Ally is a librarian at Camosun College, working primarily (pre-Covid) at the Interurban Campus library. Librarians, and Instructional Designers (like yours truly), are also faculty members at Camosun. We facilitate workshops and teach instructional sessions for faculty and students. Fun fact: Ally had emailed me to ask if I was going to interview a librarian, and I said “Yes – are you volunteering?” So, she did, but sent her colleagues my questions to get their answers and perspectives on the past year as well.
I asked Ally what the sudden shift to online support was like for her and her fellow librarians. “At first, it was a bit of a jumble, like it was for everyone else. We made more use of the online tools we already have, more time on AskAway (online chat) research help, and then worked to develop new online resources. One of the things I spent a lot of time on in the first few days was the initial COVID-19 resources guide pulling together subscription content like Credo Info lit with Camosun created resources. All of the librarians jumped in and started creating what ended up being instructional videos which, over time, we narrowed down, improved, and made more consistent.”
What Ally missed most, however, were the daily face-to-face interactions with students and colleagues. In the past, “at Interurban, Margie and I have offices right in the student space. With Margie, groups of business students would just go to her office to ask questions and chat, and I would often have one-on-one interactions with students who know me from class sessions and come to ask for help. At Lansdowne, the librarians have daily shifts on the reference desk, and I think losing that day-to-day, more personal connection with the students, was a significant loss.” For some context, while the Camosun libraries were forced to close after the shutdown, it wasn’t long before there was some limited opening for handing out books, laptops, etc. for students. But mostly the libraries remained closed until fall (in September the Lansdowne library opened for take-out and limited computer workstation access, and the Interurban library followed suit in November). But luckily, librarians are highly adaptable and found new ways to connect – new ways that they will likely not let go of even when returning full time to their libraries. “We weren’t really using Collaborate before, but now we definitely are, and we’ve discovered that it’s a fantastic tool. We have been using research guides for years, but recently we have invested in some additional apps on the same platform. One is a scheduling tool which, combined with Collaborate is how we’ve been putting together our online open-registration workshops.” In addition to workshops, Collaborate has also made it possible for librarians to host virtual one-to-one chats with students and faculty. What makes Collaborate such a game changer is being able to “see a student’s screen, give them advice, and work through problems. It’s a lot easier to have those kinds of teachable moments in a Collaborate session than in our pre-Covid classroom sessions, which has been quite transformative for us.”
When I asked Ally what the biggest reward might be from the past year, she told me “I honestly think that Collaborate makes it easier for me to connect with students. When we are face-to-face, there aren’t any name tags, but in Collaborate when people are typing in chat or speaking, I can address them by name and get to know them. I think it’s been very good, strangely, in terms of personal connections.” I have heard this echoed by other faculty and colleagues – that despite the distance technology can create, in some ways it has brought us closer over the past year.
Reflecting on lessons learned, Ally says “I think as a group, we do our best to respond to students and faculty at their point of need, so the biggest takeaway for us was to jump in and take risks. Like the instructional videos: most of us have made videos in the past individually, but the Covid response involved all of us jumping in. We created a lot of content and then re-worked it, which I think was strangely more streamlined than hashing out the details before creating anything.” And these thoughts certainly are echoed in her advice to anyone who might be coming back to work after being off for this past year. “Don’t be afraid of just trying things, your colleagues and students really don’t expect perfection, let it be messy for a while, and don’t lose your sense of humour.” She notes that the librarians normally engage in reflective teaching practice (they all teach workshops year-round), and integrating new technologies has been part of every aspect of college librarianship for decades, so, they were already adept at “pivoting.” Learning Collaborate added an additional layer of complexity, but their reflective practice remained the same.
Moving forward, Ally says she sees “probably an expansion of more workshops on Collaborate and speaking for myself, I would be quite open to office hours for reference help. And I think we will probably start integrating the new scheduling tool with Collaborate to create a set repertoire of online workshops and drop-in times, because I think there are a lot of students who really like working from home. And so why wouldn’t we continue these as a service? Why would we leave those students out if that’s their place of need?”
Libraries’ function as a “safe third space” will always be an important part of life at the college. “There are plenty of students who live with too many roommates or family members, and there’s just no mental space at home for them to really get the sort of studying done that they want to do – and that’s why they spend so much time at the library. But I think what this past year has done for some students is also give them a digital space where they can get help when they need it.”