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2020 in Review: Challenges and Triumphs for LIS Professionals in the Time of COVID

2020 in Review: Challenges and Triumphs for LIS Professionals in the Time of COVID

December 23, 2020

2020 is coming to a close with the arrival of vaccines and the return of lockdowns and closures for many Canadians as COVID-19 continues to impact how we work and live.

Despite stress and uncertainty for much of the last year, the Canadian library and information management community has been able to adapt to the changing climate and provide much-needed services to their communities.

Over the last few weeks, members of the community have been invited to reflect on experiences and lessons learned from the past year and share their perspectives on the challenges and highlights of their organizations from this past year:

Alexandra Yarrow

Manager, Board & Strategic Services at Ottawa Public Library

What was the greatest challenge your library/organization had to overcome during the pandemic?

Our biggest challenge was nurturing and growing our relationships with customers entirely virtually for a few months, and then both virtually and in-person (but in new ways!) since then.

We built virtual programming from scratch, our InfoService team answered customer calls and emails from home and added virtual 1:1 appointments (for help with e-readers, RA, research etc), we brought back deliveries to homebound clients in their own homes as soon as we could, and we helped residents stay connected by providing Chromebooks and wifi hotspots to organizations working with vulnerable populations, and outdoor wifi in priority neighbourhoods.

We provided “Grab and Go” selections to help customers who missed having the ability to browse our collections when this was not possible, and we organized virtual outreach for students, daycares, community association members, newcomer groups, and book clubs.

We did all this – like so many other libraries did – while basically designing entirely new in-person services (first curbside, then “contactless”, then enhanced services), and while making difficult decisions such as placing some employees on declared emergency leave. 2020 was also a year in which many seemingly simple tasks or jobs suddenly became quite complex.

We found ourselves analyzing performance data quickly to make informed decisions often in only a few days, and trying to craft clear, consistent, and regular messages about our services to help residents and employees facing information overload and lots of personal and professional stress.

What are two highlights for your library/organization from this past year?

Our virtual programming: While residents had 85% fewer library programs to choose from this year, compared to previous years’ in-person programs, more than 3 times as many attended our virtual programs! We hosted over 400 online programs for close to 28,000 viewers (up to 3500 for an individual program). Increasing our visibility, and making programs more accessible for many residents, led to more community partners reaching out to the Library to partner with them:, we partnered with the City for Orange Shirt Day and the Ottawa Book Awards, we are working with the National Arts Centre for an Indigenous authors’ series in 2021, and we are even planning programs with the City’s Waste Management department about reducing waste via Repair Cafés!

Our work to support digital inclusion: As we know, Canada has some of the highest internet costs, which disproportionately impacts the ability of seniors, people with disabilities, racialized individuals, newcomers, and many others to access technology needed to stay connected with work, school, healthcare workers, or family supports. Ottawa is no exception. We have worked with 35 community agencies in Ottawa to provide over 200 Chromebooks and over 20 wifi hotspots to residents living in shelters, transitional housing, and community housing, as well as those struggling to find employment or navigate the criminal justice system.

Jennifer Valiquette (Court Worker) and Greg Meekis (Bail Supervisor) from Odawa Native Friendship Centre holding up Chromebooks and a wifi hotspot borrowed from OPL for their clients

Talia Chung

University Librarian & Vice-Provost at University of Ottawa

What was the greatest challenge your library/organization had to overcome during the pandemic?

In my view, some of the biggest challenges came with the rapidity with which the pandemic hit in mid-March.  We knew very little about the virus, its transmissibility and its ease of transmission. This made agile and nimble planning and very frequent communications essential in the first few months beginning in March. In summer it became clear that the pandemic would persist for many more months and even up to and beyond a year. This required our library to move from crisis response mode and we settled into a mode to best support distance operations and services albeit still under difficult circumstances (both for library users and library employees). The physicality of library work, specifically managing physical facilities (library buildings) and physical library materials (books, journals) has required our library to carefully think through all workflows, service models and safety considerations down to a level of detail which often felt as if we were rebuilding services from scratch. The use of digital proxies, such as Hathitrust-ETAS, to give access to in-copyright materials held by libraries, has pushed the boundaries of how libraries provide access to intellectual content held in our collections.

What are two highlights for your library/organization from this past year?

In contrast to the experience of many university departments, the overwhelming and almost immediate shift to library services offered exclusively via digital means has been accomplished without encountering too many barriers. This demonstrates the true value of libraries’ thoughtful investments in good digital stewardship, infrastructure and service development throughout the years.

