Latest service and space updates: VCU Libraries COVID-19 response

Shift to virtual event model begins to transform the nature of library events

July 15, 2020

When COVID-19 arrived in Virginia and VCU closed its campuses, VCU Libraries had to cancel some 135 in-person events, meetings and other programs. Among them were two of the libraries’ biggest and most anticipated of the year: the annual Brown-Lyons Lecture, which was to feature controversial journalist and political commentator Peter Beinart, and the annual Library Leadership Dinner in recognition of generous and long-time supporters.

At first, some organizers around VCU talked of moving their events online, but few did. People were anxious and preoccupied, and organizers feared that if they held events, then people either wouldn’t attend or would find attendance stressful. Many also believed that virtual events were inferior to in-person ones and that if an event could possibly wait until after COVID-19 conditions had improved sufficiently to hold events in a physical space, then it should.

Shifting to a Virtual Event Model

At the same time, life and work had to go on for VCU Libraries one way or another. Students and teachers alike needed library support. Colleagues had to communicate and collaborate. And the many donors and community members who would have attended the in-person events that had been cancelled for the spring needed to be engaged and appreciated for their support.

Of course, many library employees already had a great deal of experience and success with organizing and running virtual events. Tompkins-McCaw Library for the Health Sciences, for example, has long held its Health Sciences Webinars and Workshop series, which is almost exclusively virtual. But the shift to an all-virtual environment would take some adjustment.

March was a month of learning. Library employees attended online sessions to master new software and technology and learn strategies for structuring virtual events. By the end of March, regular employee town halls had migrated online, and a work group had been assembled to create a new series of weekly casual, internal programs called Keep on Connecting designed to give employees the opportunity to discuss topics, practice crafts and learn new skills.

Implementing Virtual Events for the Public

Woman biting a pencil while she looks at a laptop

The first major public programs came from the libraries’ Innovative Media and Scholarly Communications and Publishing divisions:

Webinars from the Workshop
April 1–May 6, 2020
Designed and led by Oscar Keyes, Multimedia Teaching and Learning Librarian

An online iteration of the long-running Wednesdays in the Workshop series, Webinars from the Workshop was held every Wednesday afternoon and featured each week a different piece of free, online collaborative software, including VoiceThread and Adobe Spark, that could be used to foster productive and creative virtual interaction among teachers and students or among colleagues during the days of the shelter-in-place orders. Sessions were designed to be practical but also, in the spirit of stress relief during the pandemic, were light hearted and fun.

The Workshop’s Open Mak(ing) Space
April 7–May 8, 2020
Designed and led by Oscar Keyes, Multimedia Teaching and Learning Librarian

The Workshop’s makerspace, where students, employees and community members can go to find things like 3D printers, laser cutters and sewing machines, was sorely missed after VCU Libraries closed its doors. This series of sessions held every Tuesday and Friday was an attempt to recreate the energy of the makerspace virtually by allowing attendees to drop-in and work on creative projects using materials online or in their homes and then share their work with the group. Attendees were also given prompts to respond to, to help prevent creative block.

Open Data Chats
Apri 13–May 6, 2020
Designed and led by Nina Exner, Research Data Librarian

This series consisted of two related informal recurring events: Weekly Data Wake-ups every Monday and Drop-in Data Discussions every Wednesday. Weekly Data Wake-ups were created in response to researchers’ expressing difficulty at keeping their projects on track during the pandemic. Attendees were invited to vent, share tips with others and get help planning out their week. Drop-in Data Discussions were unstructured sessions allowing attendees to engage with other researchers and data enthusiasts, learn from each other and collectively reflect on data.

Ward Tefft, owner of Chop Suey Books, holding a copy of the book Organ Thieves during a session of VCU Libraries Community Zooms

Learning from these series, the library Development Office partnered with the Communications and Events Office to plan a series of community-focused sessions:

VCU Libraries Community Zooms
April 30–July 25, 2020

These weekly hour-long, informal morning sessions highlighted subjects of interest to library lovers and the community at large, from finding reliable COVID-19 information to the 1959 closure of Prince Edward County public schools in defiance of Brown v. the Board of Education. Sessions were attended by a mix of community members outside VCU, library employees and employees in other VCU departments and units, and a number made a habit of attending every week. At the end of each session, attendees were asked to share topics for future sessions.

Sessions included:

  • Celebrating Preservation Week: Collections Care Activities at VCU Libraries and Preserving Your Personal Treasures
  • Virtual Awards Program: Student Book Collecting Contest and Friends of VCU Libraries T-shirt Design Contest
  • Finding Trusted Information About COVID-19
  • Walkthrough of the New VCU Libraries Website
  • Docent-guided Virtual Tour of VCU Libraries Galleries
  • What’s Everyone Reading?
  • Collaborative Poetry of Empowerment
  • They Closed Our Schools: Making a Documentary of Racial Injustice in Prince Edward County
  • 21 Years of Leading VCU Libraries

The series was popular enough to warrant continuing it into the 202021 year. Recordings of many of these sessions, including more recent ones, can be found in the Library Stories blog.

Learning from Virtual Events

Talk of events going “back to normal” after the pandemic steadily lessened over the course of the spring as library employees learned that, even if certain kinds of events, such as the Library Leadership Dinner, would be impractical if not impossible in a virtual setting, the virtual event model had many merits and shouldn’t be entirely abandoned once the pandemic was over.

A few lessons of the virtual events model:

  • People appreciate shorter events. Almost all of VCU Libraries’ virtual events thus far have kept to an hour or less, and almost all attendees have stayed until the very end.
  • Video recording, whenever possible, is important. A recording not only gives people who missed an event a chance to view it. It also allows them to engage at their leisure.
  • Interactivity, discussion and collaboration are always good. While people do enjoy and appreciate hearing experts speak, they also value the chance to contribute.
  • Weighty issues are fine, but light heartedness goes a long, long way. There’s been a lot to talk and worry about during the pandemic, but people want a break from it, too.

Images: Woman biting pencil (used to advertise Webinars from the Workshop), photo by from Unsplash; Ward Tefft at a session of VCU Libraries Community Zooms

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