One year later: Dal Libraries dean on reimagining services and support in a pandemic

- April 29, 2021

The atrium of the Killam Memorial Library. (File photo)
The atrium of the Killam Memorial Library. (File photo)

When COVID-19 forced Dalhousie to close its campus in March 2020, it created unprecedented challenges and disruptions to people’s lives, educational experiences and careers.

Since then, the Dal community has found new and notable ways to teach, forge connections and be of service. As we complete a full year within these circumstances, we’re checking in with a few of Dal’s academic and senior leaders to learn how their communities overcame obstacles and found opportunity, and to commemorate the effort that’s gone in to getting it done.

How do the Dal Libraries stay “open” when the campus must close? That was the challenge Donna Bourne-Tyson, dean of Libraries, and her team faced in the spring of 2020 and beyond.

Below, Bourne-Tyson offers a glimpse into how her team rose to the occassion and some of the creative approaches they've taken to achieve goals.

How did the upheaval brought on by COVID-19 impact the Dalhousie Libraries?

It affected us in every area of our operations. So much of what people think of when they think of the Dal Libraries are our beautiful spaces and the books on the shelves, but we are much more than that. Even before the pandemic, the Dal Libraries provided many services and resources online, and thought of our website as a virtual branch library. Beyond the wide range of research library services, spaces and resources, we do other things that some people don’t think of when they think of the Dal Libraries. The pandemic required us to rapidly modify the wide range of existing services, and it seemed like the Libraries senior leadership team spent the first month in planning meetings night and day. I was very impressed and grateful for the patience and stamina demonstrated as we worked through the logistics to provide services while keeping everyone safe.

We support online teaching through the management of Brightspace and provide instructional technical support for faculty through our Academic Technology Services (ATS) team and Brightspace support for students through our IT Help Desks. As you can imagine, when face-to-face classes suddenly stopped in March 2020, we saw dramatic changes, literally overnight, when our instructional support team of four grew temporarily to a team of 42. This was achieved under the leadership of Marc Comeau, the director of ATS, as well as the dedication of Michelle McDonald and Mike Duggan of ATS to train so many new team members in the span of a weekend. We also needed to create an ‘emergency remote teaching’ website over the span of a week, working with our colleagues in the Centre for Learning and Teaching (CLT). Comeau worked with Sarah Stevenson (associate dean planning), Suzanne Sheffield (CLT director) and others in CLT to create a functional one-stop shop for online teaching support.

With the sudden move to remote teaching in the spring, many students were left with an urgent need to access a computer to finish out the term. The need for access to technology was identified as an equity issue by university leadership. With campus shut down, we could not allow students to book computer time in our spaces, so we quickly and exponentially expanded our laptop loaning service, increasing not only the number of laptops we had available to loan, but also the length of time that students could borrow the laptops from a few hours to a few weeks. For a time, Janice Slauenwhite, manager of financial and physical resources, had to go on daily runs to Staples to purchase more laptops, while desktop technicians Michelle Francis and Graham Perkins quickly readied the computers for loaning with the necessary software. Janice and Jim Kennedy, evening and weekend supervisor, operated the laptop loan service out of the back door of the Killam for the first two weeks on their own, on top of their regular and COVID duties.  

While most of our staff were working remotely, after the first two weeks, we had a core team of staff, mostly from Access Services, doing the onsite work related to loaning laptops. These Access Services staff were also assisting with providing much-needed library materials for research and study through other means, such as through supporting Document Delivery and when possible, digitizing resources to share electronically within copyright regulations.

We had already invested significantly in ejournals and ebooks as the move to electronic materials has been naturally progressing for academic libraries over the years. To support online teaching during the past year, we made significant investments in streaming video resources. Members of our Resources Team, as well as personnel from our Copyright Office and library colleagues from King’s, led by Sarah Stevenson, associate dean planning, took hundreds of requests from faculty to locate streaming versions of specific titles. In some cases, they had to work directly with individual copyright holders to gain temporary access so that faculty could share niche films and documentaries with students in Brightspace.

What do you see as some of the lasting effects of the pandemic on the Dal Libraries?

