Running a Library during a Pandemic
Maintaining Staff Morale and Cohesiveness Are Two of the Biggest Challenges
December 2, 2020
Lieuwe Kool, director of the medical library at Amsterdam UMC, and Keir Reavie, director of library services at the Lee Graff Medical and Scientific Library, City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center, recently spoke to NEJM LibraryHub from their homes in Amsterdam and Southern California, respectively, where they’ve been working since March. They talked about the new normal for their libraries and some of the challenges they’ve faced.
Q: Are both of your libraries’ physical plants closed, and are you operating completely remotely?
LK: Our library is still open on a very limited basis. Normally, we have space for about 300 people, and now we’ve reduced that to 30 workspaces to accommodate social distancing. We have three members of our administrative staff working on-site, but all of the information specialists are working from home. I’m working from home as well. I go in about once a week to check on things.
Since 2006, we have focused on digital resources only. In normal times, our statistics show that our usage is the highest on Sundays when the actual library is closed. Doctors have dinner with their families, and then they start accessing our resources in the evening, getting ready to see their patients the following week.
KR: We’ve been completely closed since March, and the entire staff is working from home. Our patients have cancer, and they may have other immune-deficiency conditions as well. Our services have always been mostly online, except for a small print collection, which is not accessible right now. But that hasn’t been a major issue.
Q: Have users’ informational needs changed? Are you getting a lot of coronavirus-related requests?
KR: Our users’ needs haven’t changed a lot because we’re not treating COVID patients, although we have had questions about how to keep updated on the latest COVID-19 information. We encourage people to go to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, which has all kinds of great information. Our cancer center is developing a vaccine, so we have had some requests for information on vaccine development.
LK: We’ve had a lot of queries from users about where they can find COVID-related datasets from around the world, related to questions like what treatments work best for which patients. Users also ask how they can share their own data. People want to contribute to the knowledge base. It has made us realize how scattered the landscape is in terms of COVID-19 information. There are websites that are beginning to collect patient data. The next step for us is for our research and IT departments to create the infrastructure to help with this information need. One of the good things that have come out of the pandemic is that the usual competition among hospitals is gone, and there’s a lot more collaboration.
What have been your biggest challenges as directors since staff began working from home?
LK: One of the challenges for us has been getting the word out about our services without being able to meet in person with doctors, which we used to do regularly. For our information specialists who have worked here for years, they have established networks. But we had a new specialist who specializes in neurology start in August, and he was not getting many requests, while his colleagues have been overloaded. Normally he would be meeting with doctors and developing relationships. It’s much harder to do this networking virtually.
Most of our information specialists have been very busy. When the lockdown began, a lot of researchers were stuck at home, and they were focusing on writing. We had a lot of library requests then. After a couple of months, laboratories opened again, so those types of requests were reduced.
KR: Access for certain users has been one of our challenges — and the problem is a mixture of technology, institutional policy, way publishers provide access to their resources. Some users who don’t have access to our network remotely will be blocked. These are people who normally would come into the library to use our computers and now they can’t. We’re looking into solutions like federated authentication.
Q: Has it been hard to manage your staff remotely — keeping people engaged and feeling like part of a team?
KR: Yes. Initially, we thought we were going to be away for only a month, maybe two, and that it would be a nice break. But as time went on, it became more challenging to keep the staff engaged and working together as a team to keep everyone moving forward. We’ve gotten a lot better at working together in this environment. But we’re living through very unsettling times, between the pandemic and global politics, so people are distracted.
LK: Keeping the team together has been a big issue for us. One of my favorite daily routines used to be going past all my employees’ desks and checking in with them, asking them how they were doing, how their kids were doing. European librarians are often loners, so the office is very important to them as a place to meet people and socialize. I think that working at home alone is not good for the mental health of any of us, and I do think it affects our productivity too.
Q: What have you done to boost morale and preserve a sense of cohesiveness?
KR: We meet a lot on Microsoft Teams, and I check in with everyone individually on a daily basis. We’ve done some late afternoon virtual happy hours, and on Mondays, a couple of staff members create a variety of puzzles and send them out. We get together as a group later on in the week to work on the puzzles together.
LK: We have done happy hours, too, with mixed success. We had a WhatsApp group text for a while where we exchanged puzzles and pictures and things, but we stopped that because it irritated some of our staff who keep different hours and would be awakened by the texts. I like to call my staff on the phone to check in, as opposed to a video chat. It feels more natural, and they don’t have to worry about whether they’ve shaved that day or combed their hair.
Two of my staff members have young children, so I’ve been checking in with them a lot to make sure they’re OK. They have been upfront about not being able to work as much because of their childcare responsibilities. I offered my 16-year-old daughter as a babysitter, and she did end up babysitting for one of the families.
KR: I also have staff members with kids going to school remotely. The cancer center has been very supportive of people with kids, subsidizing expenses like childcare and tutoring.
Q: Many health care organizations have had to reduce their revenue-generating activities and increase spending on personal protective equipment and other COVID-related expenses. Have tight budgets led to any library layoffs?
KR: No layoffs, but going into this fiscal year, our budget is a bit uncertain. That’s not unique: everybody’s budget is a little unsure in this environment. So adding new services is difficult. Pre-pandemic, we planned to renovate the library to create more space for people to gather for small symposiums, read, and collaborate on projects. We had developed a plan, but now that will have to be rethought, with things like social distancing and traffic flow in mind.
LK: So far, we have survived financially. But I’m concerned. Part of my concern is about coronavirus, but we’re also facing a lot of unpredictability in the world of politics. Brexit could be traumatic for our economy, and we’re also very concerned about the American presidential election.
Q: Let’s end the interview with something more personal. What sorts of activities have you been doing to keep sane during the pandemic?
LK: Playing double bass and learning French.
KR: I used to travel a lot and take photos — in the pre-digital days. I’ve been scanning and editing my large collection of slides and negatives. I’m also getting a massive amount of reading done.