COVID-19 and academic libraries in Slovenia: a new reality in user services, and the case study of The Central Economics Library

  1. General situation in Slovenia

The new coronavirus (COVID-19) has been affecting public life and public institutions in Slovenia since the mid-February 2020, when the epidemiological situation in the neighboring country of Italy began to deteriorate rapidly. Institutions of higher education have begun to prepare themselves for the worst scenario, i.e. the probability of imminent transmission and spread of infections in Slovenia. The first infection with COVID-19 was confirmed on 4 March 2020, and the Government of the Republic of Slovenia declared the epidemic situation on 12 March 2020. Some strict measures followed: we have closed cultural and educational institutions, non-food shops, restaurants and bars, abolished public transport, and movement between municipalities was first restricted and then almost completely disabled.

Universities and other institutions of higher education closed on 16 March and all academic activities have been moved to the virtual environment. Higher education libraries faced a new reality almost overnight. Some of them (for example the National and University Library, the Central Technical Library of the University of Ljubljana, the University Library of Maribor, Central Economics Library, Library of the Faculty of Education) responded quickly to this situation. Despite the fact that the library staff worked from home, users with remote access were provided with an expanded set of electronic information resources and online assistance to find and use them. During the lockdown other academic libraries concentrated their efforts on internal library tasks (such as bibliographic processing of materials) rather than user services.

Subject to strict hygiene and other measures to prevent infections with CORONA-19, Slovenian libraries were able to introduce lending of physical library materials – without direct contact of employees with users – at the end of April 2020. Limited use of reading rooms and library equipment (e.g. computer workstations), was enabled only at the beginning of June. The Government of Republic of Slovenia announced the end of the epidemic situation on 15 May 2020, and the decree entered into force on 31 May 2020. Despite the formal end of the epidemic, we are aware that the virus is still spreading among us. Therefore, even in the context of a gradual relaxation of protective measures, hand sanitation and face masks are still compulsory in indoor public spaces, as well as on public transport, social distancing should be practiced at all times, and all larger public gatherings are still prohibited.

The situation caused by the epidemic warns us that our lives will no longer be the same as they were before. While academic libraries are currently open to the public, they have to respect a number of safety measures. All of them are facing challenges to transform their services support educational and research activities in the online environment. The fact that academic libraries are becoming more ”invisible“ as a physical places than they have been before “corona times” creates some concerns. Also, all professional meetings of academic librarians were canceled since the March, which resulted in a gradual reduction in contacts and collaboration between libraries. We also find that those libraries that have sufficient support from their parent higher education institutions face these challenges faster and more successfully.

  1. A case study: The Central Economics Library

Among the latter, as an example of good practice we would like to point out the Central Economics Library (CEL), which operates within the School of Economics and Business, University of Ljubljana (SEB LU).

The Central Economics Library is the leading and largest scientific and academic library for business and economics studies in Slovenia, founded in 1947. It houses more than 245,000 printed books and serials, and provides in-house and remote access to a great amount of electronic resources (between them access to 250,000 eBooks). The library has more than 4,400 active users (members), and many more use its remote services. It provides modern premises and equipment to physical visitors and in offering online services it actively follows the development of modern technologies and changes in the information needs of its users. In the development of its services, it has the strong support of the parent institution, which also had a significant impact on the success of adapting library activities to the new conditions. We asked the head of the library, Mr. Tomaž Ulčakar, to present the library activities at a time when its work was taking place only outside its physical premises.

  • Tomaž, could you say that your parent institution was ready to face the situation that followed the declaration of the COVID-19 epidemic in Slovenia?

The School of Economics and Business has been dealing with the coronavirus situation since mid-January, when we began receiving the first comprehensive information on the situation in China, provided by Confucius Institute, which operates within the school. The time coincided with the Chinese New Year, when employees at the institute return home for traditional celebrations. No one imagined that the Chinese Year of the Rat would bring such extreme changes to the functioning of our higher education institution. Throughout February, we received daily worrying news about the spread of the new virus across China’s borders, and especially about the epidemic situation in our neighbouring country, Italy.  Therefore, our parent institution immediately began to prepare for the worst-case scenario, which is that in the near future the virus will be transmitted to the territory of Slovenia too. Finally, at the beginning of March, we entered a new reality, the first infection with the new virus was confirmed and an epidemic was soon declared in Slovenia. The situation changed overnight. Carrying out the study and research process on the school premises was no longer possible, students and university staff had to stay in their homes.

