Ramping Up Remote Reference During COVID-19 Campus Shutdowns

With colleges and universities across the country shutting down their campuses and moving to distance learning to slow the COVID-19 pandemic, academic librarians are being forced to up their reference game abruptly.

A telephone on a wall under the wordsWith colleges and universities across the country shutting down their campuses and moving to distance learning to slow the COVID-19 pandemic, academic librarians are being forced to up their reference game abruptly. In addition to fielding the usual research questions, librarians must help students and faculty navigate the transition to online learning while working from home themselves. Per a survey of academic librarians by Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, coordinator for information literacy services and instruction in the University Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Christine Wolff-Eisenberg, surveys and research manager at Ithaka S+R, 46.44 percent of respondents report reference services are now limited to online or by phone, and 48.34 percent report that access to print materials has been discontinued.

Public librarians are facing related, yet unique, challenges, as they support K–12 students sent home from school—and their parents—as well as in-person patrons who must navigate remote resources sometimes for the first time.

Textbooks, traditionally not handled by most American academic libraries, are front and center in many of these discussions. At Texas A&M’s Corps of Cadets program, many students rely on a library of donated textbooks; when the campus shut down, they lost access. “So we’re having lots of conversations among ourselves in the library,” said Sierra Laddusaw, assistant professor and curator at Texas A&M University Libraries, College Station. She and her colleagues have been telling faculty to scan the chapters needed for that week’s required reading and take them down at the end of the week.

Likewise, Rob Tench, head of resource fulfillment librarian at Old Dominion University Libraries, Norfolk, VA, had a virtual chat session with a student seeking access to texts for her history seminar. She had visited the library all year long to consult those books but never checked them out. Tench found ebooks for two of the texts; though he was able to find the other two on used book websites, the student couldn’t afford to purchase them.

To tackle the access issue, many companies, such as JSTOR, are making content freely available, and librarians advise taking full advantage. Said Tench, “We’re getting all these offers of free access to resources from tons of vendors…. They’re offering extended and more access to other things we never could get.” Jennifer Schlau, reference and instruction librarian at the Elgin Community College library, IL, is heartened by that, too, and included several of those resources on the COVID-19 guide she put together on her school’s homepage.

Older and niche materials, however, may never have been digitized. For them, collaboration may be required. When confronted with a request for an article about Texas cowboys from the 1920s, Laddusaw put out a call to librarians she knew. Someone who happened to have a copy of the article at home took photos, which Laddusaw sent to the researcher.



Though librarians still offer many of the same services, not being in the library, in view of students, is a major hurdle. Tench said that students may not realize that librarians are still here for them. “They’re thinking that because the building is closed, that’s it,” he noted.

Carrie Baldwin-SoRelle, social sciences and scholarly communications librarian at Lehigh University Libraries, Bethlehem, PA, noted, “I just don’t feel as much of a presence. It’s one more barrier to access for students. They don’t see me; my office door isn’t open anymore. I come to their classes, but it’s much harder to do a two-way interaction there. It’s much harder to connect with individuals over Zoom when you’re just in the class one time.”

Some librarians are offering creative solutions. Before the closures, Abigail Goben, associate professor, liaison librarian, and data management coordinator at the University of Illinois at Chicago, used to hold in-person office hours at her school’s College of Dentistry. While students may not have been planning to seek assistance, seeing her prompted them to stop by and ask a question. “I’m trying to figure out how to encourage that serendipity” in an online environment, she said. She’s considering holding more lighthearted office hours—“come by and show me your cat office hours.”

At the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), librarians established early that they were there for students and faculty. Even before the school announced it would be extending its spring break by another week and then going online, the library sent out an email. Tammy Ivins, coordinator of instructional services at UNCW’s William Madison Randall Library, said, “We made sure to link to our library websites about the COVID-19 response, and to say check the website for changes and news.” Liaison librarians reached out to their own departments, tweaking the message as needed. “I think part of the reason we’re not overwhelmed is we did good preemptive marketing,” Ivins noted.

While technology has made remote reference easier, Laddusaw stressed that librarians shouldn’t make assumptions about access—she still knows faculty members who are using flip phones, for instance. Before Elgin Community College closed, Schlau said, the library passed out about 200 Chromebooks to students who didn’t have technology access at home.

Schlau had created video tutorials for some of the classes she instructed; realizing that many students work better with written instruction, she also added written transcripts. And for students with limited technology access, watching a video might be preferable to communicating via webcam. She plans on keeping the lines of communication open. “I want to meet them where they are,” she said.



While librarians are committed to helping patrons, they also advise establishing boundaries. Laddusaw fields questions from those outside her institution, such as researchers or the general public. Given the digital divide, some prefer to talk by phone, but Laddusaw won’t give out her personal phone number. Similarly, Goben relies on Google Voice to avoid giving out her phone number to colleagues.

And though Laddusaw is eager to help, she pushes back on requests she doesn’t have the bandwidth for. She’s also noticed faculty members reaching out for help via social media; after helping them, she advises them to submit queries via the library’s system in the future. “Most of the faculty realizes I need to keep statistics on everything,” she said. “Also, if it’s not a question that’s in my subject area, if it’s in the system, it’s much easier to assign to the appropriate subject librarian.”

Ivins noted that often students or faculty seek out librarians as their first stop with technology issues. “We have been trying to get the liaisons to push back a little,” she said, or to refer users to the appropriate department.



Many public librarians encounter similar issues. Jing Si Feng, assistant division manager of the information commons at Brooklyn Public Library, noted that librarians are volunteering to take shifts on QuestionPoint, the virtual reference service that the library uses. Feng and her colleague Helen Hurwitz, an adult services librarian, have put together training for librarians new to virtual reference. Feng said, “Email reference is challenging because you still need to do a reference interview, but you don’t get an instant answer; there is no back and forth to rely on. With chat reference, it is most challenging to troubleshoot technology glitches remotely.”

Brittany Netherton, head of knowledge and learning services at Darien Public Library, CT, reported receiving similar questions as before the library closed, such as tax information or genealogical assistance. Getting the right technology in place has resulted in “smooth sailing,” she said. “Our User Experience department set up a means of forwarding the reference desk phone to an app on our laptops, which has worked perfectly. We take and return calls through the computer, and remote desktop into our work computers when we need access to the ILS or our network drives.”



Virtual reference interviews require patience and understanding. Said Ivins, “It takes longer to do a good chat reference question than it does to talk, because you have to tease it out.” Without cues such as facial expressions or body language, added Schlau, it’s tougher to assist patrons. Ivins and Nicole Tekulve, associate director library for user experience for access and spaces at UNCW’s Randall Library, often rely on emojis to lighten the mood and forge a connection with users.

It can be tempting to dive right into researching a question, but librarians should be careful to keep patrons in the loop. If librarians don’t reply to a patron, “to their mind, it’s like you just disappeared and walked away from the desk,” Ivins said. She advises checking in with patrons, as well as asking them to provide an email address so that the librarian can follow up in case the user must leave before the interview can be completed.

And when it comes to emailed reference questions, librarians may not ever find out if they helped their patrons. But “just because we don’t hear back from people, it doesn’t mean that they didn’t get the information that they needed. Quite the opposite, it could be what the librarian said made sense, and they’re good to go now,” Schlau noted.

Above all, Tekulve stressed having empathy for patrons. “When students reach out to us...many times they’re frustrated, and that frustration is probably on top of all other kinds of life circumstances,” she said. “I read through all of our chats, and I can see how much students appreciate it when we do try to take the extra time for them and support them.”

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Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor for Library Journal, and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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