Taking Academic Library Programs Online: COVID-19 & Beyond

With most colleges and universities moving coursework online for the remainder of this semester due to the coronavirus pandemic, campus libraries are adapting to an increased demand for online services and support. Virtual reference, electronic access to textbooks, assistance for faculty, streaming content โ€” as we make our way in this new reality of social distancing, these online resources feel more vital than ever.

This moment presents an opportunity for developing virtual programming options for our communities. Virtual programming not only offers access to a larger cross-section of users but also the flexibility necessary in times of uncertainty. Below you will find some great ideas for online programming that can applied in both academic and public library settings. 

Virtual exhibits and displays

Woman looking at laptop and cell phone
With most college campuses closed due to COVID-19, academic librarians get creative with ways to change in-person exhibits and programs to virtual experiences.

With most libraries closed to the public, our walls and display cases inaccessible, this is a chance to take art exhibits and material displays online where a wider group of users can enjoy them.

Not limited by time and place, online exhibits offer the additional benefit of linking to bios, related works and bibliographies. Material displays, not limited by physical space, can be as large or small as desired, and they can draw immediate connections to other resources on the internet beyond the exhibit contents.  

Not sure how to get started? Photo-sharing sites such as Flickr and Photobucket are excellent and accessible options for novices, as do social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest.  Longer-form platforms like Blogger and WordPress offer easy entry-level templates and design for creating webpages for your exhibit as well as supplemental materials.

At Columbia College Library, we are currently working with artists to prepare our Future Tense: Imagined Worlds from the Margins exhibit as a Flickr slideshow, incorporating a mix of images from the creators and photos taken by the library when the exhibit opened earlier this semester. While our physical exhibits always include artist placards detailing inspirations and bibliographies, we will be able to create more detailed linking of sources and author information in an online format. 

Virtual workshops

As a librarian, youโ€™re likely familiar with many of the free or inexpensive platforms used to share synchronous and asynchronous workshops and how-to demonstrations. These include face-to-face interactions via Skype, Zoom or Google Hangouts as well as pre-recorded content for platforms like YouTube and Vimeo. Tutorials can even be published on short-form platforms like Instagram. 

Like online exhibits and displays, workshops and tutorials allow the opportunity to connect users with related and supplemental resources. These workshops can reach a larger audience and more participants when placed online than in a more temporally limited format. 

Online panels, roundtables, interviews and discussions

During these times of social isolation, much could be lost in furthering conversations about arts, culture and science. Online and virtual discussions can be invaluable in both imparting information and promoting social and intellectual growth. 

Like workshops, these discussions can take place in โ€œliveโ€ or recorded formats, including via podcast, where questions are fielded by artists, scholars and experts in real time. They can also manifest in written form, where questions are posed to a variety of participants, then collected and published on a website or blog. With online documentation and archival ability, these conversations can be available and valuable long afterward to users who might not be able to attend an in-person event. 

Online book clubs and writing groups

Online book clubs are already enormously popular at connecting readers all over the globe, and many excellent resources exist to help libraries host them. Two of my favorites include excellent guides published by Book Riot and Bustle

Not limited by location and availability, online book clubs give organizers more opportunities for engagement with a wider swathe of readers and, like many of the above programs, allow the ability to link to related resources about the author and title. 

Online writing groups allow members to share work within the group for enjoyment or critique while fostering literary-focused conversations about publishing and other writing-related topics.  

Related resource guides

Even in conjunction with physical and in-person programming, some of the online resource tools your library is already using can help support and augment existing programming efforts. 

The tools and platforms we use to create subject, copyright and information literacy guides (Springshare, for example) can also be used for guides related to programming areas of interest. Such guides are an excellent way to direct users not only to library-owned materials and online resources but also to information and literature in the community and online.

My library's Future Tense: Imagined Worlds from the Margins programming includes a LibGuide devoted to Afrofuturism. We are currently working on additional guides for queer speculative fiction and feminist dystopian writing. 

Streaming performances, lectures and readings

Even before this recent shift to online content, many libraries were already taking advantage of streaming platforms to share in-person events with a wider audience. Now, as we enter this phase of social isolation, public and school librarians are taking to Zoom to host online story times for younger users. 

Platforms like Vimeo and YouTube offer excellent ways to share content like readings and performances. Performers, authors and storytellers can even record the sessions from home. Many authors and musicians are already posting media online via their own channels and have the capability of collaborating with libraries to bring that programming to a wider audience.  

Social media

While it offers a great platform for publicizing physical programming efforts and content-sharing, social media is often overlooked as, itself, a means of educational and creative engagement. 

Hashtag-based initiatives and conversations are excellent for resource-sharing and educational materials. Online trivia games and scavenger hunts offer dynamic ways to learn about subject matter and library collections. They are also perfect for short- and long-form content such as book reviews, microessays and interviews.

Columbia regularly hosts monthly zine nights, which are happening online via social media the remainder of this semester under the hashtag #zinemadness. We will post tutorials, resources and more every Monday in April and invite partcipants to share their work. 

Resource and programming sharing/collaboration

With so much cultural exchange moving online in the next few weeks โ€” concerts, performances, museum tours and more โ€” the current state of affairs offers an excellent opportunity for collaboration. Even as our daily lives temporarily narrow, the virtual world offers endless information and creative content.  

This content is not only vast but accessible to people far beyond our physical communities. It's a great opportunity to make our users aware of and share our resources. 

Libraries can explore resource and programming partnerships with a variety of cultural and arts institutions, as well as other libraries in their communities and abroad. Academic libraries also have the opportunity to collaborate with faculty members as they make the leap to online teaching, not only as traditional research support, but in creating content and related programming for their coursework. 
While the next few months pose many challenges for transitioning to online and virtual programming, they also provide endless opportunities to explore new media, platforms and ways of engaging users outside the four walls of the library. While our communities shrink in terms of the physical, they expand exponentially in the online world.