We may be going back to work in the new normal.  A very, very clean and socially distanced workplace.  As eMails go out on the lists about the process of reintegrating into our physical libraries what will we remember about the time when the virtual library was the new normal?  Is it a sigh of relief to be getting back to that comfortable slot behind our desks and workstations or is there a nagging feeling that the more things look like same or the more they have changed?  I have to say that I am not experiencing any of this as the virtual has been normal for LKS ASE for years and that is not going to change.  So just for the sake of being able to write a blog I am imagineering the lessons that might be learnt.  In the good tradition of blog writing there are five and here they are. 

1) Virtual is a more inclusive strategy for our users than the physical

Why is that?  Well it's because our users are for the most part young(ish), well educated, tech savvy and tooled up for the digital age.  Many don’t own a computer because they have all they need in their pocket with a high-end smart phone.  Tech that isn’t mobile is looking a bit dated.  Trying to tie that down to a physical space is counter-productive.  Building a service that can be used virtually is going to include those people, running with the grain of our users lives.  It doesn't really require a revolution just a switch from physical first to virtual first.  That is pretty much what we were forced to do during lockdown.  I personally think it’s a trend that should stay. 

2) It is possible to work differently, and the sky won’t fall on our heads

Working from home is still working and it can be as productive as working from “the workplace”, or in fact, anywhere.  I am not saying that working from home doesn’t present challenges depending on personal circumstances, but as many colleagues have now worked from home what did we learn?  Maybe a couple of things.  Working “at work” generates its own kind of busyness and working at home stripped of that baggage can be more productive and you have more control over how you spend your time.  Working from home doesn’t mean separated from colleagues or users because social media, free access to Microsoft Teams (other software is available) means that we are still in touch.  The reality is we can work from anywhere and that gives us so much more flexibility on how we organise our work lives and even our library services.  

3) The tech is much better than we (I) thought

I have spent many hours on what is euphemistically called video conferencing and for me anyway it wasn’t a resounding success.  Most encounters left me with PVCSDS (Post Video Conferencing Sensory Derangement Syndrome) basically a headache and befuddle brain trying to manage the fragile technology, terrible sound quality.  All this accompanied by the persistent tap tap tap from the person who continued to answer their eMails without remembering to hit the mute button.  Why did they even bother turning up!  Anyway, the point of this mini rant is that while I was dissing the video conferencing revolution the tech got better and scaled down to my level of operation.  Better cameras, audio and connectivity, better software - just better all round.  The dreaded Webex (not) and Skype (is anybody there?) are in competition with some good products that you can simply click into. It just makes the whole thing easier and doable.   

4) Do we really need so many physical books?

Was the loss of access to the physical resources of the library a real deal breaker for our users?  Yes?  No?  I know of course this is heresy and I will be put in stocks outside the British Library while my betters hurl old CDs of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in my general direction.  LKS ASE or NWAS LKS its predecessor has never had any books.  I do concede there was a filling cabinet called Henry 1 that held the irredeemably physical for a few years.  COVID19, the impact on higher education have pushed eBooks to the fore.  LKS ASE has even been able to use that as leverage with publishers to make progress on releasing hard to get eversions of key texts.  Was this the moment when eBooks elbowed their physical counterparts out of the way?  I think so.  

5)  Is it closed…?

Did our users notice that the library building was closed?  Much of the great work evidenced on LIS-MEDICAL and no doubt more that wasn’t was about delivering services - searches, guides, current awareness, evidence reviews and much more which could have been prepared anywhere and is of course delivered online. It’s a question.  Do our users value our services more than our buildings?  Is that what we should be marketing?  Just asking. 

Anyway.  Stay safe everyone.  

Matt Holland
LKS ASE Librarian