Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe and Christine Wolff-Eisenberg on the Final Ithaka Academic Library COVID-19 Response Survey Results

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe and Christine Wolff-Eisenberg discuss the fourth and final analysis of their Academic Library Response to COVID-19 survey, “Indications of the New Normal,” looking at the current phases of academic library pandemic reactions.

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, Christine Wolff-Eisenberg

In the second week of March, as colleges and universities began to close campuses to contain the spread of COVID-19, Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, professor/coordinator for information literacy services and instruction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Library and affiliate professor in the University's School of Information Sciences, and Christine Wolff-Eisenberg, surveys and research manager at Ithaka S+R, rapidly deployed a survey gathering real-time data from—and for—the academic library community. The survey, “Academic Library Response to COVID-19,” offered a snapshot of the solutions that libraries were putting into place on the fly, as well as existing processes repurposed to serve an unanticipated population of remote learners.

LJ spoke to Hinchliffe and Wolff-Eisenberg shortly after they first mounted the survey to discuss their reasons, methodology, initial findings, and how they hoped the information would be used. Because they encouraged respondents to retake the survey as their situations evolved, institutions’ learning curves were made visible. Those initial iterations of problem-solving, as libraries responded to circumstances and then revised their approaches, were valuable for those following their leads.

Hinchliffe and Wolff-Eisenberg published several analyses of the survey: a report on the first 24 hours of data, a comparison of those findings with an analysis of responses over the subsequent 48 hours, and a third analysis, dated March 24, of changes in responses from the first submission to the most recent update for the institutions that responded to the survey in the first 10 days and then returned updates.

Seven months later, a bigger story now encompasses long-term adjustments to distance learning, funding and personnel challenges, and reopening. In late September, Hinchliffe and Wolff-Eisenberg invited previous respondents to submit a final update. The fourth and final analysis, “Indications of the New Normal,” looks at the next phases of academic library pandemic operations, as well as analyzing new feedback relative to the initial responses last spring. LJ checked in with Hinchliffe and Wolff-Eisenberg again to find out what they learned, and what readers can discover from their data.

LJ : Why did you decide to circle back around with respondents at this point, rather than later in the school year (or earlier in their reopening planning process)?

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe: We initially developed the Academic Library Response to COVID-19 Survey to help the library community navigate an unprecedented set of circumstances. In the first couple of weeks we heard from dozens of library workers and leaders about how they were using the data to advocate for their library to make certain decisions, like closing the physical library location(s), or to guide their own thinking in making these decisions.

Christine Wolff-Eisenberg: By the end of the spring semester, we more or less felt like the project had served its initial purpose of supporting the field as updated responses had slowed to almost none, but we wanted to capture one final snapshot of the “new normal” under which libraries are now operating and [from which they] will eventually build back. If we had surveyed any earlier—for example, right as the semester was beginning—we believed that decisions about operations would have still been too much in flux. Our response rate would have suffered and our data would not have been particularly clear. And, frankly, that approach would have been lacking in the compassion that we’re trying to bring to this project, given competing priorities and pressures. Late September felt like the earliest and best time to return to data collection for one final time.

What percentage of the original respondents replied this time around?

CWE: Of the 861 institutions [whose] responses were logged in the spring, we received 214 updated responses in late September—so, about a quarter of the respondents returned to share about their fall plans. We were particularly interested in mapping changes across the same set of institutions, so we did not solicit any new respondents this time.

What were some of the major takeaways? What surprised you?

CWE: The results confirmed our general sense of how operations have evolved. Libraries are partially open, but with restricted access to print materials, and services have generally pivoted to virtual delivery. We continue to be intrigued by how libraries are engaging with loanable technology—that they are not engaging in new loaning practices—as other studies are showing that students need more technology support. We hypothesize that perhaps other campus units are the focus of that work rather than the library, but we do not know from the data we have.

LJH: Perhaps the other notable finding is that…while other sectors seem to be anticipating a more permanent remote workforce, this seems less the case for academic libraries.

What do you feel like you got right back in March?

LJH: The survey has shown itself to be what we designed it to be: an instrument that would be able to be taken at a given point in time and taken again and again. We intentionally designed it as a “thermometer” for taking the current temperature—or status—of libraries at a given moment in time. We did not ask respondents to report on change. Rather, the analysis of responses over time reveals the changes. This was clearly the right decision.

CWE: The other thing we got right was our belief that libraries would continue to carry out their mission regardless of these unprecedented circumstances and that libraries were well-positioned to do so. There is much to be proud of in academic libraries this year and it is rewarding to be part of celebrating that.

What did you get wrong?

LJH: One area that the survey did not address was interlibrary loan. We have received feedback that some were disappointed in the omission and, of course, it may have been useful. But, in any survey design there is always a concern about the burden of taking the survey on the respondents and this was a particularly acute concern for us in March, recognizing that people were managing a crisis.

CWE: We also did not realize in March that we could have linked up IPEDS [Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System] data to the survey results in Qualtrics in an automated fashion, had we programmed it that way. The results dashboards would have been easier to program if we had known that. We certainly will remember this for the future!

How are librarians using the survey data? Is there any advocacy component (for funding, staff retention, etc.) that you’re hearing about?

LJH: We’ve had a fair bit of informal feedback over the past months. One follow-on project we have considered is a study of how the results were used. But, like many researchers, we are prioritizing projects that have real-time application and will leave this kind of “next phase” research for a future point when both we and our potential participants have weathered this time of disruption and have capacity for more than what must be done in the moment.

You’ve stated that this is the last iteration. Would you consider revisiting it in another six months or a year, after libraries have been open for a full school year? After the deployment of a vaccine?

CWE: Back in late March, we said that we would keep the survey live for as long as the data coming in continue to be useful to the community. It really feels like we’ve reached the end of that point. But, you never know—this year has been full of unexpected events. If we sense that there is another point where data collection would serve the community, we will definitely consider reactivating it. Our goal from the start was to collect data “from the community for the community” and we are still committed to that.

Do you have anything else in the works looking at library responses to COVID, either as a team or separately?

CWE: Earlier this fall, a team at Ithaka S+R, including my colleagues Jennifer Frederick and Nicole Betancourt, fielded a special cycle of the Ithaka S+R national library director survey, this time focusing on the impacts of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the movements for racial equality on US academic libraries. We fielded the prior survey of library directors in this series just months before the pandemic outbreak in the US, so the two sets of results paired together will give us a really comprehensive understanding of how library strategy has changed over the last year. We’re looking forward to sharing results from this survey this winter.

LJH: Though I am really proud of this work with Christine, I’ve turned my attention back to focus on other research that I had underway. I will, however, be reading the results from the Ithaka S+R library director survey the moment it hits my desk!

Is there anything else that you’d like to comment on?

LJH: Personally this was really energizing and rewarding work to be doing in the midst of a very difficult time. We are fortunate to have had a longstanding collaborative relationship as the foundation of jumping into this project and it was very meaningful to have our work be so immediately impactful for the academic library community.

CWE: We also want to say once again that we are so grateful to all who filled out the survey. Participatory research only works with participants!

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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