University libraries beyond the campus walls

University library bookshelves seen from above (2)

University libraries play an important role in opening the world of knowledge to researchers and students. As we adapt to new ways of working, universities across the Commonwealth are driving forward creative solutions to deliver a library beyond the campus walls. 

Working together is the best way to advance knowledge, which is why members of the ACU Supporting Research community are sharing best practice about managing libraries. Here’s what three of our members have been doing to support students through lockdown:

Sheffield University, the UK

With 1 million e-books and over 60,000 journal titles available online, Sheffield University has been digital for a long time. Their postgraduate researchers are supported with virtual reading rooms and an information hub. These online spaces enable researchers to come together for expert advice, support, masterclass workshops and tutorials from home. Key to their approach was ensuring that practical and reassuring messaging reached students at the right time. To meet this aim, Sheffield University library staff put together a video with the reassuring messaging that ‘the library is here for you’. The video reinforces their email communications by signposting to how-to videos, and FAQ’s about anything from copyright to resource lists.

University of Johannesburg (UoJ), South Africa

UoJ used their 3D printers to support the fight against COVID-19 by developing face shields for schools, university staff, pharmacists and the City of Johannesburg. To make information about library services accessible, easy to find, and ‘data light’, UoJ rolled out an app and chat bot. Only 76% of UoJ’s student population own a laptop, whereas 96% have smartphones – making mobile access integral to student engagement. The app contains a host of useful how-to videos to help students find what they need. UoJ also launched a virtual ‘research navigator’ tool for postgraduate students, which maps out a step-by-step guide to the different stages in the research process. Including information on proposal writing to publishing, the tool can be accessed online to help their postgraduates stay on track and not lose momentum with their research during lockdown.

University of Mauritius (UoM)

As UoM launched their e-library back in 2018, they were well equipped to support their students to access resources remotely. During lockdown, UoM connected with students through video conferences, WhatsApp and routine email updates. Like the University of Sheffield and UoJ, UoM prioritised accessibility, and even cancelled the fees for their e-library for non-registered members. When certain students struggled with internet connection, UoM responded by providing internet packages. As the lockdown forced new ways of working for staff and students, UoM observed that this aspect of lockdown made way for a great opportunity for staff to upskill and learn new and effective ways of delivering library services. Moving forward, UoM are now considering reducing bookshelves in their library to make room for more study areas and cultural spaces for discussions and debate.   

Common themes emerged from all three accounts – namely the importance of clear communication and a supportive online environment; the need to upskill staff and students with training on how to use digital resources and tools; and the observation that, moving forward, a lot more can be done remotely in the future. Above all, campus closures have presented a unique opportunity for universities and libraries to reflect on what’s worked well in an online environment, and what hasn’t. Post lockdown, the lessons learned from these experiences will prove critical in shaping and building resilient libraries of the future.

Members came together as part of ‘University libraries beyond the campus walls’ - an event delivered by members of the ACU Supporting Research community as part of the ACU Digital Now series.

The discussion generated useful takeaways and food for thought. Chaired by Donna Bourne-Tyson, Dean of Libraries at Dalhousie University, Canada, the event saw participation from Ishwarduth Dassyne, Chief Librarian at University of Mauritius (UoM); Professor Maria Frahm-Arp, Executive Director of the Library and Information Centre, the University of Johannesburg (UJ); and Anne Horn, Director of Library Services & University Librarian, the University of Sheffield, UK.