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How the University Library is tackling the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Librarian Christoph Ackermann
Librarian Christoph Ackermann explains what he has experienced during the last weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. (Image: Dr. Sandra Heuser)

Certainly never a boring moment: The University Library in times of the coronavirus pandemic

There is no playbook for the coronavirus pandemic and the situation at FAU is also highly experimental. How was the University Library able to switch its services to entirely online in such a short time? How can services still be offered in person at the library without risking infection? How are library staff who are parents coping with working from home when they are also caring for and teaching their children? Christoph Ackermann works at the Main Library in Erlangen and shares his notes and experiences from the last few weeks with us.

Librarian Christoph Ackermann explains what he has experienced during the last weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.

I have been working at the University Library for over 30 years (although not entirely continuously). Much has happened over the course of 30 years, especially with regard to the addition of digital services to existing library services. The current pandemic has accelerated this development immensely. Decisions and acquisitions that may have taken months to prepare in the past must now be implemented in a matter of days. Collaboration between the many library offices in Erlangen and Nuremberg has become much closer. The University Library crisis team and many different working groups have met regularly using DFNConf, Jitsi, Teams, Zoom and Skype and other applications (we have tried them all). It feels like the library is reorganising itself every week with constantly changing staffing plans, new services, new regulations – my head is spinning with all the developments and with personal circumstances such as home schooling, I am certainly ready for a break. But one thing at a time.

At the start of March, the University Library began to prepare for a potentially long closure. We were faced with many questions. Which IT systems do we need and which did we need to shut down? What did we need to communicate to library staff and users? How could staff access data and services from home? Who would look after the empty buildings?

On Friday 13 March, everything began moving very quickly. The Bavarian State Ministry of Science and the Arts decided to close all university libraries on the following day. Books were loaned from the library by the rucksack load like toilet paper from the supermarkets – rations for the closure period which was provisionally announced as until 19 April 2020. Exhausted, staff closed the library buildings at midnight and left for home.

From this point onwards, the library had to be managed remotely by staff working from home. The first priority was to brace the hundreds of enquiries posted online to library staff (at the end of March this was 545). Individual titles needed urgently were acquired as electronic media wherever this was possible, with campus-wide access (and from home via VPN). The library obtained licenses for databases from several major academic publishers – including a six-digit number of e-books and also informed users of resources that publishers were making available free of charge. We have also been developing video clips and e-tutorials for information and media skills.

Another group has been working on a special delivery service for all teaching staff who would like to offer supplementary literature in online courses; lecturers can obtain links to books licensed online or scanned pages from print material as PDF files. In terms of interlibrary loans, we could almost say that the coronavirus pandemic has had a positive impact. Although copyright law has permitted electronic delivery of documents to library users for some time, up until now the University Library has still produced masses of documents in paper form for interlibrary loans which is expensive, slow and inefficient. Following a recent agreement between the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs (KMG) and the copyright collective VG Wort, libraries can offer documents to end users in electronic form through interlibrary loan services until the end of May 2020.

(Image: Dr. Sandra Heuser)

Contingency plans were made from the start for reopening the libraries again with emphasis placed on social distancing and contactless borrowing. We have also converted routes through the library to a one-way system similar to IKEA, set up self-service shelves for collection and installed automated loan systems in record time.

(Image: Dr. Sandra Heuser)

On 20 April 2020, we were able to open the main library and the three largest branch libraries (TNZB, WSZB, EZB) without delay. Thousands of orders arrived on the first day, a sea of books stretched into reading room 1, which was repurposed as overflow space for the Main Library – I had not seen anything like it during the considerable time I have worked for the university.  For me, this was, at least temporarily, the end of working remotely, video conferences and organising the reopening. All staff available – many were still working remotely – were recalled to the library to help get the books in order.

Afterwards, we needed to tackle the branch libraries in the centre of Erlangen. Our plan was to set up temporary collection and return points in Bismarckstraße and Kochstraße for the surrounding libraries. But we needed to update the library IT system to support this change. In a short time we were able to set up collection and return points in the Departmental Library for Educational Science, Philosophy and Psychology and the Departmental Library for Political Science, Social Science and Economics. Media from the departmental library stocks can be ordered via the University Library’s online catalogue. Media from the Departmental Library for Art History can be also be ordered for collection from the Main Library – another logistical challenge. A brief digression on logistics: the book delivery service of the German libraries is now operational and serving major locations again: the interlibrary loan of printed media is currently available.

Students and researchers are raring to go and have been bombarding the online information desk with enquiries regarding when the reading rooms will open again. How can students write assignments in law without access to extensive reference libraries? When will historical media open again? And preparing for examinations is unthinkable for many students without the library. But this is where hygiene concepts become more complex for us. The number of places available while maintaining the minimum distance is far too few and we need to avoid the risk of infection presented by large queues in restricted spaces. We want to solve the problem with an online booking system – just like a theatre. When it’s a full house, you have to choose the next performance or try again another day. When will this be ready? Like many things at the moment, as soon as possible. The coronavirus pandemic is keeping us on our toes.


All information on borrowing, opening times and other library services are listed on the library website

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