Purdue Dean of Libraries Beth McNeil on How Reopening Campus Might Look

On April 21 Mitchell Daniels, president of Indiana’s Purdue University, sent a letter to staff announcing his intent to reopen the campus this fall. Although his ideas about ensuring safety for a campus population of more than 50,000 people have met with some skepticism and pushback, individual campus leaders have their own ideas for a careful return. One of these is Beth McNeil, dean and Esther Ellis Norton Professor at Purdue University Libraries and School of Information Studies, who believes that a measured reopening of the university’s eight libraries is possible. 

Beth McNeil head shotOn April 21 Mitchell Daniels, president of Indiana’s Purdue University, sent a letter to staff announcing his intent to reopen the campus this fall. Although his ideas about ensuring safety for a campus population of more than 50,000 people—including keeping students aged 35 or under separate from older, likely more at-risk community members—have met with some skepticism and pushback, individual campus leaders have their own ideas for a careful return.

One of these is Beth McNeil, dean and Esther Ellis Norton Professor at Purdue University Libraries and School of Information Studies, who believes that a measured reopening of the university’s eight libraries is possible. LJ caught up with her to find out what that might look like.

LJ : What are your thoughts about Daniels’s call to reopen the Purdue campus this fall? Are the library’s plans close to what he proposed in his letter?

Beth McNeil: What's been discussed is really around thinking about it as reducing contact and reducing density related to our student population. So even though [reactions to] President Daniels's memo are mixed, maybe it didn't stress enough that while we plan—and he expects us—to have a residential presence in the fall, it won't be the usual one, and it's going to revolve around having a safe campus.

I feel campus leadership is keeping the deans informed, and that's helping me to at least have some scenarios in mind for our options.

What would that look like for the libraries?

I don't have final decisions yet, but we have a number of libraries that are pretty traditional, with stacks, and then we have some that really aren't. It may be possible for us to have a library open with collections secured, and not necessarily provide library staffing in that space. In some of our spaces, in the fall, the support or services we might provide would continue to be the virtual ones we're providing now.

We might think a little bit differently about the physical footprint for the libraries where it would really be impossible for us to control—or close to impossible to manage—an undergraduate student population that may or may not be interested, or willing, to observe social distancing that the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] is telling us is appropriate. I haven't decided for sure, but we're offering remote services right now and it's wonderful to see the increased traffic…that indicates campus is using us in ways that we weren't encouraging them to do before.

Just earlier today our campus HR vice president sent a note out about expectations around remote work continuing, and that it's possible in July we'll think about a return to campus for those staff who work in student support roles. I would put some of us in the libraries in that category, but I do plan to have most of my employees continue to work remotely for as long as is necessary.

Do you feel like you have the autonomy you need to make decisions for the library that you’re comfortable with?

I think so. I'll make decisions with my leadership team about how we handle the services and collections for the libraries in the fall. This summer we'll continue as we are.

Each day's a new day in this pandemic. But by mid-August I'll know, based on the situation at hand, if I'm going to open one library or eight libraries, or somewhere in the middle. A couple of our libraries, it would be very possible for us to provide study space, remove some chairs to make it a little more spacious, but not have collections or staffing there—or staffing like they're doing at some fast food drive-throughs right now, where they've increased the size of the plexiglass [barriers]. If we feel comfortable providing some face-to-face service in that manner, we have some libraries that it would be conducive to do that in them.

We're really fortunate here at Purdue that our physical libraries are a diverse range, [such as] some that could be accessible only to, for example, our veterinary medicine students, who are always in that building and have 24-hour key card access to the library. We wouldn't have to staff that—if they wanted to be in there, they could do that. And then our Wilmeth Active Learning Center, which is actually a library and classroom building, will more than likely have carefully sized classes taking place in there. The library part was designed very well for a global pandemic—four years ago we weren't thinking that—but we'll be able to provide some services there where I do believe our staff and library faculty will be safe.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from library faculty and staff?

We're going to do a survey to make sure we're reaching everybody once we know a little bit more about campus plans. Some of our staff are very eager to return. Some are understandably worried about returning. We're going to find a balance. I'm not going to make anyone come back.

We will find a way to move our priorities forward, either with staff on campus behind the scenes on a basis where it will be safe, or with remote work. We can continue to have our digital reference service, our digitization service—and we've had great attendance at some virtual workshops for grad students in the last couple of weeks. We'll find a way. There’s a wide range from how they feel about what they're doing now at home, and getting used to that change, to how they're thinking about coming back.

Do you feel that the ideas being floated are sustainable over the long term?

I think they are. We have a safe campus task force that's doing some work right now, divided into six subcategories. One of them was residence halls, dining, and other student support, and the leaders of that group reached out to us in the libraries. We had the opportunity to contribute to input and questions and suggestions, and what-if radical ideas to the academic subgroup as well as the student support/residence hall subgroup. The report's not out yet, but we'll be looking forward to recommendations to move the libraries forward.

I'm sure we'll have some students who choose to do a remote first semester, and that's fine. We have programs that could be all remote for those students. And I'm sure we'll have students who want to come back and have some sort of residential experience. What those numbers or percentages will look like remains to be seen. But there are smart people working on that right now, so I'm confident we can find a way to meet campus's information needs in a way that keeps our staff and faculty safe.

Have the libraries laid off or furloughed any workers?

Not in my libraries, no. We're providing some terrific archives work for our staff whose roles were largely public service, and we're making terrific progress with that. A lot of our undergraduate students who rely on an hourly wage are continuing to work for us, and also doing archival projects and some other work.

What kind of projects are they working on?

They range from our student yearbook, which has been digitized but needs to have the checking necessary—all the old fonts and a variety of other things; scanning without a lot of human attendance needs corrections—to oral history transcribing, and some other projects that the archivists would have been doing over time. We're moving forward in some areas that I'm very pleased with.

Is there enough remote work for those staff members not comfortable with coming back to campus?

Oh, sure. We could probably do this archival work forever, and we've also increased the hours of our digital reference service. Right now it's back-and-forth chat or email, but there's a Zoom-like opportunity and we have staff who’ve quickly came up to speed on training. And we do still have a traditional liaison model— most of our library faculty members also serve as a liaison to an academic department. That is, during regular times, a lot of teaching, but it could be research assistance, or doing systematic reviews. So far we've been able to convert our classes to online opportunities and meet those needs that way, so I really do think we can [continue].

I’m sure you have a lot of concerns as well.

Absolutely. We're going to [have to] figure out how to work within a budget that might be impacted by this. So many campuses are having budgetary trouble, and that could mean a shift in priorities. We just need to know more about the significant uncertainties. And we're on a campus with a bunch of researchers—every day we learn something new about not knowing everything we really need to know to make informed decisions.

My worry is more around if we're so successful at this, what will our physical footprint as traditional libraries look like, say, a year or a year and a half from now?

But it could be amazing to move in the direction we are, to make campus get the information it needs, and learn about ways we can transform our services that will be beneficial in the future—trying to find a silver lining.

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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