Q: You’ve been wearing a lot of figurative hats at the Libraries these days. What is your job normally, and how has it changed since March?
My normal job is Head of Access & User Experience for the Science, Engineering & Social Science Libraries. I lead a really excellent team who work across 6 campus libraries to provide support to library users in gaining easy access to print books, course reserves, scan requests, offsite items, and books borrowed from other institutions. We aim to provide excellent and welcoming customer service and make it easy for library users to use and enjoy our library spaces.
So much has changed since March- not all of our locations are currently open, and use of library study space requires a reservation made in advance. Absolutely everything we do now is focused around health and safety- both for library staff and users. How can we keep everyone safe and still provide access to Columbia’s vast library resources and spaces? This underpins all of our day to day work now. Almost nothing from our former context is done in precisely the same way right now- that’s a lot of change management to move through with a lot of people- staff and users- in a very compressed time period.
Q: What’s it been like to reopen the Libraries after an unprecedented full closure?
Stressful but very gratifying! Students and faculty have been so thankful and excited about the services we’ve worked so hard to restore, adapt and even invent. The staff have been amazing- in a stressful time we’ve really pulled together as a team and are helping each other adjust. We have different schedules, are working in different locations (and sometimes remotely- also challenging), and collaborating together to create and refine new workflows and practices. Libraries have a history of innovation, but at the same time it can feel like change happens slowly. Right now, it doesn’t feel like that at all!
There are many silver linings- I’ve gotten to work closely with a lot of colleagues that I don’t often cross paths with. Within my own team it’s been nice to see staff who don’t normally work in the same library or work the same shift make new friends and enjoy learning new things.
Q: What’s your biggest priority when it comes to user experience in the Libraries now that we’re operating in a completely different way because of the pandemic?
The biggest priority is making sure library users are able to clearly understand what we are able to offer right now, and can smoothly get what they need and want out of the libraries while remaining safe. Communicating this much change clearly and to so many diverse communities across the University is a real challenge. Even in normal times, our Libraries offer access to so much, and provide so many opportunities to engage with our expert staff in varying contexts, explaining all the ways we can help people is always tough. But that’s one of those so called “good problems.” Luckily, when it comes to libraries, if you ever get stuck you can just ask a librarian.
Q: It seems like flexibility and adaptability have been important priorities these past few months. Any advice for people who might be compelled to work in libraries in the future, along those lines?
This is probably the case in many if not most professions, but accept that things will always be changing, and try and recognize the value in that as opposed to fearing it. If you can figure out why libraries appeal to you, what you like about them and why you value them, you can focus your energy on preserving those important things that libraries can do for people while they undergo changes. And you can do it while working and figuring stuff out with interesting people.