Rapid Assessment and Design to Support Library Services and Functions During the Pandemic

August 3, 2021


When the pandemic began to quickly shut down our libraries’ physical spaces, in-person services, and access to many of our physical resources, we didn’t know when we might reopen to campus. However, our library buildings never completely shut down: members of our technical services units, Facilities, access services and some others required direct access to physical resources and materials to continue to keep services active. Over the last 16 months members of the Library Environments department collaborated with Facilities and department managers and colleagues to design, create, and evaluate our pandemic-based changes to physical spaces, workflows, and onsite services. 

The Library Environments department’s work has been guided by four overarching controls (physical, design, environmental, and administrative) that focused on ensuring public health safety guidelines were in place for both our colleagues, and for the communities we served through in-person offerings. We focused on setting up physical, design, and environmental controls, including redesigned flow in workspaces, deploying physical barriers, reducing density, limiting in-person interactions, limited resource sharing (such as desks, printers, scanners, etc.) with reservations and cleaning protocols, adhering to health monitoring measures, and continuing remote work for most of our colleagues. In consultation with our library leadership and managers, we also put into place administrative controls to redistribute responsibilities across departments or individuals to reduce in-person contact, used technology to facilitate communication, implemented new norms on meetings, and offered flexible work hours. 

Our Process

By necessity and circumstance, we weren’t able to fully test many of the new workflows, services, or functions before putting them into place, and so we created a variety of mechanisms to support continual feedback. During the spring 2020, we re-engaged much of our collections-based workflows to continue to support research needs on campus and elsewhere. Over a period of three months, we enabled around 140 people to resume some limited onsite work to process materials, engage in archival and preservation work, shelve, and provide onsite-access to specialized collections that could not be circulated. 

In order to learn from our colleagues working onsite, or closely with onsite processes or functions, we set up a variety of feedback mechanisms to help our organizing team make changes to layouts, improve communications, or otherwise support each other. Our team assisted Facilities staff in creating and using a form to collect monitoring information to spot-check supplies access, circulation patterns, and overall compliance. We also collaborated with the Library’s assessment specialist Craig Smith, and other members of our organizing team, to create a bi-weekly survey that we sent to all library employees working onsite. We sent this survey out nine times between July 2, 2020 and December 17, 2020, evolving the questions as needed. In this survey, we asked for feedback about working conditions, patron-facing work, safety and access to cleaning supplies, adherence to safety guidelines, support and communication, and spaces and workflow. From this survey, our team was able to follow up with individuals to make specific changes to improve their spaces or experiences, adjust signage or larger-scale communications efforts, and to continue adjustments as more employees slowly returned to more onsite work. Over this period of time, we also held staff-wide meetings for those working onsite to provide updates, gather feedback, and discuss issues. 

We began our efforts over the summer 2020 to support Fall campus plans -- offering more, but limited, in-person services to students, faculty, and staff teaching, learning, and conducting research on campus. The Library Environments team led a variety of design and evaluation efforts to support this work. We supported teams of library colleagues in service design efforts to create a Contactless Pickup service. We did this by facilitating their use of an experience framework, and by assisting the team in identifying and coordinating meetings with technical experts who would not be directly involved in the service, but who would support it in some way. This work was fast-paced, and ambiguous, but everyone stepped up to create a new service that functioned well from day one. The service team kept a log of observations to discuss and use to inform changes to the workflows, communications, and deployment of the service that was invaluable to making fast changes in order to support community needs. 

Our team also facilitated the design of the Entry Check-In Desk, a desk deployed to coordinate and manage by-appointment services in the Shapiro Library, the only library open to the campus community at the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester. This work included collaborating with others to create the study spaces service model, including reservations, and workflows for communications via Google Chat for those working the Entry Check-In Desk to stay in contact with colleagues working elsewhere, either onsite in one of our libraries or remotely. By combining statistics from reservations, from installed sensors, and from Contactless Pickup service use, our team created both daily and semesterly reports on usage. This data was used by our Dean to communicate library use to the Provost and other campus Deans throughout the semester, helping us to balance staffing capacity with real-time demand. 

Once these new services were in place, our team designed and implemented a series of surveys to send to campus to gather feedback on our onsite services for the Shapiro Library. We sent a survey to users of the Contactless Pickup service and study spaces. With this feedback we were able to improve email communications to patrons of the Contactless Pickup service. We also identified limited funding to paint some basic geometric murals with the U-M student arts group Live in Color. This work aimed to bring some brightness into our spaces that were especially quiet with the limited occupancy regulations. 

Going Forward

As we continue to evolve our services and our workflows to move through the various stages of the pandemic -- with fewer health public restrictions but with the knowledge we may need to quickly pivot again -- our team has continued to support the work of our colleagues by creating workflows, communications channels, data-gathering mechanisms, and implementing service design methods. As in pre-pandemic years, our department will soon publish a “Year in Review” report that summarizes much of the activities the Operations division engages in and the uses of those services. Our report this year will look quite different from previous years, with extremely different quantitative results for circulation and activities, but we believe it will be a useful reflective tool to understand how we operated during the pandemic. We’re focused this year (and will continue to focus) on highlighting stories rather than simply reporting on data to quantify our work. Our assessment efforts aim to be more inclusive in our approach, considering and collecting not only the quantifiable but the context around our work. 

Our work continues as we move into Fall 2021. We continue to support the data-collection needs of our service desks as we open more across our library buildings. As we anticipate more students on campus and in our buildings, we will shift our focus to include research with our student body on how they anticipate using the library in the future, and how they perceive the library as welcoming or unwelcoming. We’ll apply this understanding to improve our space framework that we have developed to inform how we invest in types of furniture and spaces in our public areas -- open study areas, lounges, etc. We’re excited to be able to move into this research space and support the future evolution of the Library’s services, and how our academic communities experience our buildings based on their goals, needs, and situations.