Rare Books and Special Collections Adapting to a Global Pandemic: Continuing our Webinar Conversation

The IFLA Rare Books and Special Collections section hosted a webinar, “Rare Books and Special Collections Adapting to a Global Pandemic” on February 10, 2021.  (The webinar recording is available from our blog.)  Because the panel did not have time to address all the questions that came in during the webinar itself, we promised to address additional questions in a follow up blog post.  Webinar moderator Meg Phillips, External Affairs Liaison at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, invited the panelists to address more of the questions by email, and this post is the result. 

The panelists are:

  • Stephanie Stillo
    Curator of the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress, United States
  • Adelaida Caro Martín
    Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts, National Library of Spain
  • Peter Sjökvist
    Curator, Uppsala University Library, Sweden
  • Makeswary Periasamy
    Senior Librarian, National Library Board, Singapore
Stephanie Stillo, Curator of the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, and Mark Dimunation, Chief of the Rare Book and Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress demonstrate new ways of working during the pandemic

How did you decide when to re-open, or how will you decide, if you haven’t opened yet? 

Makeswary: The library followed recommendations by the taskforce set up by the Health Ministry which was monitoring how well COVID-19 is being contained. The library closed when Singapore went into lockdown (what we call Circuit Breaker) on 7 Apr 2020. Known as Phase 1, only digital services were available. When the lockdown ended on 1st July 2020 (Phase 2), the library reopened with capacity limits, timed entry, and mandatory mask wearing. The IT department quickly designed an online booking system and users can check the library capacity using a link on our website. During the initial re-opening, libraries opened for shorter duration and users could only visit the National Library for three hours at a time. After each session, the reading rooms were sanitised before the next session. Physical collections were accessible within the reduced operating hours, while rare materials consultation was made available for two days a week only. Since the beginning of 2021, the libraries have opened for their usual opening hours with a limit on the number of users in the reading rooms.  Mask wearing is still mandatory. There is no time limit for weekday visits, but weekend visits are limited to three hours.

What do you anticipate might be lasting changes that you will continue to use going forward?  What is the “new normal” going to be like going forward?

Adelaida: More attention is being paid to digital services. There will be more employees teleworking and more tools and technologies to allow it.

Stephanie: The most important lasting changes are related to professional development. Access to professional development opportunities for Library staff has been truly extraordinary. Engagement in virtual events is actively creating new communities of practice and new social networks among Library staff and other institutions. While we do not envision virtual programming fully replacing onsite events, we do see the Library forming a new sense of responsibility to permanently participate in this emerging landscape of virtual learning and access.   

Was anyone involved with a project to help document the impact of the pandemic on your community?

Adelaida: The BNE is in charge of the Spanish Web Archive and has been recollecting information related to the pandemic since early March, with the collaboration of Spanish regional libraries. It currently has over 5.000 websites and around 70 Terabytes of information including official publications, citizen initiatives, social media profiles and hashtags, and videos.

Stephanie: The Library of Congress has been collecting materials documenting the impact of the pandemic through a variety of initiatives. The Library’s rapid-response collecting since the start of lockdowns and social distancing measures over the past year has included acquiring photographs that document the pandemic’s impact on individuals and communities, capturing artists’ responses to the outbreak, mapping the pandemic’s spread and archiving the world’s response online. The Library of Congress has published an itemized list of projects facilitated by the Library of Congress over the past year.

Makeswary: Since February 2020, the National Library Singapore have been archiving websites and television broadcasts, as well as collecting photographs and ephemera in order to capture and preserve the COVID-19 experiences in Singapore. Staff also managed to collect more than 1,000 photographs before the lockdown. Subsequently in May 2020, together with the National Museum of Singapore we launched a community call whereby individuals, communities and organisations were encouraged to contribute to the COVID-19 collection drive. The photographs are now available via our COVID-19 PictureSG website, while the oral history recordings have their own page.

Digitization: Do you have collections digitized so that you can provide copies to researchers in response to reference requests when the library is closed?  Has the pandemic made you rethink the role of digitization? 

Adelaida: We have digitized part of our collections, but the heritage collection of the BNE is huge (over 80.000 manuscripts and over 300.000 early printed books) and it will take a lot of time and money to digitize everything. We have seen a dramatic increase in the use of our digital collections, available through Biblioteca Digital Hispánca.

Peter: Digitization of all kinds of resources has been in focus for a long time already, so the role of digitization has not really changed. The need has, however, become a bit more urgent, since we have seen some increase of the demand for digital resources.  As for the Special Collections at Uppsala, our usual patrons are usually to a high degree researchers from other parts of Sweden or from abroad, so helping people at a distance is something that we normally do very often. From that perspective the Corona-situation has not really forced us to work differently, but rather to increase our digital and distance assistance to patrons.

Makeswary: We have been digitising our rare and special collections, especially those that refer to Singapore and Southeast Asia. These digitised copies are accessible via our online portal, BookSG. Over the years, we have also been offering more e-content to our library members via our eResources page.  Our online newspaper archive is also very popular. And yes, there was an increase in the use of digital collections during the pandemic.

What challenges did staff face working from home?  How did they address them? What has your library done to support staff wellbeing and safety?

Adelaida: When the general lockdown started and the BNE closed, few colleagues had the tools to work from home, as it was unusual. Providing most of the employees with tools for telework was the biggest challenge.

