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VCU Libraries is online and in person. VCU Libraries COVID-19 response

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VCU Libraries ramps up efforts as VCU shifts to online learning during the COVID-19 crisis

March 27, 2020

VCU Libraries’ physical buildings may be closed due to COVID-19, but library staff are continuing to support patient care, research, teaching and learning as Virginia Commonwealth University shifts to remote learning during the pandemic.

“I expect that we will see the online library presence as an anchor and a comforting, familiar place in an unfamiliar digital world for many students and faculty,” said Dean of Libraries and University Librarian John Ulmschneider. “We’re still here to ensure their academic success, in the same way we’ve always been present, and I hope that will help VCU retain its sense of community over the coming weeks.”

VCU Libraries has continued to offer its digital services and digital collections without interruption, but also has taken a number of additional steps to support students and faculty, including:

  •  Digitizing print reserve materials and providing them to professors so they can put them on their Blackboard sites, or otherwise make them available to their students.
  •  Digitizing materials when requested by a faculty member or student, for example, portions of textbooks.
  •  Highlighting new arrangements from publishers that temporarily make certain digital material, including textbooks, freely available. A list of materials available free of charge right now is at https://guides.library.vcu.edu/oacc-library/COVID19#s-lg-box-23340458.
  •  Purchasing new streaming media titles for professors who have requested them to help with their remote teaching news.
  •  Extending all book loans through Aug. 28. Every individual with a checked-out item has received a notice.


“Our buildings are indispensable to our community in so many ways, and they will reopen as soon as we know it’s safe,” Ulmschneider said. “But our digital presence continues even more strongly than before, and I think students and faculty will turn to the library’s digital offerings as a place that brings them all together in their academic pursuits.”

Jimmy Ghaphery, associate dean for scholarly communications and publishing for VCU Libraries, said the online library has served as an uninterrupted hub for VCU with rich resources and support. On Monday, the first day of online classes after VCU’s extended spring break, VCU Libraries received more than 5,000 requests for online journal articles, a number pretty typical for mid-semester.

“The emergency has given us the opportunity to roll out focused communications as well as some new offerings,” Ghaphery said. “For example, after receiving interest from faculty in scholarly films that could be used in online classes, our collections and technology librarians collaborated to create a new streaming media list.”

Ghaphery added that he has been humbled and inspired by the energy and dedication of all VCU Libraries staff during the crisis.

“I very much miss seeing my colleagues in person, and am valuing each online Zoom sighting,” he said. “We are moving forward with a number of major projects as planned, including a website redesign, upgrade of VCU Libraries Search, publication of an open access book, and refining our digital preservation strategy.”

VCU Libraries already provided an array of online services, such as digital collections that include hundreds of thousands of books and journals and thousands of streaming media titles. For a list of VCU Libraries instruction and research support resources available remotely, visit https://guides.library.vcu.edu/continuity/off-campus.

Over the past dozen years, VCU Libraries has offered online, chat and email consultations. Librarians are accustomed to remote and online instruction. And staff members answer text-messaged requests around the clock, Ulmschneider said.

“Wherever you are, we are there to help you, and it’s been that way for years now,” he said. “I like to say that the library is still open, but we’ve just temporarily suspended in-person services.”

Laura W. Gariepy, Ph.D., associate dean for research and learning, leads most of James Branch Cabell Library’s front-facing services, such as librarian-led instruction in courses, one-on-one research help, and service points throughout the building. She said the library is poised to support students and faculty for the duration of the semester, even with the physical buildings closed.

“For years, we have offered robust support for online assistance for finding information and using the library through chat, text, email and online consultations. We were able to easily scale those services up in light of the need to close our physical spaces. If a student or faculty member needs research help, we can provide it in a number of formats,” she said.

They have added a service to assist faculty members who need physical course materials digitized to ensure students who are no longer on campus can access their textbooks, Gariepy said.

“This may be especially important for students who may rely on books placed on course reserve (short-term loan) at the library in lieu of purchasing their own texts given their high costs,” she said. “So far, we've been able to point faculty towards digital versions of 14 physical books (either through locating them on other platforms or scanning them), some of which are for courses with many sections, like Focused Inquiry and BIOL 200.

“We are so happy to provide a service that increases student access to their critical course materials,” she added.

VCU Libraries librarians and staff are working from home but are continuing to deliver instruction and consult on research projects remotely, and they have developed many online research and instruction guides for different disciplines that bring together a rich collection of digital materials and services in one convenient place, Ulmschneider said.

Gariepy added that multiple VCU Libraries librarians and staff have been working on both the university’s rapid response team for academic continuity and student services work group. "It has been wonderful to work with so many colleagues across campus on university-wide response to support our students and faculty," she said.

VCU Libraries’ Innovative Media department and The Workshop are designing a series of webinars in April that will focus on collaborative technology tools that will aid teachers and online coursework.

The webinars will offer training in tools such as:

  •  Google Jamboard, a virtual whiteboard that allows team members to drop in images, add notes and pull assets from the web while collaborating with others
  •  VoiceThread, a collaborative, multimedia slideshow that holds images, documents and videos and allows people to navigate slides and leave comments in five ways — using voice (with a microphone or telephone), text, audio file or video (via a webcam)
  •  Google Slides, a presentation platform that allows users to access, create and edit presentations wherever located and from phone, tablet or computer — even when there’s no web connection. 

Beyond the public interface, much of the library’s work has been in making new journals and books available online.

“The majority of interlibrary loan requests are fulfilled with digital materials,” Ulmschneider said. “We’ve been digitizing print materials from our collections for a long time now, and even theses and dissertations at the end of a semester are submitted online. While we do have some staff who do not have computers at home, we’ve assigned those staff laptops and we’ve done whatever we can to help people with their network connectivity from their homes.”

VCU Libraries, he said, “could not have been more ready for this emergency move online.”

For more information on VCU Libraries operations amid COVID-19, please visit: www.library.vcu.edu/covid19/.

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