This summer, about four months after COVID-19 entered the United States, we sat down (virtually, of course) with Susan Davis-Bartl, Acquisitions Librarian at SUNY Buffalo to learn what impact she thinks the pandemic will have on academic libraries and e-resource management in the uncertain new school year ahead.
SUNY Buffalo was fortunate to have many of their resources online, so they were in a better position than most libraries. In the spring semester, they also benefited from publishers who opened access to their content to help libraries make it available for students. But what will the upcoming school year look like for libraries as universities work to define a new normal?
The rapid transition to become an all-remote library during the spring lockdown created extra expenses, while library resources are tighter than ever. “SUNY is refunding residents for their unused campus living costs and dining plans, which will cause a budget shortfall,” Davis-Bartl said. While facing a year of limited funding, a main concern will be the cost of online materials going forward. “For many of these online resources, it’s not just a little more than the print, it’s a lot more.”
According to Davis-Bartl, some fields of study may suffer more than others. For most arts and humanities programs, the online resources are limited, and it’s going to be a struggle to afford new literature search tools. Many departments in scientific, technical, engineering, or medical (STEM) research have grant funding, especially for those working on COVID research and treatments, so a great deal of attention and resources are invested in the sciences.
While arts and humanities resources are often less expensive, funding will still be tough, and many institutions are looking to maintain continuity of services across departments at this critical time. For SUNY libraries, budgets are following a wait-and-see approach, which can be very difficult, but Davis-Bartl acknowledges that uncertainty is a part of life right now for libraries of all kinds.
Serving Students Differently
We know the way libraries serve students will need to change for the upcoming year. The question is how, exactly? SUNY Buffalo is planning a hybrid approach to courses this fall, with only courses that must be in person or could strongly benefit from being in person going back on campus. So, the library will have to provide a different level of service to each set of courses. Davis-Bartl admits the library is unable to plan more than a few months at a time. “What will we need to do in the future? It depends on what happens.”
As Davis-Bartl explains, their science programs have already embraced online journals, but many of their courses have clinical components that are difficult to deal with in an online environment. For example, to practice surgeries or other medical procedures, 3D anatomy resources are now available, which are amazing librarians, faculty and students alike. But some worry that they will never compare to live, in-person labs for practicing skills as complex as surgical procedures.
On the other hand, Davis-Bartl was surprised at the rich video resources available to support music programs going online. In the spring, some vendors offered discounted pricing, which made it easier to offer more digital resources, but many have been discontinued as of this fall.
Beyond resources, many people are wondering if the move to more online resources and classes will change the college experience as we know it. “How will it ultimately change the way higher education is delivered? We hear from a lot of students they still want the residential experience, and you learn a lot from students of different backgrounds. It’s harder to make those connections when all online, but it is propelling that conversation going forward.”
Davis-Bartl posits that the social sciences may see a surge in research focus, as our communities adapt to social isolation and the long, tech-filled days of distance education. During lockdowns, people are siloed, spending their days on Zoom Meetings. For her, it showed how hard it was to fully replicate face-to-face interactions and stressed the importance of relationship-building. The crisis also exposed the digital divide that exists in most states and how limiting that can be. She hopes that one outcome of this crisis will be more efforts to expand broadband internet access, so it is truly available to everyone.
The Future of E-Resource Librarianship
How will the role of digital resources and e-resource management in librarians change in future? One challenge of distance learning is the demand for all-online resources, when they are not always an adequate replacement for physical materials. Davis-Bartl says, “That's one of the things libraries had to struggle with when demand for e-resources began. Just because you can go online [for resources] doesn’t mean you don’t need print.”
One bright spot is the increased appreciation for e-resource librarians that she feels across her currently virtual campus. More than ever before, Davis-Bartl says that e-resources librarians are a pivotal position or team for libraries now, and that patrons and staff have a better sense of the behind-the-scenes work that goes on at the library and an appreciation for the people who do it.
Coming Together and Asking for Help
Going forward, what Davis-Bartl wants to remember about this time was the vast outpouring of support. What amazed her was “all of the library and industry colleagues, and publishers, reaching out to offer help and access, and how quickly especially STEM publishers put forth resources on COVID-19.“
The coming year holds many more unknowns for libraries, among other industries. As Davis-Bartl reminds us, that’s nothing new! “Libraries have been dealing with change for a long time, so no need to think libraries can't figure out how to make it work, no reason to be afraid to think that we can't do good things for our patrons.”
What does Davis-Bartl’s advise her colleagues? “Take advantage of your colleagues all over your campus library, and all of the state and national associations full of colleagues who want to share and support [you]. Don't be afraid to ask publishers and vendors for help. As librarians, we’re not great at self-promotion or asking for what we want. But, if you don't ask, you’ll never get it.”