I am also hugely proud of the resilience demonstrated by our library team – creatively developing approaches to stay connected with students (a library virtual care package for students) but as well, very intentional efforts to stay connected to one another (we held our annual employee development event, stretching it over a month rather than over a single week and included numerous virtual learning and social events; we also capitalized on functionality offered by teleworking platforms such as Microsoft Teams to create both professional interest communities, such as online instruction tips,  as well as personal interest communities – my favourite is our pet channel, “Paws-Café” – a play on “pause café” which translated from French is coffee break or break time).

Astrid Lange

Library and Research Specialist at Toronto Star

What was the greatest challenge your library/organization had to overcome during the pandemic?

My colleague and I both consider ourselves lucky because we are still able to work during the pandemic. News media was considered an “essential service” from the get-go, and since most of our library resources are online, our small department of two research librarians was able to easily pivot to working from home.

Reporters and editors email us their research requests and we answer them as they arrive. But not being able to speak to these patrons in person can sometimes be a detriment. Especially when there is an immediate deadline, conducting a proper reference interview via an email exchange can waste valuable time. And without a good reference interview, we may waste our time going down the wrong research path.

Moreover, when we’re in the office, my library colleague and I sit next to each other and we got into the habit of casually discussing ideas and processes in person. This has led to some great research breakthroughs and attempting to replicate that environment online is difficult. An in-person environment is great for collaboration.

Astrid Lange (left) and Rick Sznajder in the office, 2017

What are two highlights for your library/organization from this past year?

1. How easily we were able to move to working from home. I had attended a few emergency preparedness workshops with our IT department a few years ago, so I knew that we couldn’t keep valuable reference resources on a hard drive at the office. So, I copied and moved essential resources to files in a Google Drive that could easily be accessed by me and my colleague. Other online resources were neatly organized on an intranet (accessible through a VPN) I had designed many years ago. This organization meant my colleague and I could hit the ground running as soon as we were sent home from the office.

2. Starting up a new project for our newsletter editor, which allowed us to make great use our photo archive. In late March, the Toronto Star’s newsletter editor approached our department about using the wealth of pictures in our newspaper’s photo archive and wanted to include archival photos in the daily newsletter First Up! So we set out to create a separate, smaller photo archive for newsletter use, again using a Google Drive. It has become a useful resource not only for the newsletter editor, but also for our photo department and our newsroom in general, since we are actively looking for interesting and newsworthy photos buried in our massive photo archive.

Anita Brooks Kirkland

Consultant, Libraries & Learning

What was the greatest challenge your library/organization had to overcome during the pandemic?

The pandemic has had a serious impact on K-12 education, and school libraries in particular. Many school districts have closed their libraries or restricted access. In many cases school library professionals have found innovative ways to get books into the hands of kids nevertheless, and to provide instructional support and resource access virtually. In many cases, however, staff have been re-assigned to classroom or administrative duties. Loss of school library services and supports is having a serious impact on students’ learning and on their access to reading.

For Canadian School Libraries the challenge has been to support teacher-librarians, librarians, and library technicians as they advocate for their students’ needs, and as they radically shift their own practice to new contexts.

We started by getting a sense of the big picture, gathering information from school library associations across the country. Soon after schools re-opened in September 2020, the CSL Board of Directors published and shared our Statement on the Role of School Libraries During the Pandemic / Énoncé sur le rôle des bibliothèques scolaires en temps de pandémie, which has been widely shared nationally and internationally, and had some success in clarifying issues.

We also created a resource full of ideas for how schools could leverage the school library for learning: Leverage Your LLC: Pandemic Partner for Learning. We have published two editions of Canadian School Libraries Journal over the past few months, with articles full of ideas, challenges and success stories.

Image from the Canadian School Libraries Journal Fall 2020 Edition.

Despite these positive steps, the pandemic has exacerbated the erosion of school library standards and funding across the country, and we remain extremely concerned about the situation post-pandemic. In education, cuts made are rarely reversed. CSL is now part of a coalition of organizations, the Save School Libraries Coalition which is advocating for open, well-staffed school libraries for students across the country. Despite all the challenges of the current situation, CSL has tried to galvanize the approach from school library professionals, and we are gratified to see innovation and leadership taking the spotlight.

What are two highlights for your library/organization from this past year?

One of the most important parts of CSL’s mandate is to foster “made in Canada” research about the school library learning commons, chiefly through our biennial symposium and think tank, Treasure Mountain Canada (TMC). Through the miracle of great timing, we were able to hold our sixth and most successful symposium, TMC6, January 31 to February 1, in partnership with the Ontario Library Association Super Conference. Our theme was Participatory Learning in the Library Learning Commons. The discussion was invigorating, and we have now added 23 new papers to the CSL Research Archive.