Stephanie: Our staff immediately transitioned to telework upon the onset of quarantine. There were many initial hurdles that, in my opinion, have turned into success stories. Before Covid, the Library had very little telework capability so beginning telework required the deployment of equipment to thousands of employees.  Library administration initiated weekly Fireside Chats that provided updates to all Library of Congress staff and included Q&A segments during which staff could ask live questions. Reference staff assessed and prioritized projects that were often neglected due to the everyday demands of patrons, including several exciting collection discovery projects, such as tidying catalog records and object files, creating a robust and searchable collection history, and provenance research.

Makeswary: When working from home, one has to deal with urgent work issues and at the same time manage distractions inherent in a family environment. Besides time management and other distractions, staff has to also ensure steady wi-fi access as well as space to do office work and a quiet corner to have official meetings.

Library management kept communication open and was very supportive and empathetic. They understood if staff did not wish to turn on the video function during online meetings and that sometimes the wi-fi signal can drop. IT issues were also sorted out so that staff can access their office laptop remotely without any hitch. Regular alerts were sent to remind staff to avail themselves of counseling services and on how to successfully manage a hybrid work environment. Online informal “coffee-break” sessions were also held every week to maintain rapport between staff.

How did you handle educational programming?  Do you have education software to assist in remote learning (Moodle, Canvas, etc)?

Adelaida: The BNE launched its project BNEscolar a couple of years ago and its content was very well received by the teaching community during the lockdown, when students had to learn from home.

Was the pandemic a blessing in disguise from the point of view of upskilling staff?

Makeswary: In order to ensure a nimble and adaptable workforce, training for library staff has always been an important priority. As the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown forced us to rethink our work priorities and the way we work, it also opened up new possibilities in staff training. Staff had to also equip themselves with new skills, so as to ensure the core services and collections are accessible by our patrons during this period. With the onset of the pandemic and the implementation of safe distancing measures, a lot more courses and talks are being conducted online. Staff have also been able to benefit from overseas programmes which enables them to learn library practices and processes in other libraries internationally.

How did your library use social media during the pandemic to increase user engagement?

Makeswary: Even before the pandemic occurred, we have been promoting our collections and services on the various social media platforms (such as YouTube videos and social media posts of rare and special collections). During the pandemic, our physical programmes shifted online, such as talks. We also launched learning packages and virtual exhibitions to ensure users are engaged with the library and its collections. We added a candid feature on the librarians, called Librarians@Home, whereby staff filmed a short video of themselves from home talking about their job and the library collections they deal with. We are mindful of keeping our social media postings and content concise, readable and engaging.

Has  anyone increased air circulation by opening doors and windows, or do you rely on heating and air conditioning for air circulation?

Adelaida:  We have increased air circulation by opening windows as much as possible. In closed spaces without windows, such as the stacks, we have to rely on mechanical systems for air circulation and cleansing.

Makeswary: All our library reading rooms have air-conditioning. The main doors are kept open to minimise patron contact with high-touch points.

When have you had to decline to help a researcher?  Is working from home voluntary in Sweden?

Peter: In reality, I have not declined, but rather found a new way to solve the problem. When a user of the Special Collections has asked for assistance with our physical catalogues, for instance, we would usually take the opportunity to teach the user to do so on his or her own, but now this is not possible. We also have a very limited number of seats available in the reading room, only half of the usual, in order to have a safe distance everywhere, so on some rare occasions researchers have not been allowed to enter the reading room at all.

There is a rather common view that there is business as usual in Sweden (especially, perhaps, in our neighboring countries), since we never had a complete lockdown, but that is very far from reality.  At my library, everyone that must not necessarily be at work is supposed to work from home and all meetings take place on Zoom. Only those who really must be at work are there now. And since I have to be there a lot, I am very grateful that so many people work from home.

Have any staff or patrons caught COVID-19 since last March?  Do your libraries do contact tracing?

Adelaida: Some colleagues have caught COVID-19 since our reopening in June. There is a protocol for action in such cases that includes contact tracing, medical tests and confinement at home. Luckily, there have been no contagions inside the institution.  

Makeswary: The National Library, like other organisations, implemented safe distancing measures, which included contact tracing. There were no cases of infection within the reading rooms.  

What were your overall lessons learned from your experience of 2020? 

Makeswary: Libraries as national/community institutions need to be resilient and adaptable. They can play an important role in information dissemination and community engagement. The pandemic accelerated the need to find new ways of engaging users and staff. The traditional ways of providing services to users and supervising staff are no longer feasible. We will continue to work in split teams and conduct digital programmes.

Most libraries have already embarked on digitisation of their key content and made it accessible online, but during the pandemic, it became more critical to provide seamless access to content for our users. Strengthening our technological infrastructure is necessary as libraries will have increased online presence and more user interactions online in future. Digital engagement may also mean reaching a wider audience, outside of one’s country.

I hope a situation like this does not occur again, but since we had experienced SARS before, we were prepared with a business continuity plan. After COVID, we are more confident of being able to leverage technology to reach out to users as well as enable staff to work from home. COVID has forced us to look at serving our users differently and these services may continue in the new normal. In future, library spaces may have to be designed differently to be flexible enough to accommodate social distancing.

Stephanie: Technology has been an essential stopgap, but cannot replace in-person interaction. Many staff have expressed how much their day-to-day interactions with colleagues made them feel tethered to something larger. No matter what the future holds, we must be vigilant and creative about maintaining those touchstones for our staff through virtual group meetings, slack groups, individual check-ins, “hallway meeting” zoom calls, etc. One of the most important lessons we have learned in our division is that we greatly benefit from being flexible and fluid and about staff duties. We have learned during that pandemic that our staff have strengths that challenge the Library’s traditional spheres of professional separation (public services, curatorial, administration). It is our hope that the introspection caused by the pandemic will make for a more effective and happy work environment.


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