Libraries in the time of Covid: Uppsala University Library
Interview of Peter Sjökvist, Rare Books’ Curator at Uppsala University.
What is your name and title, where do you work, and what kind of patrons do you normally have?
Peter Sjökvist, Rare Books’ Curator at Uppsala University (Sweden). Our patrons are in the first place students and researchers, but the library is also for the general public.
How has your institution been affected by COVID-19?
Our library has been affected in very many ways, but, in an international perspective, probably comparatively little. The library has, for instance, never been closed. Reading rooms have also been open, and so even our cafeteria (it actually opened for the first time in April, in the middle of the crisis). Nevertheless, many measures have been taken in order to secure safety for users and staff: The opening hours have been adjusted somewhat, and are now more limited. Many chairs have been removed from public spaces, so that the users of the library are now forced to keep the distance to each other. Information signs of different kinds remind the users always to keep distance, and a group of students have been hired as distance hosts in order to tell people being to close always to keep distance. Every second computer has been closed in the public spaces (see image). Protective glass has been installed at the desks, so that the staff and the users can keep distance. The library provides hand sanitizers to the staff and users alike. On the other hand, the staff is not allowed to use face masks at work (Sweden is probably an exception to all other countries in this respect). From time to time, big parts of the staff work from home, when this is possible, and most meetings are now online. This has, however, differed somewhat during the entire period. But on the whole, the library has hereby been able to start working digitally to a previously unseen degree.
What happened in your country during the Covid crisis and how did it affected your library/institution?
As many of you has probably heard, Sweden’s way of handling this crisis has been rather exceptional. Partly, that is because of the constitution of the country, which limits the possibilities even for the government to order strict measures to be taken. They can only give recommendations, advised by the Public Health Agency of Sweden. Mostly this has been working fine, leaving the decisions to be taken by individuals and each working place for itself. For instance, there has never been a full lock down in our country. Neither is there a general recommendation to wear face masks in any place. The recommendations given have nevertheless been strongly criticized in the domestic discussion, and it is a fact that Sweden has very high death rates: 7 354 have died because of Covid-19 (as of December 10), in a population of approximately 10 million. And the present situation is very alarming. As mentioned above, this has nevertheless affected Uppsala University Library comparatively little. Most university libraries in Sweden have closed completely or almost completely for certain periods, but this has not been the case here.
If you have been working from home, what kind of projects have you been working on? With what tools/organisation?
Working with rare books is not always easy from home. Personally, I have thus mostly been working in the university library, finishing a project on an Early Modern book collection. When working from home, I use the digital tools and methods available. I have been able to attend most meetings, workshops and symposiums from home, as well as working with details in online catalogues that do not demand physical access to the books. I have also worked with several book historical articles. A nice recurring event during this period has been that we have combined the afternoon coffee breaks with a small online crowd sourcing project. Those members of the staff who want meet on Zoom for one hour once a day in a Hackathon, in order to correct the textual errors in digital catalogue cards that are the results of OCR scanning. Hanging around and chatting while correcting catalogue cards has in fact been a quite popular daily happening, and a way to socialize.
Did your institution change its priorities/projects for the next few months/years?
Yes, in several ways. In fact, a big celebration was meant to take place in 2020 and 2021, being the 400 anniversary of the foundation of Uppsala University Library, with a lot of activities planned. The absolute majority of these have been cancelled or moved to online platforms. But in practice, very many plans have been changed or cancelled, always keeping the priority to do what practically manageable.
Do you think the crisis will affect your way of working in the long term?
Absolutely! Online meetings are definitely here to stay, not for all kinds of meetings, but to a much higher degree. From several perspective it has now been proven that there are also advantages with this forum. I think it has also been proven that rather much work can be carried out from home, with the same or even better result than what we were used to.