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'How do I get my hands on this thing?': Librarians adapt to helping all students, faculty virtually

Their buildings may be closed, but Duke libraries are still open for business. 

Even before library buildings closed to the public after March 18, staffers were frantically scanning books and documents. Their top priority was to digitize all course materials, as well as Rubenstein Library resources that seniors may need for their theses. Then they moved on to researchers’ requests from the Rubenstein collections. 

“We worked really hard just before everyone left campus to get those materials up,” said David Hansen, associate university librarian for research, collections and scholarly communication. 

Another priority was to make sure the library staff had the equipment and technology needed in order to work remotely, said Tim McGeary, associate university librarian for digital strategies and technology. His team members gathered all the technology they could find and started a program where library staff could borrow monitors and laptops to set up their home offices. 

“That was successful,” he said. “We were able to give everyone a monitor who’d asked for one.”

From home, library staff members continue to help students, faculty and researchers access the resources they need. In addition to their ‘Ask a Librarian’ chat services, the reference librarians are still offering online consultations to answer research questions and guide individuals to digital resources. 

Kim Duckett, head of research and instructional services, said that the libraries are “busier than usual” with chats and emails through ‘Ask a Librarian.’ While the online chat has always been a frequently-used service, she noted that recently, the questions have become much narrower in scope as students try to find what they need on their own. 

“A lot of the questions are more about, ‘how do I get my hands on this thing?’ and then us trying to help you see what’s available,” Duckett said. 

She also said that librarians are receiving much more complex questions about how to access specific resources, some of which take hours of research. 

The Center for Data and Visualization Sciences has seen a similar trend with their ‘Ask Data’ chat function. 

Center Director Joel Herndon noted that another difference between now and before Duke's shutdown is that more people are asking how to do a specific thing. Instead of meeting in the lab at a shared monitor, however, the center’s consultants use Zoom and share screens to walk students through their questions, which Herndon said could range from, “How do I operate a certain piece of software?” to “How can I manipulate this data set to meet my needs?” 

Herndon said that the center has seen a dropoff in the number of consultations they’re doing—about half of their normal load. Meanwhile, their recorded workshops have seen a spike in viewership since campus has been shut down. They saw more requests for support from seniors working on their theses, Herndon said, noting that thesis deadlines are frequently in early April. 

Finding books that aren't in online catalogue

The first thing to do is ask a librarian for help because there are a number of ways they could get digital access to the book you need. If there’s an electronic version available, Duckett said, Duke libraries can buy it and add it to their digital collection.

However, no library has the resources to acquire everything that’s digitally available, so another option is to look for free access to the resource. Many publishers have enabled temporary open access to their resources in response to the COVID-19 crisis, explained Hansen, who is also the University library’s lead copyright and information policy officer. 

Perhaps the most creative solution is to find a version of the book on the HathiTrust Digital Library, a vast collection of digitized resources. 

As a partner institution with HathiTrust, whenever Duke Libraries scans a book or document, it is uploaded to the HathiTrust database. If the resource is in the public domain, then anyone can access it digitally. But if it’s protected by copyright, the digital copy is then stored in a “dark archive” and is out of reach, Hansen said. 

Under typical circumstances, Duke couldn’t just scan an entire library collection and provide free access online, as it would run into copyright issues. But since a large chunk of Duke’s inventory is now inaccessible due to the COVID-19 crisis, HathiTrust has temporarily turned on access to materials in Duke’s “dark archives” for as long as the physical library is closed. 

Hansen said that the underlying legal theory is if Duke Libraries owns the physical book, then you should be able to check out a digital copy since the physical one is locked in the building.

McGeary estimated that nearly 4 million of Duke’s books will be available online. That’s almost 40.7% of the library’s total collection, according to Hansen.

Preparing the library for its online transition was a massive undertaking, and McGeary emphasized that the library’s staff has been fantastic. 

“I couldn’t be more proud of our group,” he said. “Everybody has been doing the best work they possibly can under extraordinary circumstances.”

You can take advantage of all Duke Libraries’ online resources here

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