The University Libraries at Northern Illinois University quickly pivoted to low- and no-contact services to respond to the pandemic. Many academic libraries were well positioned for such actions. We have emphasized innovative practices for years in order to meet and exceed the expectations of our tech-savvy users. Creative thinking was especially useful because I-Share, the statewide resource sharing network for academic libraries, was “shut down” for some time, especially in the earliest weeks of the pandemic.
Academic libraries continue to devise ways to get materials needed for research and study into users’ hands safely and effectively. At the beginning of the pandemic, NIU closed its library to users and most staff for several weeks as we determined how to best get materials to users. Without reliable I-Share or interlibrary loan, we digitized our own materials as well as linking users up to other available electronic items. As we began reopening parts of our building, we developed new ways to deliver physical materials. We had users request NIU materials to be pulled for pickup; once those materials were ready, the user only briefly visits the first floor of the building to pick them up.
Our hold shelf eventually expanded; NIU purchased a parcel locker system which we installed in what we call our Locker Vestibule. With parcel lockers, materials are left in the locker for a user to pick up—a relatively simple solution. Locker codes are provided via email. Our vestibule offers its own entrance, independent from the rest of the library. This means that not only are the lockers safer from contact with others, but we are also able to offer extended hours for pickup from the lockers.
The most difficult part of developing the locker service has been communicating with our users about the lockers: how to know that materials are being held there, how to use the lockers, rules for the lockers, and so on. We developed signage for the locker area to describe how to open them and the rules for their use. External signage directs users to the vestibule, which is in a newer part of the building. We communicated very early on with our users via email about how their materials would be delivered to lockers and how to contact us with problems or issues. Now that CARLI has migrated to Alma/Primo VE, we have been able to add our lockers as a pickup location for our users to choose.
NIU has balanced our pandemic response between working with what we already had on hand and innovating in ways that will benefit our users long-term, even after the pandemic. The pandemic is stressful for our library and our users but has also given us a real opportunity to evaluate how we provide materials. This will help us plan such services in the future, whether we are under emergency conditions or not.
Our guest bloggers today are Gwen Gregory and Sarah McHone-Chase. Gwen is the Associate Dean for Collections Management and Sarah is the Head of User Services at Northern Illinois University Libraries in DeKalb, Illinois. Gwen is a member of the My Library Is.. Advisory Team. Sarah is a member of the RAILS Board of Directors.