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The World Stopped, the Queries Didn’t

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Diana Carey is a research librarian at the Schlesinger.

No Letup in Commitment to Researchers and Students

When the pandemic shut down the country in March 2020, it felt, for many, like the world had stopped spinning. But at schools and universities nationwide, the learning had to continue, leaving the Schlesinger Library with a daunting challenge: figure out how to foreground virtual support for students and researchers, now.

From Friday, March 13, through July, staff had no access to physical collections at all. Ellen Shea, the Library’s interim executive director and head of research services, described the mad rush on the day before the building closed—undergraduates scrambling to find the last few sources for their theses, researchers racing to scan one last chapter of evidence, and librarians struggling to conceptualize how they could possibly work from home. Against all odds, on Monday morning staff members were online, ready to serve patrons via inboxes and Zoom rooms.

Cat Lea Holbrook is an archivist and special projects manager at the Library.

With many of the Schlesinger’s most popular collections already digitized in their entirety, a guide to remote research was a natural first step. Next came an enhancement of virtual reference services. Although tools already existed for remote patrons, Shea noted that the adoption of Zoom lent the service a “more personal and personalized approach.” In the early months of the pandemic, librarians focused on connecting students and researchers with materials that were already online. By July, five people were allowed in the Schlesinger at any given time, and staff began to work on-site in rotations.

The priority for staff members who are physically in the library is scanning materials for patrons. “It’s all about access,” says Shea. “We’re doing whatever we can to get the material in people’s hands.” While librarians have been pleasantly surprised with their success in digitizing most aspects of research services, managing the volume of requests has been a test. With restrictions on occupancy and strict protocols for recording when items are touched—the Library has instituted mandatory 24-hour waiting periods between staff use—careful curation and prioritization are paramount. Shea estimates that the Schlesinger has scanned close to 75,000 images during the pandemic thus far.

For Tamar Gonen Brown, a research librarian and teaching coordinator, the principal concern of remote teaching is “keeping students connected to the materials” and trying to approximate the experience of holding historical documents in your hands. High-quality imaging allows a student to zoom in on a document and get a sense of it in great detail—creating the feel of a “digitized scrapbook,” Brown says. Successfully supporting as many teaching requests as possible means that librarians must be “surgical and limited and strategic in what we scan,” she added. Brown and her colleagues work with professors to determine which materials are most relevant to their courses and to structure engaging virtual sessions with librarians. The digital world gives students opportunities to put documents in conversation in new ways by engaging with items from multiple libraries in a single virtual session, she noted.

“It’s amazing, really, how much can happen online.”

This sentiment is shared by Elizabeth Lively ’21. Lively now has only a couple of weeks left before her thesis deadline, but back in March she had not yet settled on a topic. Worried that her research would be limited to collections that were already digitized, she met with the Schlesinger’s Sarah Hutcheon over Zoom to discuss her interests and narrow down particular undigitized materials she might need. After deciding to focus her research on early 20th century US advertising, she was able to request 10 folders of materials to be scanned at a time, with about a week between requests. Ultimately, Lively credits the librarians with making the research process “super easy and not stressful at all” and says that writing her thesis “has gone so much better than I ever could have expected when faced with the prospect of doing it all remotely.”

Despite the Schlesinger’s successes in adapting research services to circumstances during the pandemic, all are eager for the day that patrons can return to the library in person. Says Shea, “I can’t wait until I can answer my first reference question across the desk from someone.”

Iman Lavery is a student at Harvard College and a freelance writer.

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