COVID / Surfacing Stories of Underrepresented Lives

Through January, we’re publishing year-in-review highlights from FY2020. Download a full PDF of this year’s Annual Report to read more!

COVID-19 Leads to Rapid (& Ongoing) Changes

What is a library when it’s not a physical space? It’s a question that’s been examined for years by libraries that operate strictly online. But, as all of our community struggled this spring to adjust to the threat of COVID-19, ceasing in-person services and instruction over just a few days in March, the question took on a sudden new relevance.

Libraries without Libraries

Until March 2020, a situation like the global coronavirus pandemic was far more familiar as a plot to dystopian science fiction than as a real-life scenario. That said, the theoretical disaster planning which is revisited regularly by the Continuity of Operations Planning group provided fertile ground for quick movement: As soon as operational changes became a possibility, daily check-ins were set, procedures re-invented, and Library staff set out to accomplish an unprecedented shift to support tens of thousands of students and instructors for distance education.

View of University Librarian John Unsworth from the point of view of meeting attendees as he speaks on the computer screen over Zoom.

University Librarian John Unsworth conducts Library business remotely during the pandemic.

From the beginning, Library leadership recognized some of the barriers ahead: With millions of print items in our collection, how could we continue to serve a population that is increasingly distanced from Grounds? If (when) buildings closed, what essential items would need to be retrieved? If scanning operations were to be undertaken, what legal and procedural factors needed to be examined?

On March 31, after quick action by Library leadership and HathiTrust, the Library announced a monumental partnership to grant digital access to any item in UVA’s collection which HathiTrust possessed digitally. This special access meant that a huge portion of UVA’s in-copyright print collection was immediately available online to anyone with a Netbadge login.

Between Library buildings closing in mid-March and the announcement of the HathiTrust arrangement, a massive scanning project was undertaken to provide course materials to students and educators who suddenly found themselves engaged in critical distance education.

Rapid shift

On a normal day, several hundred people staff the UVA Library, most of them in person. As of mid-March, however, the Library was operating fully remotely, with the exception of a critical skeleton crew that enabled the essential work.

But even that crew wasn’t so small: for every scanning machine, there’s an IT person tagged with its maintenance and repair. For every building being accessed, there are facilities personnel on call for card swipe issues or problems with the physical plant. And, of course, in the midst of ambiguities around surface contamination, feverish reminders of the importance of handwashing, and shortages of Personal Protective
Equipment, housekeeping staff became the absolutely essential front line for keeping coronavirus at bay.

The central Library scanning operation became a partnership between Access Services, Public Services, and Special Collections. When an item was requested for digital delivery, it was retrieved by staff in Clemons Library, Ivy Stacks, or Special Collections, depending on where the item was located. In Clemons, a large scanner was installed on the first floor, where the massive collection displaced by the main library renovation was recently shelved. In Special Collections, cell phone cameras were utilized for cases when low-res “scans” were suitable for patron use. In all cases, staff manually captured the material, page by page, and delivered a digital facsimile to the requester.

In each scanning location, staff took extensive measures to protect themselves and others. Mail, normally a massive piece of the Library’s operations as hundreds of items are received every day, was quarantined for several days before handling. Work spaces, scanners, desk surfaces, and door handles were wiped down with regularity. Like many other service personnel in the early days of the pandemic, Library staff displayed dogged vigilance and caution in their essential work to support the spring curriculum.

Adjusting to Distance Learning

The Library employs specialist librarians with expertise in particular subjects in order to serve departmental needs. Whether a patron’s focus is English, Chemistry, Physics, Human Sexuality, Art, or another discipline, a librarian has expertise in resources available for the field. Additionally, Teaching and Learning librarians hold significant expertise in pedagogical planning and support. Their knowledge of digital tools, learning styles, lesson planning, and more can provide immense support to instructors seeking to adjust their coursework in light of the shift to distance learning. Additional subject
experts such as those in the Scholars’ Lab or Research Data Services carry specialized knowledge of tech, digital humanities, software, and all of the spaces in between.

Tables in the Special Collections reading room, lined with books, open on book cradles in preparation for a virtual class.

The reading room of the Small Special Collections Library, set up in March for a virtual class on Persian poetry. Photo by Molly Schwartzburg.

