In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived at our doors unannounced. Life nearly came to a standstill for several countries and we have experienced lockdowns since then to curtail the spread of the virus. As I write this article, Uganda is under partial lockdown since 7th June 2021 as the second wave of the virus takes its toll. The effect of such measures has devastated almost all aspects of life, but also fostered positive change in many sectors : opportunities have come forth as we struggle for normalcy.
In the education sector, teaching and learning has been greatly disrupted and for a few months in 2020 went into limbo. Sadly, while most of the universities had running subscriptions to e-learning platforms like Moodle, Blackboard and Google suites, the adoption of e-learning had remained slow. This phenomenon, especially in public universities, has been attributed to several factors that include technological,copyright, inadequate information communication & technology (ICT) skills, mind-set challenges, etc. (Mutisya & Makokha, 2016). When in-person/physical classes stopped in Uganda, universities reawakened amidst scattered resistance from students to implement online learning and retrieved the archived online learning policies, now critically opportune.
A lasting legacy of the COVID-19 experience and a key element of online learning is the need for an electronic library collection. Furthermore, the need for remote access to library resources as we implement e-learning cannot be overemphasised. University libraries in Uganda have been subscribing to electronic resources, both e-books and e-journals, for several years, through projects funded by development partners (Kawooya, 2007). But low usage statistics (Kinengyere, Kiyingi, & Baziraake, 2012) have been reported over the years. For the academic library, such a time presents an opportunity to review and step up our digital services portfolio to improve teaching and learning in “new normal” times. Besides the e-resources that are a characteristic of the academic library, there’s need for other e-services. This includes e.g. conducting virtual information literacy sessions to equip library users with required skills, so that they confidently navigate the plethora of information resources available in the public space.
As the library transitions into unprecedented mandatory online operations so does the need to equip the library staff with the requisite digital skills. These are meant to support students and staff to adequately access and utilise the digital resources. Such skills include, but are not limited to: public relations and customer care with an online community; copyright education; social media engagement; working with faculty to link course content on the e-learning platforms; e-collection / e-resources development; and virtual reference build-up.
Whereas library service has been an in person service, the pandemic challenges this tradition. This entails the need for a paradigm shift to remote library service. So how does the library in this part of the world continue to provide quality service to the library users where it is reported that only 28% of the population has access to the Internet at home and only 17% have access to the computer at home (ITU, 2021) ? It is paramount to be innovative and re-invent service models to meet the needs of the university community that is scattered all over the country. Therein is an opportunity for electronic document delivery of journal articles and scanned chapters, bearing un mind that such practices have not been the norm so far.
On the flip side, what does remote library service mean for library staff? Can library staff handle the tasks to be undertaken remotely? Just like the community served, they might be challenged with access to computers and Internet access. Thus, the transition to remote and increased digital work calls for increased university investment in technology (both software and hardware) in addition to access to the Internet to facilitate usage and sharing of documents.
Continuous professional development (CPD) is inherent to career development of any professional. The many benefits of physical conferences notwithstanding, the virtual conferences or workshops presents opportunities when registration fees make them affordable and accessible especially for professionals from low income countries. The implication of this option is that several librarians can attend without worrying about accommodation, air tickets, visa costs and restrictions that we endure when planning a conference attendance outside your country. I hope that a virtual option can remain an option for all conferences post COVID.
For all the opportunities discussed above, their success hinges on policies put in place to guide their implementation, such as:-
The concept of the library without walls has been brought closer than planned for many libraries in the developing world. But rather than bemoan the lack of preparation, the academic library in the developing countries should embrace the change and come up with new services, models and procedures to work within the disruption caused by the pandemic.
Eliz Nassali State
University Librarian, Kyambogo University, Uganda