Since the School of Economics and Business decided in the 2018/19 academic year to a gradual transfer of study courses to the online platform Canvas, which is a course management system that supports online learning and teaching, there were no major problems with the transition to a new way of studying and teaching. To support the activities in the administrative and technical field of work, licenses for the use of the Zoom application have been leased, which enabled audio and video communication between employees and external stakeholders, organization of meetings, trainings, workshops and other forms of cooperation. With a notice “We are all online!” published on 11 March, SEB LU informed students that the entire teaching process will be transferred to the digital platform.

  • How the library responded to the changed situation?

The events followed very quickly. On 11 March, the University of Ljubljana restricted all physical gatherings on the premises, on the evening of 12 March, an epidemic was declared in Slovenia, and on 13 March, the Central Economic Library was last opened to users. On Monday, 16 March, a “new era” for the library began. The same morning, the library staff met via the Viber phone app. With considerable concern, we wondered how we would organize our work in the future, what technology we would use, how we would provide user services, and so on. However, it soon became apparent that our anxiety was unnecessary. The existing technology we had enabled effective work coordination and communication between employees. The Zoom application, on the other hand, enabled us to stay connected with library users and offer them information, online assistance and training.

The parent institution (SEB LU) also responded immediately to the new situation and strengthened its presence in the online environment. To remain active and visible among students, business community, and general public, it has focused on three communication directions: SEB LU Helps (providing answers to frequently asked questions of all kinds, related to the operation of the institution during the epidemic); SEB LU Informs (providing information on the epidemic, study activities, etc.); SEB LU Contributes (sharing our own knowledge to benefit society). The library was invited to participate actively.

  • How did the library stay connected to its users and what services did it provide them remotely?

From the first day of the closure, the library staff was thinking about how to stay in close contact with users, which communication channels to use to inform them, and how to help them in discovering and using information resources. Entry information points with the above-mentioned titles were soon implemented on the SEB LU web portal, and the library decided to participate in the SEB LU Contributes section. This was followed by a reflection on which content to offer library users and in what way. Hence the idea of ​​offering short presentations and trainings under the common title “CEL Outside the Library” was born. The first live broadcast on Zoom platform was on 20 March. Under the slogan “How can I help you” we introduced all “online active” library employees and highlighted the services we can offer users remotely.

After the first successful presentation, we made a plan for further live broadcasts. We have decided to present for users interesting content regularly, every weekend (mostly on Thursdays and Fridays). We started with presentations of basic information about the library and its online services and gradually moved to thematically oriented content and more demanding forms of training, with presentations of various electronic information resources and ways of information discovering. Several e-resources providers from Slovenia and abroad participated in the presentations and workshops, too. All presentations were attended very well. Among the presentations conducted by CEL employees, users were most interested in training on remote access to information resources and on citation according to the APA standard. By the end of May, we had held 23 of our own events and 11 events organized in collaboration with the external lecturers (e-resources providers).

In a close cooperation with the various parent institution’s offices, we also widely provided online events. The Marketing Office took care of posts on the SEB LU website and social networks (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube), CEL employees published information on the library website, in the online guide “eTutor*CEL “ and students’ information system “Student-net”, also different professional and personal channels have been used. In the promotion of presentations held in English language, we cooperated with the International Relations Office, the Students Affairs Office and the Doctoral Programme Unit.

  • The way in which the study process will be conducted in the next academic year depends on the epidemiological situation in Slovenia and the instructions issued by the relevant authorities. Are you in the library already getting prepared for this uncertain period?

Of course, we are daily wondering how our work will go on in the coming months. What the new reality will be, no one really knows or – no one dares to predict anything. Right during our conversation, both at the SEB UL and in the library, we are already intensively preparing for the autumn of 2020 and for the beginning of the new academic year. In addition to planning future training and consulting activities for users, we are currently considering how to expand the amount of e-study literature and other electronic information resources.

Working in the completely new and unpredictable circumstances was a great challenge to us all. We are not afraid of the future, as we have found that even with work remotely (from home) the library can remain “visible” and not lose contact with users. Of course, this way of working cannot completely replace the personal contact of librarians with users, nor can it replace the communication between users themselves that the library as a space enables. Therefore, we wish that the period when we had to provide library services only ”outside the walls of the library“ is over. However, we are readying for this as well.

Melita Ambrožič

Deputy Director for University of Ljubljana library system

National and University Library, Ljubljana, Slovenia