One Year Later – A Look Back at the COVID-19 Impact on Campus

March 17, 2021

One year ago (at least, in Wisconsin), everything turned upside down. Students still on spring break were informed they were not returning to in-person courses and were encouraged to go home. A bustling city came to a halt. A vibrant campus community shifted rapidly to a remote environment, with staff and faculty across campus working tirelessly and frantically to prepare for a way to finish the semester successfully.

Overnight, our various units in the Libraries jumped into action to create solutions to help ensure the campus community could continue their academic endeavors.

The UW-Madison Libraries’ Interlibrary Loan and Resource Sharing unit’s relatively behind-the-scenes services were thrust into the foreground as digital article and book chapter requests from patrons and other libraries are pouring in.

Anticipating the uptick in engagements, the UW-Madison Libraries worked to broaden the availability of online reference professionals that monitor our Ask A Librarian chat service. Our staff added more shifts to increase the number of librarians available per shift and expanded contact hours. Now multiple librarians can be reached seven days a week.

The Libraries’ Teaching & Learning Programs staff, who had been proactively preparing for the growth of online instruction at UW via fully online certificates and undergraduate and graduate degree programs for the past two years, were able to lend immediate assistance. Libraries’ staff were able to join the campus COVID-19 instructional continuity efforts this past semester to support multiple academic departments in their remote course preparations.

Through our partnership with HathiTrust, more of our collections were available digitally than ever before through emergency access for several months, and through carefully thought out access to our physical collections.

We’ve developed a number of other solutions to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the campus community, including changes to our study spaces, introducing ‘curbside’ services like Pickup by Appointment, and the development of Library by Appointment to ensure safe on-site access, and we expanded virtual support and consultations.

Additionally, our Archives staff set out to preserve this historic event for posterity through their Documenting COVID-19 project (read their account of the past year below).

Although the pandemic is still ongoing and continues to adversely impact research and scholarly activities in many ways, The UW-Madison Libraries, like many other areas on campus, have invested time in reinventing ourselves in ways that we are able to continue delivering robust support to our academic community.

While we know there will be a long path back to normal, the Libraries will continue to do everything possible to help and support our campus community.

From the Archives:

The world in University Archives prior to March 2020 consisted of our reading room being open without an appointment Monday through Friday 9 am-5 pm; staff and student staff working together throughout the day; interacting with researchers who were consulting archival collections; attending several meetings with peers and colleagues across campus; providing training to groups related to records management; conducting oral histories in-person; leading instruction sessions and introducing students to primary sources; working closely with donors on and off-campus; and so much more that reflected a way of life we all knew – rarely questioning the nuances.

On March 17, 2020, the University Archives closed at 4 pm due to the recently declared global pandemic. Little did we know that our world would be turned upside down and life as we knew it would be altered in ways we couldn’t imagine. Thinking that we would return to work and campus within a couple of weeks as things “got under control”, the Archives staff worked remotely from our homes to ensure that we were doing alright (as news about the pandemic changed drastically each day) and that our student staff remained connected and involved in the Archives. After a long and draining few months, the University Archives was considered an essential service by campus and we reopened to University faculty, staff, and students in July 2020. Several aspects of our services and research support to patrons on and off-campus changed drastically, as we had to pivot quickly to ensure the safety and well-being of staff, students, and anyone visiting us. We now require an appointment to enter our reading room and consult archival collections; we can no longer provide in-depth research services to the public and others who are not able to visit us in-person; our duplication services are limited; oral histories are conducted via online video and phone; our instruction and training are temporarily on pause, and our staff and student staff schedules and work responsibilities are radically different.

In this time of change, we remain connected to each other and provide various services to researchers, students, and the campus community. While our goals have shifted, we continue to come together as a team to ensure we are providing the best possible support and stewardship to researchers, students, and donors. Our staff and student staff quickly adjusted to remote work. Opportunities to implement more creative and out-of-the-box thinking have allowed us to remain productive and experiment with new service models and technologies.

The global pandemic is an unprecedented and profound moment in time. As Archivists, we strive to identify, collect, preserve, and make available materials that document the cultural heritage of society–which can include institutions, groups, communities, and individuals. It’s imperative that we try to capture this experience from multiple perspectives so others can learn from and better understand this crisis and period of time. University Archives wants to ensure that the UW-Madison community has a way to share their experiences during this pandemic–whether it’s through submitting materials to the Project or participating in our oral history story-gathering sessions.

Following in the footsteps of several peers at other Big Ten schools, our Documenting COVID-19 Project aims to collect stories and other materials that help document this unprecedented moment in history. We were hoping to receive photographs, videos, audio diaries, and perhaps some non-digital artifacts. While we’ve received a lot of photographs, we also ended up getting submissions of artwork, essays, journal entries, flyers, maps, poetry, videos, social media snapshots, and other miscellaneous documents. The breadth and depth of materials, perspectives, and stories we’ve collected is beyond what we imagined and expected from the campus community.

Oral histories have arisen as an ongoing aspect of this collection. Initially, this part of the project will consist of less than 20 interviews. Oral history program students or staff, however, will record three sessions, most if not all of them recorded virtually, with each interviewee between Spring 2020 and Winter 2021 to give some depth to these records. The results of those interviews will be available in 2022; also at that time, the program will consider continuing and expanding the project.

The pandemic is far from being over, but there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel. We’d like to continue collecting materials and stories from campus, as life continues to evolve and get reimagined. We invite people to provide their reflections of the past year, insight into the current life, and their hopes and dreams for the future. University Archives will continue to keep the Documenting COVID-19 Project open for the foreseeable future and welcome submissions.

So far, in the Archives:

Artwork 67
Documents 3
Essays/journal entries 20
Flyers 4
Maps 3
Photos 228
Poetry 1
Questionnaires 7
Social media 2
Videos 3
Oral History  16 interviews; 8.5 hours of audio
Unique submitters 43
Total files submitted 338