The Academic Library in the Era Before, During, and After COVID-19

A Message from Dean Edward Owusu-Ansah

Dr. Edward Owusu-Ansah Dean of Cheng Library

      I am often asked how dramatically the pandemic has changed the course of libraries. In contemplating the question, I find myself returning to the history of librarianship in the United States, its driving aspirations, and where those have led the profession since the early days of Melville Dewey's publication of his classification system (1876), contribution to the founding of the American Library Association (1876), and establishment of the world's first library school at Columbia College (1887). These achievements captured the essential elements that would define the profession: knowledge organization and curation, advocacy, and the educational and disciplinary underpinnings that would formalize librarianship as a profession and preserve its renewal for generations to come. Therein lay the genius of Dewey. The journey from 1876 to 2021 has been a fast-paced one for libraries, accelerating further with the official launching of the Internet on January 1, 1983, when the Transfer Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) communications standard was established, allowing for networks to be connected by a universal language.

     The knowledge collection and organization function of the library has remained a mainstay from its very beginnings in antiquity, some five thousand years before Dewey. The advocacy role of American libraries is now best articulated in the professional defense of unfettered access to information, information equity, and unyielding work as the guarantor of knowledge preservation and dissemination in support of knowledge acquisition, use, and creation. The American Library Association enshrined in its constitution the mission "To provide leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all." It adopted as its motto, "The best reading, for the largest number, at the least cost." It would also assert in reinforcing these principles that "Free access to the books, ideas, resources, and information in America's libraries is imperative for education, employment, enjoyment, and self-government."

     Lyman Ross and Pongracz Sennyey ("The Library is Dead, Long Live the Library! The Practice of Academic Librarianship and the Digital Revolution") provide a concise and provocative analysis of the developments and current challenges of academic librarianship. They conclude that "The internet has made a significant shift in the environment in which libraries find themselves and is making our professional assumptions seem as foreign as a medieval manuscript in chains." The transformations undergirding the shift are discussed in relation to library services, collections, and spaces, which the authors see as the fronts on which "the library's role and value were maximized in the analog environment." They note that services provided by the library catalog have lost much of their utility. The electronic version, the online public access catalog (OPAC), while it may be more precise than most web search engines, still fails as a resource discovery tool, a fact not lost on the profession with the ever-increasing deployment of additional discovery solutions designed to provide more comprehensive search outcomes than the OPAC.  Ross and Sennyey note that another critical service affected by the transition to a digital environment has been reference, which has seen a decline in engagements due to the success of library websites in lowering the barriers to access and the ease of use of electronic databases and full text content improving the self-sufficiency of patrons. Email and chat services have not succeeded in making up for the decline in reference interactions.

     Their observation on collections is prescient: "…the library's traditional mission of warehousing collections, around which so many of the library's services and operations revolve, is challenged as the physical collection is subsumed by the digital one." With documented patron preference for digital over print formats, library spaces are freeing up for repurposing. Solutions include more individual and group study spaces, incorporation of student support activities and services, and the addition of social spaces such as cafés. Acknowledging the trend, Laura Krier (Library Curriculum outside the Classroom: Connecting Library Services to Student Learning,") argues that the changes in the role of academic libraries over the last fifty years reflect changes in higher education and information technology brought on by "the birth of the internet, the large-scale shift to electronic resources, and the ease of access to all kinds of information. These have pushed librarians “to almost completely reinvent our work, the organization of our libraries, our budgets, and the very foundation of knowledge on which our profession is based." Krier concludes that the changes “have moved academic librarianship away from an access and service-focused paradigm and toward an educational and learning-focused one."

     The developments motivated by these changes are in motion here at Cheng Library, where the primacy of digital resources is an ongoing recognition, and acquisitions and collection development solutions, service models, and workflows are being designed and implemented to embrace the evolving paradigm in academic libraries. To do so, we are guided by professional standards such as the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) "Standards for Libraries in Higher Education," which identifies nine principles that academic libraries are encouraged to align with: 1. Contributing to institutional effectiveness; 2. Advancing intellectual freedom, intellectual property rights and values, user privacy and confidentiality, collaboration, and user-centered service; 3. Partnering in the educational mission of the institution to develop and support information-literate learners; 4. Enabling users to discover information in all formats; 5. Providing access to quality collections that are diverse, current, and support the institution's research and teaching missions; 6. Providing spaces that act as intellectual commons for users and ideas to interact in physical and virtual environments to expand learning and facilitate new knowledge creation; 7. Engaging in decision-making to inform resource allocation to meet the library's mission effectively and efficiently, 8. Providing sufficient number and quality of personnel to ensure excellence and to function successfully in an environment of continuous change, 9. Engaging the campus and broader community to advocate, educate, and promote the value of libraries.

     While the transition to digital resources in libraries across the nation began far before the pandemic, and significant strides have already been made toward serving remote clients wherever they may be and whenever they may need library resources, COVID-19 nonetheless reinforced and added greater urgency to the importance of digital collections that are widely and readily available and accessible. The need to develop discovery solutions that empower users to operate independently in their information discovery, construction of robust user education and support solutions that are appealing, effective, widely diffused, and adequately publicized, and the building of virtual collaboration and communication channels are now no brainers. Librarians anticipated these needs as the digital age dawned upon us and have worked on many successful solutions to address them. A profession that had hitherto worked tirelessly to create independent and efficient information seekers and users was ready when maintaining physical distance between its users and their virtual access to needed information and knowledge became an imperative. This liberation of the library user and the enrichment of the discovery experience is an ongoing professional charge. It started before COVID-19, remains relevant in the pandemic, and will continue to be an important commitment of libraries in the future.   

     The lessons of COVID-19 in higher education also reminds us of the challenging economies within which we operate. We cannot be oblivious to such critical ACRL performance indicators like library contribution to student recruitment, retention, time to degree, and academic success, clean and adequate spaces, convenient hours, access to collections properly aligned with areas of research and curricular foci of the institution as well as institutional strengths, and the continuous examination and transformation of personnel roles to meet the needs of an evolving organization. It is incumbent upon librarians to ensure that libraries serve their publics in ways that those publics appreciate and can afford.

We look forward to your input as we work on positioning your library to do that.

Happy New Year, and welcome back!


February 10, 2021