Winter 2020: With buildings closed, the library continued to serve

September 30, 2020

On March 16 — half a year ago in real time, though it may seem more distant — the library, following the university’s pivot to remote learning the week prior, closed its doors to the public and instructed librarians and staff to begin working remotely. 

It was a challenging and anxious moment, with some uncertainty about how the library could continue to support the now-dispersed U-M community without any access to its physical collection and infrastructure, and with the boundaries between work and home life abruptly gone. 

But the people of the library found their own ways to connect to their constituencies and offer help and support — at times going beyond the usual range of library offerings.

Health sciences rapid response 

After the mid-March pause in student participation in clinical rotations, Health Sciences Informationists Emily Ginier and Jean Song stepped in to help the medical school offer for-credit electives as alternatives. 

In less than a week, they helped adapt the elective course Improving Medical Communications through Wikipedia, which had previously relied upon regular in-person meetings and a final presentation, to an all-remote format.  Informationists also helped to develop one of the content modules for a new Pandemic Medicine course, which was used by more than 350 medical students to review and apply their previous training to incoming information about COVID-19 as the pandemic progressed.

Taubman informationists also collaborated with the Medical School’s Department of Learning Health Sciences to develop a COVID-19 best-evidence front door for frontline healthcare providers. The database was developed in 8 days of rapid prototyping with a team of about 20 volunteers, and vetted by Michigan Medicine frontline physicians.

And Global Health Coordinator Gurpreet Kaur Rana led the development of a guide to COVID-19, released in mid-April, that points U-M students, faculty, and health care providers to basic COVID-19 information, relevant point-of-care resources, quality data and data visualizations sources, online learning opportunities, and sources that address racial health inequities and the pandemic’s impact on minority communities in the U.S. 

Virtual social programs for math department

When the University of Michigan moved instruction online, departments began looking for ways to keep their community engaged. For a group in the mathematics department, that meant reaching out to Mathematics & Statistics Librarian Samuel Hansen for help planning virtual social events. 

Hansen started a math book club with the book Living Proofa free ebook from the Mathematical Association of America — and organized a math trivia night. 

Hansen said, “Some of the trivia questions could not be answered without using MathSciNet, which the library licenses, and I used licensed material to develop some of the other trivia questions.”

With a background in mathematical communication and live event production, they are well-suited to help others in the department realize their virtual programming ideas. 

Meeting demand for streaming video

Jeff Pearson, collections librarian for the Askwith Media Library, began fielding about 5–10 streaming video requests per day in mid-March, when teaching went remote — initially working through weekends to support instructor requests.

Behind the scenes, fulfilling these requests — from the moment an instructor contacts Jeff, to after he’s added the digital file or link to the instructor’s Canvas site — sometimes required extraordinary efforts. When an English Language & Literature professor needed access to a particular documentary film, for example, Pearson and Wei Chen of the Order Unit went directly to the filmmaker to obtain the streaming license. The grateful professor wrote, “It’s amazing that you pulled this off in the middle of such a trying time.”

Pearson has observed some changes in the types of films requested. One psychology instructor, who had earlier asked for the documentary Angst, changed her request to a film titled Happy — a documentary about happiness around the world. 

Production support from a distance

The director of the Shapiro Design Lab, Justin Schell, helped students who’d been relying on access to the Winberg Audio Production Room to complete their assignments by providing remote resources and software to improve the quality of their outside-the-studio audio recordings. 

Schell also deployed the Design Lab’s 3D printer, which he had the foresight to take home, to print headbands for face shields for Operation Face Shield Ann Arbor, Protect-MI, and Michigan Medicine.

Digital collections cleanup

With digitization services closed, the Digital Content & Collections unit took the opportunity to improve existing digital collections by adding new transcriptions, data enhancements, and other new content. In at least one instance, they sought that content from other institutions, and were able to add the final issue to complete The American Jewess digital archive, courtesy of Princeton University. Department head Kat Hagedorn called these accomplishments “silver linings” in the midst of the devastation wrought by the pandemic. 

Making models

Staff in the Conservation Lab, working from home without the library’s equipment and supplies, created models of historic book structures — a crucial facet of the work of conservators that advances their understanding of how books through the ages have been put together, and helps them make repairs that are as historically accurate as possible. “We use these models as reference when we treat rare books and bound manuscripts for special collections, as well as for tours, events, presentations, and instruction,” explained Marieka Kaye, head of Conservation & Book Repair.

To make their models, they use methods, materials, and tools spanning the medieval to the modern eras. “While many of us take workshops elsewhere to learn new bindings, for this purpose we made use of online instructional videos, especially those provided by the Guild of Book Workers, as well as a wealth of online articles and books,” Kaye said.  Now that they’re back in the lab, they have a valuable new set of models to use for treatment and teaching.

Managing the shift to remote...everything

In all of the library’s divisions and departments, people offered their expertise and commitment to make sure that their library colleagues had the information, equipment, and support to continue playing their part in the network that makes the library run. 

For example, the library’s tech team, run by Operations Manager Stephen Griffes, which normally supports live events and other onsite A/V tech needs, created a new support service model that made the transition to remote work and virtual programming as smooth as possible.  

And the library’s Technical Services department, which procures, analyzes, and describes materials for the library’s collection, shifted its focus to electronic resources, which “became more critical than ever while the physical collection was off-limits to both patrons and staff,” said Ellen Mueller, head of Technical Services.


by Lynne Raughley, Emily Buckler, and Danielle Colburn

Working from home: paper bindings by Marieka Kaye, head of Conservation & Book Repair, U-M Library


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