A Project Finds Its Moment: Books We Read, (Virtually) at Chang Science Library

Like people across the country and the world, many Rutgers students, faculty, and staff now find themselves stuck at home, their normal routines of work and leisure upended by the coronavirus pandemic and efforts to mitigate its spread. Chang Science Library has a prescription for the isolation and anxiety of social distancing: a good book.

Chang Library’s Books We Read program, begun in the fall of 2019 to promote recreational reading on campus, has retooled and refocused for the present challenge: helping users discover pleasure reading that they can access at home.  A website hosted through sites.rutgers.edu offers guides to ebook and audiobook resources available to the Rutgers community or to the general public as well as reading recommendations and links to other recreational library activities. The first coronavirus-specific initiative within Books We Read was dubbed RUGRAT: Rutgers University Groups Reading Alone Together. A partner initiative, Cook Reads, was targeted specifically at Cook campus staff.

In the fall of 2019, the Books We Read program officially began with a marathon reading of Harry Potter in Chang Science Library on the Cook Campus, as a partnership among New Brunswick Libraries, the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, and student groups Rutgers Reads and Muggle Mayhem. The fall semester focused on curating a LibGuide for recreational books available at Rutgers University Libraries and on creating short story discussion sheets for use in recreational reading groups. When the COVID-19 pandemic began threatening campus life, however, the mission to promote recreational reading had to become less reliant on physical spaces and in-person gatherings. A blog post on March 8 marks the beginning of the new initiative, highlighting ebook and audiobook resources available online.

Shortly after that March 8 post came the project’s first recommended reading list for the pandemic, “Classics for the Coronavirus.” The following weeks have seen more “social distancing” book recommendations, from public health nonfiction for the curious to travel fiction for those feeling cooped up. These recommendations have tried to balance the different motivations people may have for reading at the current time by including texts that deal with disease or isolation as well as texts that allow for a few hours’ escape from reality. After all, reading has traditionally offered guidance, reassurance, or space to process events as well as a way to forget one’s troubles.

Statistics from our similar initiative at the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies Library called R4R @ Rutgers: Reading for Recovery, funded by an ALA Carnegie-Whitney grant in 2015–2016, indicated the possible applications of guided reading in difficult times. Books We Read draws on this experience while scaling up from the specific issues around addiction and recovery to the wide range of needs people may have in a global pandemic. Whatever Rutgers community members are looking for in a book, the Books We Read site aims to help them find it.

Responding to the popular demand how to find a particular ebook or newspaper article, and wary of the random, dubious ebook download recommendations popping up on Rutgers-related social media and mailing lists, we added a few pages on how to find electronic resources from RUL with a Net ID. Highlighting ebook resources allowed us to showcase the comprehensive LibGuide to electronic resources, while a happy accident prompted us to add a guide to newspaper access.

The same demand inspired us to incorporate media outside of books, increasing the visibility of the remote resources that Rutgers has to offer for both instruction and fun. Patrons may be surprised to hear that Rutgers allows remote access to some video resources; the site explains how to find them and offers some public health documentary recommendations. No matter the platform, the Books We Read project equips patrons with library resources and empowers them to ask for help.

Patrons with an artistic flair (or who simply want to stop reading books for a moment and start drawing in them!) are connected through the Books We Read site to Rutgers’ Color Our Collections page, a project of Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) that allows people to print out and color a curated set of images from the library’s holdings. Coloring archival images and making buttons or magnets from them has been a crowd favorite at in-person library events, and the online link allows users to enjoy the activity from the comfort of their own homes. In addition to fun and recreation, the site also connects users with potential archival resources for remote learning: a new page recommending SCUA resources links readers to the SEBS-specific installment in SCUA’s Archives at Home series, including a video interview.

A robust social media presence has helped amplify the program’s impact, reaching out on widely used platforms in order to guide and inform online library users adjusting to remote instruction and research. The School of Environmental and Biological Science Office of Communications and Marketing has been instrumental in promoting the site, helping to drive nearly four thousand pageviews and counting in the past month or so of online-only operation.

Books We Read has proven a successful tool to promote libraries while building connections and communities. Rutgers University Groups Reading Alone Together, in addition to a silly acronym (RUGRAT), captures the paradoxical promise of reading at a time like this: reading is one of the oldest and most effective ways to be alone without feeling alone. The Books We Read program maintains that even without a physical space to gather, the library can still offer, in addition to continuing support for remote learning and research, the simple solace of a good book. Visit us at go.rutgers.edu/booksweread.

Nicholas Allred and Judit H. Ward

Judit Hajnal Ward