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Great expectations? University libraries, learning and student experience

Lis Parcell looks at some ways learning and teaching staff can join forces with the library to enable the best possible student learning experience in the coming months.

“Welcome sign” by David King on Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

What’s the issue?

Student expectations of libraries matter, whether their learning is on campus, online or a mixture of the two.

The student begins their course with a picture in mind of what a library looks like and what it is for. That perception may or may not reflect reality: experiences of school and outdated media images may colour their impression. For some students, the library may have been one the things that drew them to your university, while others may feel it is not a place for them. So it’s no surprise that libraries put such strong emphasis on engaging with students from the start, opening their eyes to what is available and, above all, assuring them that a friendly welcome awaits.

Every student needs to read around their subject. The nature of that reading and the type of information required will vary according to subject and level. Today’s libraries manage content in many media, digital and analogue, so there is a wealth of quality material for students beyond the book and the printed text, even if much of that content is not immediately visible.

Providing content, however valuable, is not enough on its own to enable student learning to take place. For many years, academic librarians have been active in the classroom, helping students to develop their information and digital literacies. Information literacy – defined by the CILIP information literacy group as “the ability to think critically and make balanced judgements about any information we find and use” – is one of the six elements of digital capability in our digital capabilities framework, alongside media literacy and data literacy.

Since the 1990s, much of UK academic libraries’ digital provision – both in terms of content and services – has evolved gradually alongside more traditional facilities. A few months ago, that digital provision became the main event.

The impact of Covid-19

As Siobhán Burke explains on our library services blog, “the Coronavirus pandemic has been an unplanned catalyst for a completely virtual library experience across universities, colleges and skills providers”.

Libraries are very diverse so we should be cautious of generalising about the impact of Covid-19 on them and their users. However, some broad indications have begun to emerge. For example:

  • Use of online resources increased dramatically and libraries worked fast to source digital alternatives to print where possible
  • The enforced suspension of face-to-face support and teaching meant that libraries switched to online interactions, from live chat to webinars. Libraries’ online teaching and training also proved popular
  • Libraries supported academic colleagues in the development of new online learning content
  • Students became aware of library services which they had not been aware of previously and could use digital resources to complete library-based assignments in place of cancelled activities such as fieldwork
  • Libraries were able to increase the digital content on offer as many publishers relaxed licensing terms for the duration of the crisis. This temporary access is now coming to an end

University libraries have begun working individually, as well as collectively through bodies such as RLUK and SCONUL, to address the challenges and opportunities to develop support for learning, teaching and research in a dramatically altered landscape. Our event Managing your print and online collections in a Covid-19 world highlighted some of the big issues facing the sector, including the switch to online teaching and e-textbook provision. A summary is available highlighting key messages and event resources.

Why these issues are important

The significance of the library for each student’s experience will vary over their academic journey. For example:

  • For many students it’s about limiting spend on textbooks and getting access to source material that will help their academic work stand out
  • Engagement with the library can form part of their identity as a student, their sense of belonging and wellbeing
  • Increasingly the library has become a meeting place for collaboration as well as a destination for private study
  • Libraries inspire, offering unique materials such as special collections and archives which can open up new perspectives on the world

These learning opportunities will be impacted by restricted access to campus buildings. However, any negative impact of this can be mitigated if students are given structured opportunities within their course to explore the library online. By ensuring close involvement of the library in university plans for learning, teaching and student support, there is less risk of new and returning students being distracted by excessive inconvenience, uncertainty and expense.

What are the main considerations?

Library directors will already be in dialogue with fellow leaders on key strategic issues while library teams prepare for the new academic year. Here are some of the questions we might expect to see on the agenda for heads of learning and teaching, and academic staff, as the start of the autumn term approaches.

  • How is the university rethinking its induction or welcome programme and how will the library contribute to this?
  • Do all teaching staff know the ways students will be able to access online library support, for example through MS Teams, live chat or social media?
  • Are teaching staff able to direct students to self-help library support resources such as web guides, screencasts or interactive tutorials?
  • Do VLE course pages consistently offer correct links and information to library resources and services?
  • Are recommended library resources accessible for all students, in alternative formats if necessary?
  • Are departments liaising with the library about availability of reading list items in digital form? It will be useful to note that some new national agreements with e-textbook aggregators, including Kortext and BibliU, are due for release at the end of July. For the first time these will be managed by the library.
  • Do academic staff know the availability of digital content that was made available by publishers on a temporary basis?
  • Are academic staff prepared to adapt reading lists to minimise competition for scarce items? Are all those ‘essential’ titles on reading lists really essential?

Steps you can take

The following is a rough guide. Libraries tailor their services and terminology to their communities so practice will vary slightly from place to place. Nevertheless, library staff everywhere will be keen to work closely with academic colleagues to ensure that your students get off to the best possible start this autumn.

  • Contact your academic liaison librarian (or equivalent) early on to discuss what will be available for students at different stages in the year
  • If your curriculum relies on students accessing specific a print book, don’t take it for granted that it will be available as ‘e-print’. An e-book version may not exist, or it may not be possible for the library to buy, even if it looks easy to get hold of on Amazon! Again, ask your library for advice
  • Allow time to consider copyright implications for any third party content you want to incorporate into online teaching, including digitisation of extracts. (Chris Morrison and Jane Secker outline the issues in their WonkHE blog post)
  • When sourcing new content for online learning, consider how you could incorporate open content, including open access papers or open educational resources (OER). For inspiration see for example UCL’s open education page and Open.ed at the University of Edinburgh
  • When considering assignment deadlines, note that students are likely to have a longer wait to borrow print. Browsing may be off-limits initially, with many libraries offering “click-and-collect” schemes. Returned books are likely to be quarantined
  • If you have students with specific accessibility needs, ensure these are communicated to the library in advance. The library can also let you know about alternative formats for reading materials
  • If your course relies on access to special collections or archives, talk to the library about access arrangements. They will be able to let you know about any relevant digital archival collections, such as this new collection on the history of science
  • Make sure all new students have access to a library welcome session or induction. Look out for virtual tours or short welcome videos in the early weeks (more in depth teaching sessions can be scheduled for later). Don’t forget returning students – they will need guidance to adapt their study routine to the new library set-up
  • As you adapt your teaching for the coming year, think about how you could work with your library to help students improve their information and digital literacy skills. Previously, students may have missed out in this respect. Yet these skills become even more vital when learning online: it is easy to become lost in information which may or may not be valid. Also, digital identity and digital wellbeing are critical for successful online learners. To get a flavour of how libraries are supporting these areas, see the CILIP information literacy group’s statement and case studies on moving education and training, and Sheffield University Library’s information and digital literacy tutorials
  • Keep an eye on your library’s website, social media channels and news feeds
  • Explore our Covid-19 organisational response checklist with further suggestions around library services, learning and teaching

Co-operation between academics and the library has long been important in helping students get the most out of their time at university. This year, the library – along with digital learning and IT services – will be a key partner for academic departments in the transition to new ways of learning. This collaboration must stay strong if students’ expectations are to be met, and even exceeded.

Covid-19 has shed new light on the library’s role in learning, teaching and academic endeavour. The challenge for leaders now is to align resources and efforts – institutionally and nationally – to ensure lasting positive change.

Useful links

Covid-19 organisational response checklist

Jisc activities to support libraries through the Covid-19 crisis

The day the libraries shut: stories from the front line

Jisc libraries, learning resources and research

Managing your print and online collections in a Covid-19 world: an online event

Accessible e-books: addressing inequality in information

Sneak preview of new free history of science collection

The future role of libraries in further and higher education

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