Library & Collections Services in the COVID Age

The Newberry operated without Internet for more than one hundred years, but 2020 marks the first time we’ve operated without physical access to our collections or reading rooms. Luckily, our librarians had some practice.

“Each year we answer thousands of questions from researchers around the world who can’t make it to the Newberry in person, so we had a lot of experience with answering questions by email and voicemail already.” That’s Will Hansen, the Newberry’s Director of Reader Services and Curator of Americana. Since our building closed in March, he and the Newberry’s reference team have answered more than 450 inquiries submitted from around the world.

Of course, answering questions without access to the library’s physical collections has been a challenge – some questions still require fuller exploration in the building – but Hansen explains that the team has used this time working-from-home to sharpen their digital reference skills.

From familiarizing themselves with the thousands of items the Newberry makes available digitally, to exploring the thousands of other research resources available online, Hansen and his team are quickly patching gaps in their knowledge. They’re also using Zoom to share their expertise with colleagues. For example, reference and reading room staff got a crash course in using digitized newspapers during a Zoom instructional session led by General Collections Services Librarian Maggie Cusick.

The number of online research resources has exploded in recent years, but those resources aren’t always easily navigated or even accessible unless researchers are affiliated with particular institutions or able to pay a fee. For many researchers, these restrictions have become even more of a burden during lockdown, but Newberry reference librarians are here to help.

Thanks to Newberry’s membership in the Center for Research Libraries, which has provided expanded digital access during the pandemic, our librarians were able to access a wider range of subscription databases between April and June 2020 than ever before. This access allowed them to thoroughly answer inquiries despite the limitations of working from home, locate digitized primary sources online, and point researchers in the right direction – hopefully one free of fees.

But where online resources aren’t enough, reference librarians can turn to their Newberry colleagues. Curators and research center staff have specialized expertise, meaning that the reference team can often forward questions their way rather than wait for the building to reopen. And when they can’t find a particular digitized image, the Digital Initiatives and Services (DIS) team is excellent at tracking it down.

“Reference is often a team sport,” jokes Hansen.

When asked about his favorite reference question of the past few months, Hansen demurs, “We try our best not to play favorites with reference questions – they’re each important to the researcher, or they wouldn’t be contacting us.”

“That being said,” he continues, “there have been some very interesting ones in the past few months. They range from a question about newspaper articles on Julia Lyons, a.k.a. ‘Slick Julia’ or ‘Flu Julia,’ who posed as a nurse during the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, to questions about family history and the histories of specific Chicago buildings, and from an inquiry about a 15th-century Belgian manuscript of the Gospels, to questions about postcards of cowboys in the early 20th century.”

Even as the Newberry begins to return to “normal” operations, Collections and Library Services staff is dedicated to finding new ways to serve people in the Newberry community and beyond. Curators and librarians have taken to Twitter and Instagram to discuss specific collection items via livestreams that have received more than 16,000 views. These videos are archived on our site, so you can watch them anytime.

Plus, the department launched in collaboration with DIS a new crowdsourcing initiative called Postcard Tag that lets online volunteers help make the Newberry’s postcard collection digitally searchable, as well as a more user-friendly interface for Newberry Transcribe.

Speaking of Newberry Transcribe, its popularity has skyrocketed. In the first two weeks of March, the website was visited just 1,400 times. Then our building closed due to COVID. In the following two weeks, pageviews jumped to 119,000! (You can read more about Newberry Transcribe in the previous edition of Donor Digest.)

All of these adaptations and innovations are made possible by your support, which lets us provide these services at zero cost to users. Thanks to you, readers have been able to continue their research, interact with staff experts, and engage with the archive – all from home.

Join curators and librarians via livestream as they discuss collection items in-depth.

Volunteer from home via Postcard Tag and Newberry Transcribe.

Submit your own reference question.

This story is part of the Newberry’s Donor Digest, Summer 2020. In this newsletter the Newberry shares with its donors exciting stories of the success and innovation made possible by their generosity. Learn more about supporting the library and its programs.