The Reopened Academic Library: Strategies for the Support and Safety of Students and Staff

Photo of a bookshelf at an academic library

“We’re already seeing … you tell someone to cover their nose with their mask and they roll their eyes at you. Our staff have a lot of anxiety. But we’re all in this together.”

“We need students to physically distance and stay safe, and to wear masks, but the academic library is not set up to be, and doesn’t need to be, the ‘COVID police’; what do we do?”

by Daniel Fusch, Academic Impressions

In mid-August, we held a four-hour virtual workshop in which academic library leaders from across North America convened to share challenges and strategies as they prepare for the fall. Amid all the uncertainty and unpredictability, one thing is clear: For many institutions, the academic library – long core to both the academic and social life of the campus – is only going to be more critical this fall. This is the case both for institutions that have a reopened physical campus and for institutions that are primarily virtual, at which the academic library may be one of the few sites on campus that remains open to the campus community.

Our virtual workshops are unique in providing a space where participants can connect with their peers and leading experts and review scenarios, problem solve, and brainstorm solutions together in realtime. I want to share with you just a few of the ideas that arose during a deep discussion of how to maintain a safe and welcoming environment in the academic library during this unusual fall.

You can purchase a recording of the full workshop here.

5 Quick Ideas for Enabling Social Distancing in the Physical Space of the Library

Our participants compiled a list of tips and tactics for encouraging social distancing as students, faculty, and staff return to the physical library. Here is a sampling of their ideas:

  1. Use greenery to create defined spaces without having to erect many physical partitions. This way, you can create welcoming learning and social spaces even while lightly “enforcing” social distancing.
  2. Put signage at the points where students need to be reminded. Signage by chairs and desks can advise students to “mask when you move,” for example. Make sure that signage is branded with the university’s primary messaging about protecting the campus community during the pandemic, and keep the signage focused on one or two core messages – the most critical, quick reminders that you want students to keep in mind.
  3. Switch off water fountains but keep water bottle fillers operating.
  4. Consider a usage roster that limits occupancy in the library – and/or use an app like StackMap on your library website to allow students, faculty, and staff to check the current occupancy of the library to make a more informed decision about whether to visit the physical library that day.
  5. Let users know how the space has changed before they get there. For example, one university is taking videos of the reconfigured library space. Users may have previously had favorite spaces that are now gone. Creating videos that provide a virtual tour of the space can help lessen the “shock” of returning to a changed library and can also get users thinking proactively about how to use the reconfigured space in ways that work for them. It can also limit confusion; you can provide quick video tutorials – playing both on the library website and on screens near the physical library entrance – that answer questions such as how many people can use an elevator, how to get to other floors and navigate the library, how to check out a book, etc.

Supporting Your Users

Most of all, in planning to meet library users’ needs while also keeping the library a safe environment, it’s critical to get specific and up to date information on what the most critical user needs actually are. Some may have changed during the pandemic. To get a clearer picture:

  • Survey library users on what they missed most when the library was inaccessible or less accessible.
  • Take a look at questions asked by chat, email, or phone over the summer – what are the new FAQs?
  • Have staff report observations on how people are actually using the space (e.g., by filling out a form at the end of their shift).
  • Invite library users to participate in a digital journaling project such as this one at Grand Valley State University. Capturing their stories and challenges can inform efforts to meet the most critical user needs while maintaining a safe environment while also establishing a valuable document of this unprecedent time in your campus’s history.

Supporting Your Staff

One of our facilitators advised, “You need to think through two questions:

  • What do we need to do to enable spaces to accommodate social distancing?
  • What do we not need to enforce?”

For example, at her academic library, if students enter in a group and then sit in a group on the floor, the staff will not enforce social distancing, but they are doing what they can to enable social distancing by separating the furniture. What they will enforce is masking. “Your staff need to be very clear on what you’ll enable and what you’ll enforce.”

Our participants also concluded that it is absolutely critical to provide conflict de-escalation training for library staff. It is highly likely that staff will encounter angry and even belligerent or hostile patrons. “People crave normalcy,” one facilitator of the workshop noted. “Library users will have expectations about what it’s like to visit the library. As these expectations get upset, people may get angry quickly. Everyone is stressed.” Grand Valley State University is preparing for this by training all library staff in de-escalation, including starting from a place of empathy, asking open-ended questions rather than making assumptions about intent, and scripts for defusing conflict in the moment. One excellent practice in de-escalation training is to engage staff in roleplays, which allows opportunity to practice the scripts and the skills.

Finally, many librarians in this virtual workshop agreed that it is essential to be absolutely clear with staff about when and whether to call campus safety. “There may be an expectation,” one librarian suggested, “that we do not want to see campus safety escorting students out of the building. Is that a last resort?” Whatever the protocol, be clear with staff, train, and roleplay potential situations that may arise.

This has been a brief sampling from a recent live discussion of the challenges of re-opening the library. If you see a useful tip, share it with your colleagues! That’s how we will navigate this fall – by sharing our best ideas and putting our heads together as we work to resolve complex and (in some cases) unprecedented conundrums.

You can register for a recording of the full workshop, which includes templates, sample signage, sample staff newsletters, and more information about software, de-escalation trainings, and other resources academic libraries can use this fall. We also invite you to take a look at our resources and trainings on faculty success.