College libraries prepare for fall semester

Joey Fox and Jackson Hartigan

Campus in the fall will no doubt be a dramatically different place for those who return, with social distancing restrictions, hybrid or all-remote classes and countless other changes. But despite the unusual circumstances, the College’s libraries are approaching the upcoming semester with relatively few major alterations to their pre-COVID-19 operations.

After the campus was closed in the spring, libraries at the College transitioned to an almost entirely remote system and significantly reduced their services for students both on and off campus. The library buildings themselves, like many other campus buildings, were closed to students.

These closures will not be in effect in the fall, according to Director of Libraries Jonathan Miller. Students will be able to study in the libraries, albeit with significant social distancing restrictions and mask-wearing, as well as community guidelines that apply to other campus buildings.

According to Miller, the College will adjust library spaces to accommodate the changes. “There will be fewer seats at tables, study rooms will have much lower occupancy numbers, some spaces will be blocked off,” Miller wrote in an email to the Record. “Some rooms will be requisitioned for high priority activities like course instruction, others may be used for exams.”

“We have been asked to create as ‘Williams-like’ an experience as possible and we think we can do that,” Miller continued, “but students should anticipate fewer seats overall and a greater expectation that they will clean up after themselves.”

The library’s hours may be subject to alteration as well, though no changes are currently planned, and vending machines will be removed, as they will be from all campus buildings. Carrels for seniors writing theses will most likely still be available, although there may be fewer overall due to social distancing restrictions.

For the library’s full-time staff, who, like students, worked remotely for the second half of the spring semester, the fall will entail something of a hybrid approach. “We expect staff who can successfully work off campus and online will continue to do so,” Miller said. “For most staff this will mean a mixed schedule with some hours on campus in library buildings and some online.”

Student workers, too, will do much of their library job remotely and must comply with social distancing rules while working on-site, which Miller noted will likely lead to fewer job opportunities. “We anticipate that we will be hiring student workers,” Miller said. “However, we may not have as many positions or hours available as we have had in the past.”

The interlibrary loan system, which links the library’s collection with those at other colleges and universities around the country, will continue largely unabated, although Miller stressed that its reach will depend on the openness of other institutions. The library additionally intends on continuing its regular schedule of purchases, albeit with a new focus on digital materials.

Special Collections, meanwhile, will offer reading room access only by appointment to current students, faculty and staff. Like elsewhere in the library, special collections staff will work remotely whenever possible, according to Head of Special Collections Lisa Conathan.

Like the broader library system, Special Collections plans to employ students remotely, which will mean a reduction in the availability of student jobs. Chapin Library purchases will continue as usual, though on a decreased budget.

Special Collections hopes to increase both the quantity and accessibility of its digital collections for remote researchers. “I expect that we will spend more time scanning collection material in order to support research and teaching,” Conathan wrote to the Record. “The most challenging aspect of digitization is to make sure that the material is useful. Rather than focus on churning out scans of the material, we will work with faculty and students to make sure they have the support to make the best use of what they are able to access.”

College archiving processes will continue, with efforts “to document a wide range of experiences in the Williams community,” according to Conathan. Special Collections has “responded to the current environment by working with students, alumni and the community to gather photographs, journals and other documentation of the COVID-19 experience and the Black Lives Matter movement,” Conathan continued. “We’ve also seen more business processes move to a digital environment, furthering an already-existing trend.”

Of course, not every student will be able to access the library’s services in person; some students will be taking the semester remotely, while others may be on-campus but under quarantine and unable to visit the library for long periods of time. Miller said that the library will work to make sure that all students regardless of location will have at least some access to library materials.

“Our top priority remains to ensure that as many resources and services as possible are accessible online,” Miller said. “When required, we will mail materials to students (and faculty and staff) who are not on campus (although, except in cases of financial need, they will be responsible for the cost of returning those materials). We have not yet determined whether or how we could deliver materials to students quarantined on campus, but it is on the list of questions we have to answer.”

And, like President Maud S. Mandel and other administrators do consistently in their messages and town halls, Miller emphasized that nothing is set in stone yet. “All this is subject to change on the basis of changing guidance from health authorities and from the College,” he said.