Working closely together, Subject Liaisons and specialty librarians have always provided powerful support to instructors, but with the quick pivot online these experts were all the more critical. This spring they were still identifying materials to meet teaching and research needs; assisting in course adjustments in response to instructor goals, student needs, and technological barriers; and advising on best practices for distance learning and research alike. These are important roles the Subject Liaisons and specialty librarians have always filled, only this spring they were doing it fully digitally, from home.

Under normal circumstances, it is not uncommon for a class to visit the Special Collections reading room for lessons or research work. However, as everyday class sessions moved online, so did specialty ones — and Library staff were along for the ride.

Carrying On

The Library community remained dedicated to research and learning success, even as drastic measures were taken to protect our local citizenry from the threat of COVID-19.
Consider the following:

  • When a University-wide call went out for volunteers to serve as Zoom video support in “classrooms,” more than a quarter of the resulting volunteers (50+ individuals) were Library staff.
  • Scanning of physical items took place at a breakneck pace before ending in early April — Library staff scanned more than 100,000 pages, by hand, for use in courses and research.
  • From March until the end of spring semester, Library staff conducted more than 100 instruction sessions and nearly 900 specialty consultations, all using remote instruction tools to meet the instructional and research needs of our community.
  • “Ask a Librarian” chat, normally supported by student employees at the circulation desk, remained open and available for extended hours throughout the pandemic thanks to student employees who were willing to work remotely to answer questions and refer patrons to needed resources.
  • As an initial partner with HathiTrust’s Emergency Digital Access program, UVA helped pave the way for hundreds of other institutions to make millions of in-copyright items available to patrons around the globe — enabling access while respecting licensing and building international collaboration.
Bust statue of Edgar Allan Poe, in the main library, a cloth medical mask over his mouth and nose.

Poe bust, masked up in the main library, sends a message to Library users – wear a mask in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Photo by Guy Mengel.

In addition to the ongoing work to support the modified research and learning landscape, librarians also worked quickly to make information about COVID-19 available to the University community and beyond. A guide for updates, information, and scholarly content about the coronavirus was quickly put together, in concert with staff from the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library. The guide included resources for researchers as well as the public, data and media resources, sections on misinformation, and guides to masks, social distancing, self-quarantining, and more. “COVID-19 Apoyo e Información,” an extensive Spanish-language guide, was created at UVA by ACRL Diversity Alliance Resident Librarian Hanni Nabahe, and subsequently
used as a template for similar guides at many of the state’s other major research libraries.

A cat, staring from behind a laptop computer screen displaying rows of images of attendees gathered for a Zoom meeting.

A pet cat attends a meeting over Zoom. Most Library employees continue to work from home to prevent community spread of the Coronavirus. Photo by Stan Gunn.

As of this writing, the coronavirus remains a significant threat around the world. Libraries, particularly in the United States, which currently has the dubious distinction of holding the highest number of cases in the world, remain deep in planning mode. There are contingencies being made for reopening; for re-closing; and for rapid responses of every stripe.

In the face of COVID-19, never has it been clearer that we are all connected. Our vulnerability, our dedication, and our shared experience in this time will no doubt lead to creative, innovative, incredible discoveries. The Library is immensely grateful to those who dedicate their lives to making our work effective, valued, and meaningful.

Surfacing Stories of Underrepresented Lives

In March 2019, the Library launched a project to transcribe unique items from the Small Special Collections Library and make those resources available for full-text searching. The transcription work, performed remotely by Library staff and student assistants whose regular responsibilities were interrupted because of the COVID-19 pandemic, will enable searching for specific names, places, dates, and more. Items that have been fully transcribed include the “Sally Hemings” underground newsletter (born in the turmoil of the May 1970 student strike), the University’s first volume of matriculation records (1825-1905), the Watson Family Papers “slave notebook” recounting work performed by enslaved men and women, and the registration book of the Madison Friendship Lodge, a local African- American fraternal order. Making these materials fully searchable is part of the Small Special Collections Library’s work to bring to light the stories of often-underrepresented lives.

The “Sally Hemings” underground newsletter born in the turmoil of the May 1970 student strike – one of the many items in the Small Special Collections Library being made available online.


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