1 July 2020
Image credit: National University of the Health Sciences.

When a librarian at one of the state universities called to survey this academic library about our plans for re-opening from the pandemic, our response that “we never closed” was met with shock.

Well, actually we did close for a few days between trimesters. But other than that, the library at the National University of Health Sciences in Lombard, Illinois, has remained open to its students and faculty.

While other academic libraries have provided some remote services to their communities, this library has kept its physical space and collections accessible during the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to continuing to provide its in-person and remote services.

Our unique approach

National University of Health Sciences offers professional degree programs in chiropractic, naturopathy, acupuncture and oriental medicine. We have classes during the daytime as well as in the evening.

Our first indication that this library might be unique in its response was when the reference librarian compiled a summary of pandemic responses at other schools with similar programs. One of these other schools allowed physical access to the library by appointment and only seven students at one time spread over their seven key areas. One chiropractic college library in Florida did re-open to students. Another library did have curbside pick-up and would mail out books to their students (who were responsible for return postage).

According to academic library responses from the Ithaka S+R survey, it was reported that “Of the 1,280 responding to a question about library hours, 457 institutions reported all libraries closed while 359 reported libraries remaining open during their usual hours.”

As the Illinois Executive Order of March 20, 2020 allowed educational institutions to remain open for the purposes of facilitating distance learning and performing critical research, it was determined that the school, including this library, falls within that definition. Here’s how we approached it:

  • The library reduced its hours
  • We do not allow outside visitors including our alumni
  • The staff set up a table in front of circulation with a daily sign-in sheet
  • Students are required to display their university ID card
  • Signs were posted at the entrance to remind students that face masks were required for admittance and also that they should not enter if they felt any illness. 

Despite the fact that our work hours were mainly to cover the circulation desk, the library staff was still able to perform other essential duties such as book orders and process, serials check-in and some document provision. In addition, the library provided a listing of online resources such as open educational resources and open access documents and links to other online resources to support the new online learning environment. 

What we learned

What we should have anticipated is that instructors would schedule their online assessments during their class times that were outside of the library’s hours. The library was opened and staffed for use by test-takers only during those identified times. It was very disheartening that we frequently opened hours early only to have the test-takers not show up or show up an hour or two later.

Despite the switch to online learning and the resulting decrease in campus population, library usage was steady, averaging about 20 students per day. Students found that they needed a quiet place to study, away from distractions and also that the library computers could meet the technological requirements of online testing and proctoring better than their personal devices.  The library staff also provided a reliable and usually sympathetic actual presence on campus.

The real problem for academic libraries is reserve material. Our reserve material including board review books check out for two hours.  Our decision to quarantine means that these items are unavailable for at least three days.  In response, the reference librarian prepared instructional handouts on how to prepare for board examination testing for each of our professional programs.

Despite continuing misgivings about being one of the few (perhaps only) academic libraries in Illinois to remain physically open, there are some positive results.  The students have thanked the library staff for providing a facility and services as well as being present to respond to their concerns.  And our instructors are now more aware of the support to them that the library can provide.

It will be interesting to see how other academic libraries will handle the difficulties that will occur when they begin to re-open their facilities and collections to their patrons.  The library staff at National hopes that this short description will provide some useful insights or at least some welcome comic relief.

Our guest blogger today is Russ Iwami. Russ is the Reference Librarian at National University of the Health Sciences (NUHS) Learning Resource Center.