I would have to say that our other highlight of this unusual year has been the quality of the articles we have been privileged to publish in CSL Journal‘s Spring and Fall 2020 editions. Dealing with the realities of education during the pandemic has been challenging, yet we have so many stories of innovation that will influence practice in the coming months and into the future, post-pandemic. Stimulating reading for librarians from all sectors!

Salvy Trojman

Country Manager – Canada – GALE

What was the greatest challenge your library/organization had to overcome during the pandemic?

For our organization, one of the toughest phases of the pandemic was right at the beginning. We transitioned head office staff to work from home immediately (March 13). Field staff were told not to visit libraries and work from home. We gathered information from libraries to determine what they needed from us. Business norms surrounding profits and future projects became meaningless during the initial triage.

We were determined to support libraries with their content and service requirements. We knew their digital collections and services would be all they could offer once their physical spaces and physical collections were quarantined. We knew their budgets would be under siege. It was not a time to raise prices. It was a time to listen and find out what was needed from us. We had dozens of consultative meetings over zoom. They helped us chart a course forward as a trusted information partner.

What are two highlights for your library/organization from this past year?

Bringing librarians together over zoom and moderating events became an important part of my mental health. I was sure that others needed to feel connected as well. I’m part of a small group of Librarians, Publishers and Vendors that normally see each other at the Alberta Library Conference. When the pandemic hit, we zoomed every other week. It was very helpful to share what was going on in everyone’s work and personal life. We have since switched to bi-monthly zooms. I have also pulled out the guest list of conference dinners past and invited them to a zoom gathering. It’s been a great way to reunite people that have sat down to break bread in the past. To enhance the experience, I issue UberEats vouchers that can be used to order food on the day of the meeting.

The second highlight was helping Academic Libraries with their Gale recurring fees. We are proud to announce a program with CRKN members that will potentially save them over $1.5 Million USD over the next 10 years. Helping libraries by creating sustainable business models has always been part of our ethos at Gale. The pandemic has brought a sharper focus to helping Libraries be successful.

Melanie Sucha

Chief Information Officer at Brandon University

What was the greatest challenge your library/organization had to overcome during the pandemic?

We were going through organizational change at the same time, with new leadership and merging of Library and IT Services into one unit.

What are two highlights for your library/organization from this past year?

We started offering virtual reference services, which we hadn’t done before, and found that it worked better than expected; we think we’ll keep offering it after the pandemic ends, as it creates more flexibility in our service delivery – especially serving a campus community with many rural students and with harsh winter driving conditions!

Now working with IT Services, we also partnered with Centre for Teaching and Learning to support the campus in the rapid transition to online learning. IT rapidly formalized our online teaching and learning technology suite and adopted an online proctoring solution. CTLT and IT work together to provide structured training opportunities for Faculty. The Library updated online guide resources and created new guides as well, to capture this new knowledge in a centralized location for Faculty and Students alike. Faculty restructured their course delivery successfully: some of them were not fans of classroom technologies before and are now using it with ease. When it was necessary, we learned we could move quickly. As a small institution, we leveraged our relationships with one another to do that.

Daniel Boivin

Executive Director, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean at OCLC

What was the greatest challenge your library/organization had to overcome during the pandemic?

For us at OCLC Canada, working remotely was not a problem. We are all used to doing this from time to time. Also, for those us of traveling regularly, working from home is, after all, almost like working from a hotel room!

The greatest challenge has been to find ways to reach our users and customers when nobody was at work and answering the phone. It took a while for everybody in libraries to settle down and start mastering the new communication tools (videoconference, Web tools and even use personal cell phones). It is still a challenge to “talk” to someone but it has improved. One just needs a bit more patience as contacts and confirmation often needs to happen by email first, then schedule a call and we can have a discussion.

The second challenge has been to find appropriate ways to present some of or solutions entirely over the Web. For those that are easy to understand and to learn, we continued doing pretty much the same things but for other more complex solutions with longer selection and implementation cycles, the dynamic is today quite different now.

What are two highlights for your library/organization from this past year?

This may sound commercial but, it is truly a highlight. When the pandemic started, we were in the middle of the implementation and training of all the BCI libraries (Quebec university libraries). The second round of on-site training was planned a week or two after we all went home. Amazingly enough, in a matter of a week or two, BCI and OCLC had agreed to move everything online, had adjusted the plan with more Web and Q&A sessions, and have continued towards meeting the targeted go live date.

The original plan was delayed a bit but everybody caught up and BCI libraries went live as expected in June 2020. This is truly an amazing accomplishment for BCI libraries because everybody was home so they had to run planning meetings, management discussions and so on all through the cloud and they made it (well, it is also quite an amazing job done by the OCLC team).

