Like many libraries in higher education across the UK, Solent closed the doors to our building on Friday 20 March this year. We had had little time to prepare for such a major disruption to our services but we had achieved a lot in the short time we did have.
We were very fortunate in having a solid IT infrastructure underpinning the library services. Our library management system, Ex Libris’ Alma, is cloud-based which meant that staff could continue to use it off campus. LibGuides software from Springshare allowed us to easily create and update web pages – essential to reflect the rapid changes to library services and support we brought in during March and April.
We have a 24/7 online chat service, staffed by our own library team during core hours and by a global consortium of libraries outside of those hours. That was backed up by an online appointment system for 1-2-1 virtual meetings with our librarians – first via Zoom, now via MS Teams. Our students could get guidance and support wherever they were and whenever they needed it.
Like most HE libraries, Solent has spent the past decade shifting our spend to predominantly online resources. 90% of our budget went on digital materials in the last financial year; we saw that go up to 94% in 2020, in part due to the sudden halt to print spending in March. However, we had still locked up a collection of around 120,000 print books, journals, maps and charts – and in the two weeks running up to lockdown our print loans leapt by 50% on the same period last year.
What lockdown did was cast a harsh spotlight on some of the inequities in our digital provision: our business and management students; our sports science students; our law and nursing students are all well served with ebooks, ejournals and databases. Our arts, fashion and design students still made significant use of our print collections. Our maritime students were hit particularly hard, with publishers in that subject area still largely wedded to print and with e-resource sales targeted at individuals rather than institutions Happily, the lockdown has seen progress on that front and our maritime students will enjoy online access to many key publications for the first time this autumn.
To their credit, many academic publishers responded swiftly to the problems we faced with the loss of access to print collections. When we closed the library building on 20 March, our students had access to around 40,000 ebooks. Two weeks later, that figure had jumped to 250,000 titles. We saw electronic journal collections opened up and we were able to offer our students increased access to streaming video collections across a range of subjects – from drama and performance through to research methods. The work undertaken by the CLA to negotiate a relaxation in copyright regulations allowed us to support students with more digitised materials than we would usually have been able to supply.
On 24 August, we opened the doors to the library building again for the first time since March. Library life is very different to pre-lockdown days, however. Our students can’t browse our bookshelves; all selection has to be done via our online catalogue. Thank heavens for the first rate metadata team we have had working to improve the records in our online catalogue over the past few years. Study space is significantly reduced and all visits to the building are by appointment only. While we can handle quick queries in person, any in-depth support and training from library staff will continue to be done online for the foreseeable future.
Lockdown has not exactly been a sea change for Solent Library. It’s simply nudged us a little further into an online world where we were already fairly well-established. The question in my mind is, will it be a sea change for our students and staff? Having had little choice but to use digital resources for the past five months, will they still want to go back to print, given the opportunity? Will we be forced as a library to continue to rely on print materials from some publishers due to unrealistic and unsustainable pricing on e-resources? Or will the engagement we’ve seen from the likes of JISC and SCONUL bear fruit and bring about a fairer pricing and access structure for some of those online materials that have so far been beyond the reach of smaller institutions such as Solent? The Lockdown may be over for now; the challenges that Covid19 has posed for the HE Sector have only just begun.
About the Author
I've worked at Solent University since 2008 in a variety of roles relating to resource acquisition and became Associate University Librarian in 2017. My career in libraries started with Nottingham public libraries in the late 1980s and over the past 30 years I've worked in public, healthcare, specialist and academic settings. I'm passionate about the role libraries can play as champions of diversity and inclusivity and I'm one of the founders of the university's LGBTQ Staff Network in 2013.