraries “have built digital infrastructures, collections and services for the past two decades.” Library users have long been “remote,” she said, whether they’re faculty members working in their offices across campus or students at local coffee shops -- and libraries have adapted over time to serve their needs.

“We have a parallel digital library that we can pivot to as we modify hours and services, or even close,” Hinchliffe said. So “we are well positioned to serve the needs of faculty, staff and students who are working remotely and online for the foreseeable future.”

Project MUSE, the database of peer-reviewed journals and books, and a number of publishers are helping in that effort, by making online materials free for everyone for the coming weeks. Hinchliffe said these actions make a difference, as they provide clear pathways to research and reduce barriers to entry: think forgotten institutional account logins and other access issues.

“To the degree that publishers are working to support customers who are coming up with suddenly unexpected challenges, I’m just grateful,” she said.

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