Second highlight for me is more personal. I have been travelling for work for more than 25 years. Staying put and not even having to drive to work meant a serious change in my routine. It could have been a serious challenge for me and for my family that was not used to see me that often. Today, I walk from one room to the other in my house and that is all the traveling I do for my job! No worries though, my family and I have adjusted very well.

Don’t read me wrong, I miss meeting and seeing colleagues at OCLC and in libraries in person but since it has been a bit easier to stay in touch with everybody lately, I/we find ways to manage and cope. Who would have thought working 100% of the time remotely and from home was going to be our new normal not even 12 months ago?

Brent Roe

University Librarian at Laurentian University

What was the greatest challenge your library/organization had to overcome during the pandemic?

During the first months of the pandemic, there was much uncertainty among our personnel about the fairly sudden closure of the physical library and the need to work from home. While the faculty librarians were quickly able to shift much of their work (information literacy instruction, research consultations, collection development, scholarly work, committee participation, etc.) to an at-home and online format, this was not so easy in the case of many of our support staff members. Their work is heavily based on working with the physical library collection or on assisting library patrons with access to physical items; they were also less likely to have good computers or ergonomic furniture at home than the librarians, so that even work that could be done at home was not done easily. Everyone suddenly had to learn to love Zoom or other video conferencing platforms. Those who were employed on contract or part-time also had legitimate fears of losing their employment. Parents of young children, who could no longer go to school, also had to try to work around their childcare as best they could.

I would say that just learning to work productively in these very new circumstances was collectively our greatest organizational challenge as a library. It has not been easy, and not all stories have ended happily, but on the whole the library personnel has risen to the challenge quite admirably.

What are two highlights for your library/organization from this past year?

When the library closed and all of the staff had to work from home, some of them did not have a lot of regular work to do, at least in the beginning. They were encouraged to use their time to engage in some professional learning. Some enrolled in the online workshops that the university’s Human Resources office began to offer in greater numbers; one took the time to finally learn to use Google Docs, Sheets and Drive; another spent time learning library terms in French (important as Laurentian is a bilingual university); another registered in a multi-day online conference on GIS services—and so on. I have been impressed with our staff members’ commitment to using their worktime well and to learning to be better at their work, but we can “thank” the pandemic for the opportunity.

As summer brought a lowering of COVID-19 caseloads in the province and some staff members could look forward to going back to work physically in the still-closed library, although respecting strict safety protocols, we needed to envision how we could offer library services that we had never offered before. To provide some access to the physical collection of the library, our service counter staff worked together to plan and deliver a curbside pickup service and an article and chapter scanning service. These services have proven quite popular. When it became clear that details needed adjustment, the staff met and decided what needed to be done. As the University Librarian, I am embarrassed to admit it, but I had not even realized that a scanning service was planned along with the curbside pickup service until the services were almost launched!

Emily Farrell

Chief Executive Officer at Brockville Public Library

What was the greatest challenge your library/organization had to overcome during the pandemic?

The greatest challenge we have faced is managing the unknown.

In the spring, there was so much we didn’t know about COVID-19 and, frankly, there still is. Library professionals tend to thrive on information; not knowing something (or being able to find the information) throws us off balance. Uncertainty and the unknown is unsettling for everyone, regardless of profession, and managing this anxiety has been a huge part of my work since the spring. Creating a workplace and public space where people feel safe and supported has been my utmost priority, and how we make things safe has changed several times since March.

Much of my time is now spent checking in with staff, listening, and doing my best to support. The importance of mental health supports have never been more apparent and I feel that all organizations need to be addressing this in their workplaces or run the risk of COVID-19 burnout with their staff. We had mental health supports in place already in our workplace and it has been important for me, as the CEO, to lean into that. It takes extra time but, in my opinion, it is time well spent.

What are two highlights for your library/organization from this past year?

One thing that I (and, I think, the rest of the team) have learned is that we are better together. Separation and isolation takes its toll; however, we can adapt in order to connect with people in ways that are still meaningful. One thing that COVID-19 has done is stripped away all the extra, until we are left with our core purpose, which is to help people. We have continuously adapted in order to meet people where they need us. We created isolation recreation calendars in the spring, we created TinkerLab To Go bags for families in the summer, and we reconfigured our public space to incorporate feedback from our customers in order to best meet their needs.

COVID-19 has shown me that we have an amazing team at the Brockville Public Library; they are strong, caring, compassionate, and resilient – I am proud to be their leader. Our Social Committee has run fun contests, like a quarantine bingo, which bring light to the darkness and help us all to laugh in the face of hardship. Despite all of the uncertainty we’ve faced, we are getting through this together.

Have Your Say!

What were the challenges and the highlights in 2020 for you or for your organization?

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