Serving the Post-Pandemic University

It has been eight months since the university moved online and it is still difficult to believe that it is real. The sudden change that we experienced is gradually transitioning to a new normal, along with the insight that it is unlikely that we will ever return to the operations that we left in April. We are beginning to understand that we have the opportunity to build a future that combines the best of the past with the elements of our current environment that work well.

In a blog post related to the pandemic, Lorcan Dempsey writes about the ways in which the pandemic is accelerating changes in library collections that previously had been slowly evolving. Dempsey discusses three pandemic effects that have contributed to this acceleration and will shape our environment going forward:

  • Budget reductions and the possibility that recovery will not come quickly
  • The rapid shift to online learning and research that most likely will only be partially reversed
  • The need for libraries to visibly and proactively align their services with the mission of the university

As we develop strategies, it is imperative that we continue to look closely at how these pandemic effects are changing both higher education in general and Rutgers in particular, to try to discern how we use our strengths in the new environment. Some collection-related trends that I believe will be most relevant for us include:

  • The need to advance undergraduate student success. Student success is a critical element for the future of Rutgers. We have seen that—perhaps surprisingly—certain courses like traditionally large lectures can actually work better in an online format, creating more opportunities for participation and engagement than would previously be possible. We also know that students and their families are facing unprecedented financial struggles because of the pandemic, and the economic ramifications of the virus are still not even fully understood. I expect that these factors will cause the delivery of some of the undergraduate curriculum to change, even after it is safe to return to classroom settings. Accordingly, we should expand our efforts to replace traditional textbooks with open and affordable information resources. We have been successful in this area with OAT and Leganto, but we should be asking ourselves what this could mean for how we develop our collections, offer instruction, and participate in shared activities moving forward.
  • The continued erosion of the scholarly communication system. Academic libraries have worked on multiple fronts to develop new models of scholarly communication that center the researcher and the scholarship rather than the publisher. Fueled by the success of the University of California system in breaking the Big Deal, for the first time libraries are seriously considering large-scale cancellation of packages as viable option. Publishers, in collaboration with libraries, have responded with transformative license agreements that may simply shift who pays for publications without solving the underlying problem of unsustainable costs. Library budgets have also supported other forms of academic publishing. Over the past few decades, libraries have systematically reduced the number of monographs purchased from university presses, creating—for all but a few large presses—the need for substantial university subsidies. Now scholarly associations are facing a similar future. Together, these changes represent substantial shifts in the scholarly communication environment and will require responses much broader than a single library. As such, we should join our institutional partners in continuing to advocate for a sustainable and open ecosystem of publication, one that recognizes and rebalances the contributions that authors, institutions, and publishers make.
  • The rise of multiple formats. Libraries have always dealt with multiple formats, and this trend only continues to grow. In addition to print and online journals and books, we also provide access to multiple forms of audio, video, data, and other media. Print continues to be an essential part of our collections; however, the rapid shift online has exposed the costs of acquiring and managing print collections and has changed the calculations that determine what format is optimal. Moving forward, we should look carefully at how we optimize the Libraries’ collection budget to provide access to content, balancing the diverse needs of the various disciplines with overall trends and preferences toward the use of digital media.

Taken together, I see these trends pushing us further in the direction of interdependence and collaboration among libraries. For instance, the cancellation of “Big Deals” requires unprecedented levels of collaboration and reliance on borrowing networks. Strong and established partnerships with PALCI, BTAA, and VALE position us well in this environment, as do our membership with HathiTrust and leadership in the BTAA Collective Collection initiative. As we invest in these efforts, we will be forced to navigate the tradeoffs between local control versus participating in shared activities at the consortial level to achieve efficiencies of scale in purchasing, licensing, and sharing resources.

At this moment, we have the opportunity to look more holistically at our collections, to ask important questions about our priorities and approach, and to begin charting a course forward that will help us address not only the difficulties we are facing in the immediate present, but also the shifting landscape of scholarly communication and higher education more broadly moving into the future. We have an informed and engaged library faculty who can share their insights and expertise with discipline-specific perspectives on these issues, as well as a faculty planning committee who are tasked with helping the Libraries develop a more focused long-term vision that will allow us to flourish in the face of the many challenges before us. It may be difficult, but with the willingness and flexibility to adapt to a rapidly changing environment, the courage to make bold decisions, and a genuine commitment to deep collaboration (both within the Libraries and across our many external partnerships), I am confident that we can position ourselves to provide excellent service to the post-pandemic university.

Krisellen Maloney