Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe and Christine Wolff-Eisenberg Discuss Academic Library Response to COVID-19

On March 11, Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Christine Wolff-Eisenberg, Ithaka S+R, deployed a survey, “Academic Library Response to COVID-19.” The survey garnered 213 responses the first day it was up.

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, Christine Wolff-Eisenberg

Over the past two weeks, measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 have called for increasing numbers of colleges and universities to cancel in-person classes. While some faculty have been incorporating online and virtual components into their instruction for years, for many the sudden switch poses a significant challenge.

As in non-emergency times, the library is often their best source of information about transitioning to an online learning environment. But with a sudden and massive need for support at institutions across the country, academic libraries are now tasked with providing more help than ever before—often at the same time that they are working to provide additional services, course reserves, access to texts and databases, and resources for students who may not have internet access, while at the same time cutting hours and in-person services.

On March 11, 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, deployed a survey, “Academic Library Response to COVID19,” to gather real-time data from and for the academic library community. The survey garnered 213 responses the first day it was up. (See their post, “The First 24 Hours of Survey Data.”)

LJ spoke with Hinchliffe and Wolff-Eisenberg on March 13 to find out more about why they wanted a snapshot of academic libraries’ processes, what they hope to do with the information, and how they got from idea to output in ten hours.

LJ : When, and why, did you decide to develop this survey?

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe: We had our first conversation about doing this survey at 10 a.m. Eastern Time on March 11. Christine had just tweeted to ask if anyone was gathering information on the library response. I had looked the day before and hadn't seen anything, so I messaged her. We set up a phone call, and then—cut to the chase—we had the survey in the field at 8 p.m. During the day we reviewed the literature on library responses to crises and disruptions, drafted the questions and responses, crowdsourced a cognitive walk-through and critique, and had nine people take it in preview to ensure that the questions worked. We also set up the site with live results reporting because we knew people would want to know what is going on.

Fortunately, Christine and I have worked together on many other projects, and we both have expertise in survey design and development. In fact, survey development has been the focus of a lot of our work together. We know how the other approaches projects and our work style, which means that we could easily ramp up to a new project. We also know which tools we can use to do collaborative, real time work.

How did you go about designing it?

Christine Wolff-Eisenberg: We built out the survey in Qualtrics. We had initially talked about building out a Google sheet that others could add to, but I had been adding to some work that Bryan Alexander was doing to track college and university closures or quick pivots to online instruction, and seeing the way that Google sheets could not really handle the traffic, and also the ways that an open crowdsourced Google sheet can get messy. We wanted something a bit more systematic.

Lisa and I have been using a variety of Google docs and sheets for organizing our own information on the back end. One really important part of this survey instrument is that we know later we're going to want to pull in other institutional variables, and in order to do that we need some kind of unique identifier to do so. We created a separate Google sheet where folks who are filling out the survey can look up their IPEDS [Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System] ID, and then go back to the survey and fill it in, so that later we can pull in additional information about their institutions.

LJH: Also, we didn't want overwriting of data. We intentionally designed the survey so that libraries can submit updates as their practices and policies change, so we're hoping that people will take the time to do that. It's going to be really important for us to understand how things get rolled out over time, and how things are evolving.

We decided that this survey also needed to be easy for people to fill out quickly, so we needed to keep the questions on things that are universally part of what academic libraries do, and to also make the responses as checkbox as possible. We asked about basic services: access to facilities, access to reference and instruction, access to print collections, and then what are you doing for your workers as far as remote [work], and basic safety and social distancing practices. The fact that we had the cognitive walk-throughs and the feedback from our nine testers also helped us feel confident that we were not going to put a survey into the field that was going to cause people a lot of confusion.

Who from the library is responding?

LJH: From the communications I'm having in response to listserv messages, the people asking [us] questions [about how to respond] are in upper administration, often the library director or dean. Because we are asking for one response per library, my sense is that libraries are taking the time to coordinate a response, and that coordination is happening administratively.

What did the initial findings look like? Has anything surprised you?

CWE: The first thing that we asked about was basically, What are your institutions doing? We're seeing a real shift from in-person to online course delivery. What we're not seeing is a ton of change in library building hours or services offered that would signal significant changes happening, or that hours or services are being rolled back or even expanded at this point. There are a lot of prevention and mitigation measures in place, especially increased cleaning by library and custodial staff, providing hand sanitizer for patrons, and canceling big public events.

A large share, somewhere in the two-thirds ballpark of respondents, are indicating that regular communications are going out to staff with updates and guidance and guidelines on safety measures. But that also means that for one third of libraries, those kinds of regular communications and updates are not happening, which is notable. In terms of personnel, we are seeing a decent chunk of responses—something close to one quarter of respondents—indicated that work is being made more flexible, and at least some staff are being given the option of working remotely. All of these variables are ones we'll want to keep our eye on, but in particular around those kinds of personnel decisions. Another thing we're keeping an eye on is around technology in collections lending, and access to collections. We are seeing a lot of library instruction pivoting online as courses are going online. But as far as tech in collections, we're not seeing much shifting there yet.

It's still early, but the differences between what institutions are doing and what libraries are doing is quite different at this point. Almost the majority of libraries are staying open normal hours when their whole institution has switched to online instruction only. We expect that that's going to shift over time.

How are people using the data so far?

LJH: We are hearing on Twitter, and in emails back to us, that people are using the results to inform their own local actions. So what's really important here is not just that we're collecting this data, but that we're immediately disseminating it back to the community. We are trying to do action research—what do we know right now so that people can make the next decision, and then can they come back to this data and make the next decision? Long term, will it be great that we have this data collected and can maybe at some point apply for a grant to go back and analyze it in a systematic way, absolutely. But the importance today is the dissemination. As people’s institutions start to attend to this topic, for people who as recently as [March 12] thought this wasn't an issue for their campus, this is suddenly an issue for them so they're catching up.

How long do you plan to leave the survey up?

CWE: Lisa and I are planning for the next couple of days at this point, but I suspect that it will be weeks. Institutions are making decisions, and libraries are making decisions, and there may be a second and a third and a fourth round of decisions still to come—which is why it's really important to that we've built in the mechanism and encouraged folks to come back and engage with the survey again so we can track those changes over time. [See Hinchliffe and Wolff-Eisenberg’s March 14 follow up, “Academic Library Strategies Shift to Closure and Restriction.”] I'm sure we'll put out some kind of capstone report at the end of all of this—I don't know exactly when that will be, but we certainly intend to keep it up as long as it's helpful, both in terms of data gathering and also for folks who are starting to use the data for their own decision-making. Since the reporting is all being made publicly available in real time, folks can go in and see a snapshot of what's going on nationally.

Academic librarians whose libraries have not yet responded, or who need to update changing decisions, fill out the survey so your efforts can be included.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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