By Freya Taylor
The provision of library spaces during COVID is a sore point for many students. The battle of securing a coveted desk space was unnecessary stress on top of online university pressures. But could the system have operated more efficiently?
On the one hand, it is easy to understand the need for more significant public settings restrictions in a global pandemic. Staff who were at risk very obviously need to stay away from interaction with lots of people from different households, such as is necessary in the library or TLC setting. This staff reduction is even more understandable considering students’ disproportionate infection rate compared to the wider population. I remember a period just before Christmas, where more households seemed to be isolating than not. This staff reduction led to a reduction in opening hours and a reduction in study spaces. The hesitancy of the staff in opening such communal areas is, as such, to be expected.
On top of the reduction in staff, the social distancing made necessary to stop the spread of Covid-19 was another factor massively limiting study spaces’ capacity. Anyone who managed to secure a spot this term will recall the spaces between students, the plastic shields, and the maze that was the one-way system. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the library was often packed. The necessary restrictions forced a much lower capacity, and there was little the university could have done in this situation besides the opening of Hotel Indigo.
This is not to say, however, the situation has been handled perfectly by the university. Students in Durham will recall the trauma of the midnight release of booking slots, which had vanished by 12:01. This did little to help a student body already cope with a degree’s pressure during a pandemic. Especially for humanities students, the difficulty in accessing ‘Browse and Borrow’ slots was a real kick to the teeth. Second years were not offered a postal service to access texts for summative work, and often could not easily access the library even while in Durham – not to mention the students stuck at home.
With the lateral flow testing system’s implementation, some college libraries have opened to students with proof of negative test. St Cuthbert’s Society’s Library has a system that works well, with evidence of test given to the librarian to access its study spaces and resources. These tests are easy to come by; the university has 4 testing sites, with results delivered to the student in half an hour.
Suppose students were tested more often, and these tests were used to access university libraries. In that case, the university could further lessen the risk of transmission and allow staff to feel more at ease in these public settings. Admittedly, the tests are not always wholly accurate, and social distancing will still be necessary. Still, they could go a long way in bolstering confidence in the safety of the libraries. Implementing negative test access would also increase student incentive to get tested, which benefits not just the library system but also the community’s safety.
On top of a testing system, the university must take steps to understand students’ concerns with the library system, particularly with access to necessary texts. The student experience has been massively affected by the pandemic, and a fairer and more efficient library is one way the university could minimise this negative impact.
Photograph: Amana Moore