Covid-19: A catalyst for change?

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Eighteen months into the pandemic, Rebecca Pool asks: do libraries face an exclusively digital future?

Image: Vasin Lee/

When the pandemic took hold in 2020, Sage Publishing software company, Lean Library from The Netherlands, had around 100,000 users tapping into its browser plugin, Access. Come 2021, active users had doubled to 200,000 while library partners had mushroomed from around 40 to 150.

Under normal circumstances, Lean Library managing director, Matthew Hayes, might have expected around 20 new partners from one year to the next, but as the world now knows, circumstances have been been anything but normal in the last 18 months or so.

‘The rise in users was partly new libraries adopting our plugin but also increased uptake among patrons whose institution already had Lean Library,’ he says. ‘We also saw increased usage of the actual product, but you would expect this if people are off-campus.’

Lean Library’s experience is in line with community-wide feedback on the use of digital and cloud-based materials. The 2020 Ithaka S+R US Library Survey revealed that library leaders believed the pandemic had accelerated trends in investments toward virtual services and digital collections.

Meanwhile, in its report ‘Covid-19 and the digital shift in action’, Research Libraries UK (RLUK) surveyed members and reported how the majority believed Covid-19 had encouraged projects that enabled the access and use of digital collections and the provision of online teaching content.

The RLUK now recommends enhanced investment in digital content and resources. And as executive director, David Prosser, says: ‘This is an ongoing process and some areas have gone further down the road than others, but Covid-19 really has accelerated this shift.’

Ebsco Information Services executives agree. Vice president of communications, Kathleen McEvoy, is certain that the pandemic has ‘allowed’ libraries to help their institutions come online, and many are now looking to address questions such as ‘how do we improve access to information’, ‘how do we make our support to the researchers more seamless in an online environment’ and ‘how do we provide more opportunities for the student, research or faculty member to access the library?’.

‘For me, this has been the real change,’ she says. ‘Libraries have been able to say ‘we have these resources for you’, so Covid has sped up the adoption of a more e-centric approach.’

McEvoy’s colleague, Harry Kaplanian, vice president of product management, Folio services, also asserts Ebsco has seen a rise in demand for the open source library services platform, throughout the pandemic. In late July, and following planning long before the pandemic, founding Folio member, Cornell University Library, implemented the platform with Ebsco providing hosting and service support. Meanwhile in early August, Durban University of Technology (DUT) became the first library in South Africa to adopt Folio, followed by the US University of Missouri Systems Libraries later that month.

‘Around 40 libraries are now live on Folio, and this number just seems to keep rapidly expanding,’ says Kaplanian. ‘This open source option for academic libraries really hasn’t existed before, and we expect to see more libraries adopt the platform as they look at where they want to be and what services they want to provide in five, even ten, years from now.’

Along the way, universities have been integrating other services including those for ebook, print book, workflows, discovery and subscriptions with some also using local service partners to implement the platform while Ebsco provides the infrastructure and hosts the platform.

As Christopher Spalding, vice president of product management and researcher workflows at Ebsco, also points out: ‘Local regional providers can deliver the solution in the local language, provide local needs, and in this case, use us as a back end. But in the future, there could be, say, some providers in China that might use Alibaba as a back end.’

Open source or not, Jane Burke, senior vice president, strategic initiatives at ProQuest, is equally confident the pandemic has exacerbated the move to digital library services in the cloud. For her, a case in point is the Leganto course resource list solution.

‘We’ve experienced a terrific increase in the number of customers here,’ she says. ‘Early on in the pandemic several of our Leganto libraries realised that this was the only way that they could offer short-term load or course materials, and this [product] has proven itself all the way through the pandemic.’

Burke is also adamant that cloud-based services can bring massive efficiencies to libraries by streamlining workflows. ‘The ability to have huge databases in the cloud interoperating in a seamless way makes a huge difference... and offers more opportunities for library services,’ she says. ‘We do think that the pandemic has nudged people to where they need to be.’

And as more and more libraries turn to digital content and cloud-based services, Burke believes there will be no going back. She points to an article written early on in the pandemic by Christopher Cox, Dean of Libraries at Clemson University for Inside Higher Ed.

In ‘Changed, Changed Utterly’, Cox predicts how library collections, services, spaces and operation will alter profoundly following the pandemic. For example, he highlights how ‘irrelevant’ circulating print collections have become, the need for mass digitisation and self-service models, his expectation that electronic collections will now grow, the rise of open content and educational resources, the need for online teaching and research support, and much, much more.

‘I think that if you look at what the permanent shifts are going to be as a result of the pandemic, then hybrid learning or remote learning is here to stay,’ says Burke. ‘There’s going to be continuing  greater demand for ebooks over print books – at ProQuest the curves have crossed and we’re now selling more ebooks than print, and we don’t expect [this development] to revert back.’

‘This doesn’t diminish the importance of large print repositories, but I do think for certain kinds of research, teaching and learning, we’ve seen a permanent shift,’ she adds.

But then there’s the ever-dwindling library budgets. As RLUK’s Prosser points out, many of his library members were awarded emergency funds to bolster remote learning and research early on in the pandemic when buildings had to shut – but are these investments sustainable? Despite a positive outlook on digital collection and virtual service investments, many participating in the 2020 Ithaka S+R US Library Survey reported overall budget cuts and concern about post-pandemic financial recovery.