In some ways, even though we’re not seeing each other in person, members of the Dal Libraries team are more connected than we were before. With more than 120 staff spread out over seven libraries and learning commons, even when we were all on site, we weren’t necessarily seeing each other regularly. When the lockdown began, we started a series of weekly town hall meetings on Monday mornings, sometimes with an agenda and sometimes as a drop-in session, but always giving time for people to get together and ask questions about what’s on their minds. It’s been a direct and inclusive way of hearing from staff at all levels — we’ve heard things we may not have heard about otherwise and we’ve made some adjustments to processes or services based on the constructive suggestions we’ve heard.  

While we don’t yet know if the staff will want to continue these town halls once most of us return to campus, I think the effect of having gathered weekly for a year will stay with all of us. We’ve built new relationships and got to know each other in different ways than we did before, including getting to see many of our colleague’s pets, which always makes everyone smile.

See also: Sharing our library collections with the world

What has been the most inspiring aspect of leading the Libraries over the past year?

Seeing what we can accomplish with the incredible team that we have under the most challenging circumstances we’ve ever faced together has been the most inspiring aspect of the past year.

I also love seeing the looks of appreciation on the faces of our students, who realize the strict measures we’re taking in our spaces are so they can focus on getting their work done while we focus on keeping our spaces COVID-safe for them. Knowing that all of our planning and efforts are appreciated has inspired us to keep going to find creative ways to serve our students, as regulations changed with the ebb and flow of COVID levels. It’s been challenging to constantly be responding to whatever phase of the pandemic we’re in, and having to adjust our processes and services as we go, but the fact that we’ve done this successfully to meet the needs of our students makes me incredibly proud of everyone who works at the Dalhousie Libraries. Working with colleagues within the Novanet libraries, and across the country through the Council of Atlantic University Libraries (CAUL) and Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) has been incredibly helpful — there are regular online meetings to share planning documents, tips and tricks, and inspiring ideas.

What innovations have you seen emerge out of your Faculty as a result of the pandemic?

We very quickly moved to being able to host public events safely online, thanks to the availability of Microsoft Teams Events and the ability of James Wilson, our video conferencing coordinator, to pivot quickly and thoroughly learn the new platform. Not only did we host multiple author readings and other successful library events this year, we supported the President’s Office town halls and other important events.

In some ways, we were already quite remote-ready, with so many resources available electronically and with our librarians routinely giving research assistance over email and chat before COVID. Some of the innovations and processes we’ve had to adopt will likely no longer be relevant once the threat of COVID has passed, but I think what will stay with us is the innovative approach we’ve all had to take to our work this year. Because we’ve been forced to think about many of our services differently, that innovative fire has been ignited in staff at all levels of the Dalhousie Libraries. I can’t wait to see how we will continue to innovate — we’re all now more compelled to look at things with an eye for enhancement opportunities and we are more open to change in general.  

What have you missed most about in-person operations and what are you most looking forward to getting back to post-COVID?

While the Dal Libraries certainly have areas for quiet and silent work, I miss the bustling energy of our open, common areas. I especially miss the energy of the Killam atrium, where students, faculty, and staff would gather to eat and chat before or after using the library.

We have been allowing students in our spaces since September, but in restricted numbers and in very specific areas. So, even when our spaces are fully booked with the maximum number of seats we are allowed to make available in a given area, our libraries can still feel empty. Before COVID, we were used to seeing student traffic in the area of 12,000+ students come through the doors of our seven spaces daily. Due to COVID restrictions and social distancing rules, we now reach capacity at just 347 users at one time across all seven of our libraries and learning commons. It is too quiet in our Libraries!

I also miss seeing our wonderful staff in person. Not being able to gather in person for a holiday celebration and to mark significant work milestones this past year was very difficult.

Any parting thoughts?

I hope the lessons we’ve learned as a society and as a university over the past year will stay with us. While I do want some things to go “back to normal,” such as students being able to gather in much larger numbers in our spaces, and community members being able to come and go from our spaces more freely, I hope some of the old ways of doing things will stay in the pre-COVID times.

While it’s been a difficult year in so many ways, it’s also been a huge opportunity to approach things differently. We’ve all had to find creative ways to accomplish our goals. I hope that kind of flexibility and ingenuity continues to propel us.

Most importantly, this past year been a time when some serious and enduring inequities in our society have become more apparent and been deemed unacceptable. We have to keep working to right those wrongs.


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