As Europe’s first integrated public and university library, The Hive in Worcester is unique. As such, our experience of managing the interaction of spaces and stakeholders during Covid-19 has also been unique. For example, during the November 2020 and January-February 2021 lockdowns, our team had to implement two discrete sets of government guidance, simultaneously keeping our services as open as possible for students (including bookable study spaces and collections browsing) and limiting access to the public (essential, pre-booked PC use and collection of pre-reserved items only).
Surprisingly there was relatively little tension created between public and university users of The Hive during this time. There were, however, a number of instances where students from other institutions, unable to access their own university libraries, hoped to use The Hive and were dissatisfied with the limited access we were able to provide. We negotiated with individual students to allow them extra time on PCs, for example to complete virtual mock exams, but as they were technically public members, we had to restrict their use of services.
We suspect we are not alone in this experience. Many students have not returned to their campus residences thus far in 2021 and, with the SCONUL Access scheme having been suspended, may have been unable to access study space near their home address. Despite a tremendous amount of information sharing via webinars, SCONUL groups, and regional library collaborations, this does not appear to have been an area that has been addressed. Covid-19 is not yet over and this remains an issue for the sector.
The pandemic has also shone a light on the disparities on the digital experiences and capabilities of our two communities, university and public. In the first lockdown student support moved online with relative ease: we increased online chat and enquiries which have more than doubled over the past year, invested in appointment booking software, and flipped to online appointments and teaching. Students largely adapted to this new world, though of course we saw also students who were experiencing digital poverty or lack of digital confidence. However, the university was committed to addressing this with digital hardship funds, laptop loans and so on.
In contrast, the public digital offer was only in its fledgling stages. During the first lockdown many front of house staff offered telephone support to the public via the council’s Here2Help service. This service revealed the low digital literacy of many of our public users. Where many of our students have quite nuanced digital requests around accessing digital resources, many members of the public need much more basic support in setting up email accounts or printing off forms. Their digital space is smaller. We now need to work out how to continue delivering the enhanced online support that students have valued during lockdown, whilst ensuring our public users are not left behind.
It has also caused us to reflect on trends in academic libraries and publishing. One of the huge benefits of The Hive is public access to academic material. As we, like everyone else, move increasingly towards online resource provision, the material available to our public users will diminish over time. Even with the continued development of open access and, in particular, open access monographs, the lower digital literacies we have seen from our public members pose another significant barrier to accessing information.
Stephanie Jones, Hive Library Manager & Sarah Pittaway, Head of Library Academic Engagement (ORCID 0000-0001-6421-3871)
Reference: Jones, S., & Pittaway, S., (March 2021), Case study: spaces and stakeholders in The Hive during Covid-19. Research Libraries UK