Ebsco’s McEvoy echoes these worries but remains confident that library priorities have shifted towards electronic provision. ‘[Libraries] are not flush with cash, but they are reorienting planning based on new Covid-related priorities.’

Spalding concurs. ‘I’m not sure that emergency funding will remain but prioritisation to services especially around remote provision will continue to be core to the mission of teaching and learning,’ he adds.

For his part, Lean Library’s Hayes believes library technology budgets are definitely growing, but reckons content still comes first: ‘I think there is still a long way to go before technology solutions have the same attraction as content... it seems to be easier for a library to justify the budget for content.’

Yet be it for cloud-based ebooks or technology services, Boston College’s Burns Librarian, Christian Dupont, believes budgets will remain intact for academic libraries. As he puts it: ‘If a university survives the pandemic financially and continues to have students, they have to have a library that offers decent services – that’s part of the deal right now, and they’ll need a budgetary resource.’

According to the Burns Librarian, his library absorbed the extra costs of the pandemic by freezing positions – people didn’t lose jobs, but neither were they hired. However, he also sees independent libraries that aren’t tied to an academic- or government-related institution in crisis.

‘Whether it’s a direct effect of the pandemic on their usual pool of students who would pay tuition, these institutions are disappearing – liberal arts colleges or some religious colleges are just extremely challenged financially and the pandemic has pushed them over the edge,’ he says.

Like many, Dupont has also been eyeing Folio developments with interest, but again budget concerns draw caution. He believes the days of librarians creating their own open source software are over due to high developer costs, and reckons hybrid models, such as Ebsco-backed Folio, are interesting.

But he points out: ‘The pandemic has put pressure on us and even though we’re better off than most for getting the extra budget, making an investment here would be challenging. We may have been more eager to switch platforms two years ago, but now we’re playing it safer and saying let’s stick with what we know works.’

Lending lessons

In North America, predominantly, the pandemic has rekindled debate over Controlled Digital Lending (CDL). As ProQuest’s Burke puts it: ‘This is now the buzzword in the US – it is everywhere and I must have six conversations a week about this concept and book-lending.’

CDL can be considered as the digital equivalent of traditional physical library lending. A library will digitise a book it owns and then lend out a secured digital version to one user at a time, in place of the physical item. And throughout the pandemic, when remote learning was unavoidable, such a service was very useful.

However, CDL is not new, and was contentious in the context of copyright law long before Covid-19 came along. For a publisher or copyright owner, the library doesn’t necessarily have the authority to copy their works, which could lead to lost sales – some organisations even regard CDL as glorified piracy. Meanwhile, libraries assert that the fair use doctrine and use of digital rights management protects them from any liability.

CDL controversy hit a hiatus during the pandemic when US non-profit digital library, Internet Archive, created the National Emergency Library, removing the usual one copy/one user lending restrictions on its 1.4 million digitised books. Several publishers filed copyright infringement claims and the initiative ceased operation.

The legal spat continues but change is afoot. Ebsco has started to collaborate with UK-based software developer, Knowledge Integration, on support for CDL in Folio. At the same time, ProQuest’s Ex Libris is developing functions within its software to increase compatibility with CDL. ‘The community is working hard to find a way to lend these materials digitally within the legal framework because it’s just so important,’ says Burke.

Dupont also expects to see a controlled form of CDL in the future. ‘This could allow libraries or library-like entities to provide a new type of re-formatting and lending service,’ he says. ‘The legal mechanisms and technology platform need to be worked out, and we’re seeing a lot of attention to this aspect of providing access to information resources.’

In a related, and interesting turn, libraries’ most coveted, and often most hidden, assets – special collections and archives – could also see a more digital future. Throughout the pandemic, archivists far and wide endeavoured to provide online access to their research materials, including Dupont who is looking into developing a virtual research experience of his library’s local collection to anyone in the world. This could involve the library providing scans to a researcher for limited research use and within copyright restrictions as well as ‘virtual reading rooms’ in which users have access to a document for a period of time.

‘Like Controlled Digital Lending... we need to find ways to do this that don’t violate and copyright or privacy concerns, and the tools and software that can make this happened have yet to be developed in our area,’ he says.

So what now – has the pandemic triggered a cloud-only future for libraries? Ebsco’s Spalding points to the John Hopkins Welch Medical Library, which made the switch to fully-electronic resources as early as 2012. Its collection exceeds 400,000 physical volumes, all of which are transitioning online: ‘This prestigious medical library closed its door years ago as the librarians are actually embedded in the research – I can see the physical [space] going in many other cases,’ he says.

Spalding’s colleague, Kaplanian, is also certain we’ll see more libraries operating as ‘cloud-only’, but he isn’t convinced these will become the majority. ‘A key service that libraries provide is a place to work, collaborate, learn and spread knowledge,’ he says. ‘I just don’t see this disappearing in the academic environment.’

And many agree. As RLUK’s Prosser points out, during the UK’s 2020 Christmas lock-down, University lecture theatres and other buildings were shutting down at a time when some overseas students simply couldn’t get home. ‘We have heard how the library was seen as the heart of the University at this time and was this totemic building that was central to learning - this symbol resonates with so many.’