What do students need in order to succeed in a virtual environment? Libraries, of course, with plenty of online resources, like databases and catalogs, that are accessible from home. For the past 14 months, thousands of University at Albany students logged on to the University Libraries’ website to power their studies. What they found was a collection of tools and platforms designed to meet their remote-learning needs, all expertly managed by Rebecca Nous, Discovery Services Librarian.
In other words, meet the librarian who brought the Libraries directly to living rooms or kitchen tables or wherever students worked from home.
Rebecca Nous, Discovery Services Librarian
“It was a very tumultuous time, in a lot of different ways,” Rebecca said of the initial shutdown in March 2020. “Just like students and teaching faculty were adjusting to a fully remote teaching and learning environment, everyone at the Libraries, including me, were having to figure out in real time how to work effectively from home to meet the needs of our professors, students, and researchers who rely on our resources. Early on, the Libraries started to acquire additional online resources or transition resources we physically had in the library to online versions so that they could be used remotely, so it was quite a lot to keep up with.”
Rebecca, who previously served as Serials Solution Assistant in the Division of Technical Services, took on the role of Discovery Services Librarian in November 2013. In this position, she works to improve access to library resources, with a special emphasis on digital materials. She played a key role in the migration from the Aleph catalog system to the Alma/Primo platform in the summer of 2019.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the campus to shut down in March 2020, Rebecca’s top priority became increasing access to databases from off-campus networks. Many databases and online resources require users to prove they are affiliated with UAlbany to access them. On campus, this typically happens seamlessly and automatically by IP address, without students and faculty even having to think about it. However, accessing these resources from off campus requires logging in and can create some unexpected challenges.
“Though most of our online resources are available to anyone from our campus community just by logging in with a username and password, some databases have special processes or individual registration requirements that are not very intuitive. For those resources, we created online FAQs to help guide users through those processes so they could access as much from home as possible. I think they were also helpful for reference librarians as they helped researchers with questions about accessing those resources.”
"I think it was an important way to remind our community that we were still committed to and available to help them from home." - Rebecca on integrating subject librarians into the Search Tool
With students unable to visit in-person service points, Rebecca also found it important to enhance the way the Libraries share status messages. If an electronic resource was offline or temporarily unavailable, a student couldn’t stop by the Reference Desk to ask about it. Better communication was needed.
“The status alerts helped in so many ways. With status alerts, we were able to communicate with researchers, librarians, and other public services departments that heavily use our electronic resources, like interlibrary loan, about any changes to our access. We use status alerts to indicate if a resource has been cancelled or is no longer available, if we’re experiencing a temporary issue accessing it, if there is scheduled maintenance or an outage on the database side of things, if there is another type of ongoing issue that affects our researchers’ access or experience using it, if one resource has been replaced by another, and the list goes on. We publish that information on the Libraries’ website and in the Search Tool, so it’s available to everyone where they are typically going to access our resources. We also use the after-hours reference service Ask Us 24/7, and the status alerts have been a great way to communicate any issues with our online resources to the non-UAlbany librarians who are helping our researchers after hours.”
In addition to the responses driven by the pandemic, Rebecca used the period to take on some forward-thinking projects. For example, she worked to increase the presence of Subject Librarians in the Search Tool. If a student were to look up a book in the catalog, they would also find the contact information for that discipline’s librarian. This shouldn’t come as a surprise considering her interest in building collaborations within the Libraries.
“We initially decided to include subject librarians’ contact information in the Search Tool prior to our remote teaching and learning environment,” Rebecca explained. “The rationale was that it would make it easier for students and researchers to find out who specializes in the area of their research, to raise the profile of our subject librarians as research partners, and to highlight that we have subject specialists available to help with subject-specific questions. I think meeting that need was even more important as we switched to a remote teaching and learning environment. Where researchers might have gone to the physical reference desk and spoken with a subject librarian or made a PAWS appointment in person prior to March, I think it was an important way to remind our community that we were still committed to and available to help them from home. I think seeing their names in the Search Tool was a reminder of that, as well as a convenient way to get in touch with them at the point of need in their research.”
“I think this whole experience highlighted that the library offers so much beyond our physical space and resources, and emphasized the importance of being able to support our campus community regardless of where they are."
She also worked to pull items held in Scholars Archive, the Libraries’ institutional repository, into the Search Tool’s results. "Rebecca is always a pleasure to work with and eager to take on new challenges. In fact, the bigger the challenge the more excitement for her,” said Lindsay Van Berkom, Scholars Archive Administrator & Coordinator of Dewey Access Services. “Configuring the Libraries’ Search Tool to pull content from Scholars Archive was no exception. With her creative thinking and problem solving, she swiftly figured out how to include Scholars Archive as part of the several interfaces crawled by the Search Tool. A nice bonus that she also implemented was to display the open access logo for openly available content."
What comes next for Rebecca as the campus moves to fully reopen in the Fall semester?
“As we go back to campus, I’m not expecting too much to change except my physical location, oddly enough,” she said. “I will continue working to make our collections accessible and resolve any issues related to them as they arise, as quickly as possible. So much of my work related to making our electronic resources discoverable and accessible happened prior to March as well, but everyone working, learning, and researching remotely really shone a spotlight on it.”
While her day-to-day work may not change all that much, Rebecca believes the experience of the pandemic and remote work left her with a new perspective on her work, one she will take with her in the Fall semester and beyond.
“I think this whole experience highlighted that the library offers so much beyond our physical space and resources, and emphasized the importance of being able to support our campus community regardless of where they are. I’m proud of my effort, and the effort of everyone else who worked so hard to help our researchers find and access the resources they need. Seeing how quickly we were able to adapt our services to accommodate the changes on campus was inspiring, and got me excited to think about the other ways we could adapt to the needs of our researchers going forward.”