How the Dal Libraries stay open when they're closed

- April 24, 2020

Members of the Dalhousie Libraries Academic Technology Services team currently providing Brightspace. Clockwise from upper left: Carlye Stein, Norbert Addo, Michelle McDonald, Mike Duggan. (Provided photos)
Members of the Dalhousie Libraries Academic Technology Services team currently providing Brightspace. Clockwise from upper left: Carlye Stein, Norbert Addo, Michelle McDonald, Mike Duggan. (Provided photos)

When the Dal Libraries closed most of its physical locations on March 18 due to COVID-19, it meant the Dal and broader communities losing access to hundreds of thousands of print books and journals, study spaces and face-to-face library services. It also meant much-used computer labs were now inaccessible as well.

With all classes moving online within a matter of weeks the dean of libraries as well as the provost and the vice-provost student affairs were hearing from concerned students and knew they had a gap to help fill. At first, the Kellogg Library Learning Commons (KLLC) in the CHEB remained open after other Dal Libraries locations closed, mainly to provide computers for students in an accessible space in the middle of campus.

“Not long after, the public health guidelines severely reduced the size of gatherings that were allowed, from 50 to five, and we had to close the space,” says Donna Bourne-Tyson, dean of libraries. “We knew that meant a number of students would be left without computer access and unable to finish the term, so we had to act quickly.”

Loaning laptops to help students

The day after the KLLC closed, the Libraries were ready to start loaning the laptops they had on hand. Laptop loaning is a regular service offered by the Dal Libraries, but the Libraries had never loaned laptops as a curbside pick-up service, or for such extended loan periods.

The ‘emergency’ service ran out of the atrium and the back door of the Killam Library. The dean of libraries, joined by Janice Slauenwhite, Nancy Melvin, Helen Wojcik, and Jim Kennedy, arranged pick-up appointments over email and set up students with laptops while observing the rules of social distancing. Graham Perkins and Michelle Francis of the Academic Technology Services team (ATS), the in-house IT department of the Dal Libraries, prepped all the laptops with the appropriate software.

It didn’t take long for the Libraries to exhaust their on-site supply of laptops. “At one point, Janice had to zip over to Staples to buy ten laptops, which Graham in ATS then quickly prepped for loaning the next day,” saysBourne-Tyson. “Once the need for laptops on the Agricultural Campus was filled, Elaine MacInnis drove some laptops to Halifax as well.” (MacInnis is the associate dean of library services and head of the MacRae Library.)

Since March 13, the Libraries have loaned over 40 laptops. “The students are very grateful when picking up their laptops, and we appreciate how patient they have been as they sometimes had to wait a day or two for more laptops to come in,” says Bourne-Tyson. Students have the laptops until April 30 and the loans can be renewed.

Extending loans while continuing book drops

In addition to loaning laptops, the Libraries is serving both the Dalhousie community and, in some cases, the larger community in general through a number of other initiatives.

When public and university libraries around the province closed their physical spaces in March, many also closed their book drops, instead extending their loan dates and encouraging people to hold on to their books for the time being. Novanet extended all due dates to May 30.

“We understand the rationale for closing the book drops, but we wanted to keep the option to return items available to our students and others, especially those heading to a home out of province,” says MacInnis. “There were a lot of people, particularly at Dalhousie, who had library items they wanted to return before they left Halifax. We didn’t want students to worry about how they were going to get their books back and allowing them the option to return their library books took that stress away.

“Additionally, we are part of the provincewide Borrow Anywhere, Return Anywhere program, and as one of the few book drops remaining open, we have been receiving returns of books from libraries across the province.”  

All five Dal Libraries locations have kept their book drops open and staff take turns coming in to safely empty and sort through the returns. Some days there are as many as 30 books returned that belong to other academic and public libraries throughout Nova Scotia. “We are keeping the books safe for the other institutions, ready to ship them back to their home libraries when normality returns,” says Jim Kennedy, one of the staff members who has been on book drop duty.

Expanding Live Help support

One of the Libraries’ services that has seen an increase in “open” hours and the number of staff available to assist is Live Help, a chat-based way for students and faculty to engage with the Dal Libraries. Live Help is a Novanet-wide service, staffed by librarians, other library personnel and Master of Information (MI) students who provide reference and research assistance.

“In the weeks before the closure of the Libraries’ physical spaces, we started training additional staff on how to do Live Help as we anticipated an increased demand on the service,” says MacInnis. “Many of the Dal Libraries staff stepped up for the training. Throughout the spring term, we’re going to keep the service open until 8 p.m. through the week, when normally the service would end at 4 p.m.

“Erin MacPherson, our Research Data Management Librarian based at the MacRae Library on the Agricultural Campus, is the provincial coordinator of Live Help. She did a tremendous job organizing the additional training required and logistics behind the expanded staffing.”

The Live Help service covers help finding an article or a subject guide as well as help with requests for Document Delivery, citation assistance and account inquiries. For more in-depth research questions, the librarians are still available for appointments, all handled remotely. The subject liaisons are listed here, alphabetically by topic, and they can be reached by email.

Course Reserves is another essential service the Libraries have kept running that has also seen an increase in demand as more courses have moved online. Faculty submit their course reading lists and library staff find the content, get the copyright clearances, digitize the content if it doesn’t already exist in an electronic format, and enter the content into the course space on Brightspace.

“We know faculty rely on this service and we fully expected to see an increase in these requests because our print collections are not as accessible now. We want to support faculty in any way we can, and we are especially sensitive to the needs of those faculty members who are more dependent on our print collections,” says Bourne-Tyson. The coordinator of this service, Nancy Melvin, comes in as needed to retrieve print items that need to be cleared for copyright and then digitized. Other Dal Libraries’ staff are also supporting this service.

Contributing PPE, supporting Brightspace

Perhaps the most unexpected way the Libraries have responded to the COVID-19 crisis thus far was by contributing to the university-wide drive of medical Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) organized by Jerry Aguinaga, director of the Environmental Health and Safety Office.

“We were very happy to donate a significant number of N95 masks and Nitrile gloves that the Archives and the MacRae Library had, left over from various renovating projects,” says Bourne-Tyson.

“We are also aware of ways that 3D printers can be put into service in the fight against COVID-19, such as printing ventilator parts and face shields, but we have not yet found a project that is appropriate for the recreational grade of printers that we own. We do have some wonderful in-house experts who are willing to undertake that kind of project, so we are keeping our eyes open for such an opportunity.”

In addition to the 3D printers, the Dal Libraries’ ATS team also manages the IT Help Desks and Brightspace, providing training for faculty and back-end technical support. To address the recent mass move to remote teaching, their team grew exponentially in a matter of days. Dozens of graduate students who had completed the Certificate in University Teaching and Learning were hired and trained in how to provide Brightspace support for faculty.

ATS, in partnership with the Centre for Learning & Teaching, also introduced a virtual Brightspace support service that runs daily from 9 a.m.–8 p.m., and on the weekends from 9 a.m.–3 p.m. Faculty and students can contact to reach the IT Help Desk for general IT assistance or for more specific Brightspace support.

“Libraries are the heart of any community, and we strive to be the virtual heart of Dalhousie online. Our staff is what makes the Dal Libraries so outstanding, and over the past month, they have demonstrated flexibility, compassion, and ingenuity as we continue to support our communities in any way we can, under these extremely challenging conditions,” says Bourne-Tyson. “I am proud of the work they’re doing for Dalhousie and the greater community.”


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