The Covid-19 pandemic has brought rapid and profound changes to the work of research libraries. As the threat from Covid-19 increased across March 2020, services were rapidly realigned as library buildings were physically closed. As a result of closure, this period saw the transition to online-only provision of research library services, operations, access to collections, and audience engagement, at an unprecedented speed. This period therefore provides a unique opportunity to explore the experiences of RLUK members around the digital shift during a period of extraordinary and rapid service realignment. It also provides an opportunity to test the assumptions of RLUK’s manifesto for the digital shift in research libraries.

This report explores how RLUK member libraries prepared for the closure of their physical libraries, their experiences of working remotely, and what plans they are putting in place to enable their recovery. It does so through the lens of the digital shift occurring in research library services, operations, and collections. It touches on issues of staffing, decision making and contingency planning, and the perception of the library within the institution. It also uses the experience of RLUK members to examine the adaptability of the UK’s digital infrastructure, particularly around collections, and considers the extent to which the Covid-19 crisis might bring lasting change in how research libraries operate, both in terms of the digital shift and more widely.

The report is the result of an extensive period of research between April and June 2020 which included in depth interviews with 17 RLUK members and the results of two quantitative surveys of the wider research library community (which cumulatively received almost 400 responses). It provides an account of member experiences during a period of profound change and enables a degree of benchmarking between research libraries. It also places the contents of RLUK’s digital shift manifesto within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and how the manifesto’s contents can support research libraries navigate their ‘new normal’.

The RLUK Executive would like to thank all of those RLUK members who were interviewed as a part of this research and to those colleagues who shared their thoughts and experiences during what was an incredibly turbulent time. The Executive would also like to thank those colleagues who contributed to wider discussions during RLUK events and network meetings, and those who completed the two quantitative surveys associated with this work.

Download the Covid19 and the digital shift in action report

Key points from the report

Organisational context

  • Rapidity of events: that events moved quickly which made scenario planning difficult, with RLUK members having to respond to a complex mix of internal-library, institutional, and external drivers.

  • Decision-making process and alignment: the responses of member libraries were influenced and shaped by their wider institutional contexts and variation existed between university members and national libraries.

  • Business continuity planning: few member libraries had contingency plans specifically in relation to pandemics. Eventual plans for library closure and remote working were developed iteratively and at speed, through the combination of a series of pre-existing scenario plans or from scratch.

  • Variation in working environments: variation existed between RLUK members regarding their established capabilities to support flexible remote working. A number of members already supported remote and flexible working, whereas this was unfamiliar and less well established for others.

  • Covid-19 as a catalyst: for many members, Covid-19 acted as a catalyst for change, cementing and confirming emerging ways of working, and embedding these at greater speed.

  • Enabling remote working: a series of hardware and software challenges were encountered by the majority of members in enabling remote working, which were largely remedied in the first weeks of lockdown.

  • Digital divisions: the experience of lockdown revealed issues of digital inequality amongst staff and in relation to individual roles.

Scholarship and collections

  • E-print and the value of print: The lockdown has changed the perceived value of print collections, as member libraries have come to rely on e-print and digitised content. Although this has been a pragmatic response to the lockdown period, these experiences may have medium- to long-term implications.

  • Digital-physical dependency: the closure of physical buildings has exposed the reliance of digital access to some collections and resources on physical access to buildings and spaces.

  • Digital-first dividend: the pursuit of digital-first policies had increased e-content as a proportion of total library stock, but the size of this portion varies between RLUK members.

  • Resource realignment: that we will see a resource shift within member libraries to the purchase of e-content, enhanced digitisation, and the development of the library’s own digital scholarship services, techniques, and capabilities. This will be against the general backdrop of budgetary contraction.

  • Copyright: that the pandemic has reaffirmed significant challenges around the UK’s copyright law and also the application of exceptions during periods of lockdown.

  • E-print costs and licensing: that the costs and restrictive licensing associated with e-print requires urgent change and is unsustainable.

  • Unique and distinctive collections: members worked to enhance the quantity and visibility of their digital collections, enabling their inclusion within online teaching and research, whilst further enhancing their widening participation and community engagement activities during lockdown.

Skills and leadership

  • Skills and training: members worked to upskill colleagues around digital platforms and processes during lockdown.

  • New ways of working: colleagues and teams adapted well to remote working, with methods and approaches to online working maturing during the period of lockdown.

  • Pedagogical change: the shift to online learning and the dependence on e-content led to pedagogical changes and these may have medium- and long-term implications.

  • Opportunity: the experience of working remotely and offering services online provided an opportunity for the library to work in different ways, to ‘reboot’ its relationship with members of the academic community, and challenge perceptions of itself within its institution.

Physical and digital spaces

  • Phased return: member libraries are instituting a phased return and reopening of their buildings.

  • Hybrid: members plan to adopt a hybrid and mixed model of digital and physical services, reflecting their experiences of the lockdown, and in order to mitigate the impact of future pandemics.

  • Working practices: members envisage a major shift in working practices, especially in regard to flexible and remote working. The ability of colleagues to work remotely is likely to become an expectation.

  • Perception of the library: there is an opportunity to challenge and recast perceptions of the library through the promotion and diversification of its digital services and collections.

Moving forward

  • Licensing and cost of e-content: there is an urgent need to reform the way that e-print is priced and licensed.

  • Copyright: there’s a need for collective discussion around the reform of copyright frameworks to further support online learning and digital content.

  • Shift to digital: there needs to be enhanced investment in digital content and resources, especially e-print and e-textbooks in particular. Efforts around the digitisation of collections should be enhanced and greater use made of Open Educational Resources where possible.

  • Skills and training: there’s a need to continue to develop the digital skills and competencies of staff, reflecting the need for hybrid working in the medium- and long-term.

  • Digital infrastructure: there needs to be an enhanced emphasis and investment in digital infrastructure and to break the digital-physical dependences of access.

  • Working practices: there is an opportunity for a shift in working practices in the medium and long-term.

  • Advocacy for digital: that libraries should enhance their advocacy of their digital collections, services, and skills, and use the recent experience of the lockdown as evidence of these and their need for continued development.