A steep learning curve

Creative stopgap solutions at the University and State Library (ULB)

2020/05/07 by

The University and State Library (ULB) continues to offer a basic service to students and researchers during the corona crisis. ULB Director Thomas Stäcker believes that the accelerated digitalisation of processes due to the virus offers an opportunity. The commitment shown by employees has impressed him and many of the ideas and stopgap solutions developed for the digital summer semester will also be suitable for the period after corona. He is certain that the positive experience with mobile working and video conferences will simplify everyday working life and the search for specialist employees in the future.

Professor Dr. Thomas Stäcker, Director of the University and State Library.

The library has coped comparatively well with the shutdown. Despite the fact that the ULB was shut down as a place of learning and centre for research from one day to the next, it was no longer possible to loan out printed media and more than three quarters of the staff switched over to mobile working, the search for other solutions and possibilities began immediately. A crisis team was thus formed.

To ensure that employees could continue to work from home, the ULB enabled them to use the cataloguing software and other software tools from their home PCs and also provided them with the required hardware where necessary. Magazine staff whose work had been temporarily suspended were able to take advantage of further training measures in the form of webinars developed by the library. Meetings and discussions have since been held digitally, with the library even setting up its own video conferencing service and a chat room for this purpose. “Internal operations are working very well and video conferences are now running very smoothly”, says ULB Director Thomas Stäcker.

Scanning service for print media

The restrictions placed on users of the ULB were considerable but even the process for loaning out books is now working well again. According to Professor Stäcker, the situation was especially difficult for users of print media and printed products. There has always been a very high proportion of these types of users – especially, although not exclusively, in the humanities. “They would have been left high and dry if we hadn't responded to the situation so quickly”, says the ULB Director. The ULB team had already organised a scanning service just one day after the shutdown. Students and researchers are able to order texts or pages from printed media and magazines by e-mail, which are then scanned and mailed to them within the scope permitted by copyright law. The library has since received up to 80 orders almost every single day, which are handled by several employees. “This service helps to alleviate the disruption caused by the crisis”, explains Stäcker.

Limited access to the library is now permitted once again. The ULB team has also developed other ideas to bridge the corona crisis. For a fee, the library is also willing, for example, to send out up to three books by post – this service is intended for those users who are not spending the semester in Darmstadt. Researchers can also directly purchase those books that they urgently require, while making them available later on to the library and billing the ULB for the books. However, they firstly have to agree the purchase of these books with the library, says Stäcker. As before, students and researchers are still able to submit their requests for the acquisition of publications using the relevant web form.

Further expansion of the range of digital services

The ULB Director emphasises that the library was already continuously expanding its range of digital services even before corona. In view of the need to implement the first virtual summer semester in response to the current crisis, in particular, the ULB is providing valuable support for digital teaching courses and their preparation. Alongside the increased procurement of e-media, the library also aims to digitalise the course reserve collection for the semester – i.e. the books that students require for certain courses – to a greater extent.

A special webcam service is also available for researchers who want to view valuable, historical manuscripts or other rare collections at the ULB that have not yet been digitalised. “A library employee turns the pages of the book for them in a one-hour video session.” The camera focuses on the pages of the book, while the specialist personnel at the ULB provide any relevant explanatory notes. “Our people have been very creative”, says a delighted Stäcker. Any face-to-face events for users of the ULB that were planned before corona are also being held digitally. The services being offered include consultation sessions, workshops and coffee lectures on the themes of researching, procuring and managing literature, citations, LaTeX, Word, research data management, publication, patents, standards and conserving the collections.

A fruitful experience

The virus has caused great disruption to the processes at the library but the ULB Director describes the experience during the crisis as being very fruitful. “We are not managing the crisis but rather shaping the transition”, he emphasises. “The learning curve that we have just experienced for the use of digital media in normal operations has been steep.” Stäcker believes that the benefits of digitalisation are clear and “we also want to exploit these opportunities in the future”. Conferences and meetings such as those held between the ULB branches at the Lichtwiese, Stadtmitte and Schloss sites are sure to be held electronically in the future. “It is not always necessary to meet in person”, says Stäcker. The ULB aims to expand on the culture of working from home and mobile working that has been very appreciated at this time. He is certain that “it will make working life and the recruitment of specialist employees easier”. If a potential applicant currently lives with their family in Stuttgart, is settled in the area and doesn’t want to move away on a permanent basis, it will be easier to recruit them for an open position in Darmstadt if they do not need to be on site at all times. It offers more flexibility and freedom, opens up greater opportunities for organising family life and selecting a place of residence, while also mitigating housing shortages, high rental costs and perhaps even the urban-rural gap.

Thomas Stäcker believes that the corona crisis has released a lot of positive energy. “My team has really thrown themselves into it. The level of commitment and cooperation they have shown has really touched me”, he says.