In the move from in-person to online education, outreach librarians shined
Author: Matthew Cook
A screenshot of a Zoom call with librarians from Carlson Library

Several thousand days ago, in 2019, actor Paul Rudd was a guest on YouTube’s hot wing-based interview series “Hot Ones.” Toward the end of the episode, Rudd and host Sean Evans, decide to add a dab of the previous nine hot sauces on their final wing. Their impromptu decision resulted in an exchange that has been immortalized in meme-form. It went like this:

Rudd: Look at us. Hey. Look at us.

Evans: Look at us. Who woulda thought?

Rudd: Not me!

Substitute a University librarian for Rudd and a University faculty member for Evans, and you have the early days of Rochester’s transition to online education. The move to a virtual classroom en-masse was—please excuse the forthcoming cliché—unprecedented. Nevertheless, with the help of the River Campus Libraries librarians, the University successfully completed the spring 2020 semester.  

For the librarians’ part, it was an all-hands-on-deck effort, and assistance took all forms. For example, when an undergraduate coordinator was looking to acquire a laptop for a student who always depended on library computers, and there were no available laptops, librarian Allegra Tennis found an all-in-one desktop. When a professor from the chemistry department was looking to use print-only textbooks for a class, librarian Sue Cardinal found and ordered two readily available online versions. Kim Hoffman, head of Outreach, Learning, and Research Services, did the same for a professor at the Simon Business School. And all the outreach librarians have pitched in to create the “RCLatHome” videos that provide tutorials, tips, and tricks for many resources.

There’s no way to share all the ways librarians helped students and faculty find their way through the semester. For every example shared, there would be a handful of others not mentioned. Seriously. Know that all the River Campus Libraries librarians provided invaluable help in innumerable ways. 

Since we can’t share all the stories, we’ve chosen two that demonstrate the kind of gratitude our librarians have received.

‘Our colleagues in teaching’ 

You know that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where the boulder is chasing Indiana Jones? That’s how Tanya Bakhmetyeva, associate professor of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies, felt as the pandemic demanded an immediate switch to online education. Here’s a brief oral history of how she escaped the “doom” of teaching under quarantine.

BAKHMETYEVA: I found myself in a state of utter panic: the challenge to learn new technologies—something that I always postponed until ‘I had more time’—and to figure out the accessibility of resources seemed impossible to accomplish in the course of a few days. And it would have been—if not for our librarians. Eileen Daly-Boas ʼ98 (MA) and Justina Elmore were my two saviors. 

ELMORE: Luckily, I, along with many of the RCL outreach librarians, had already been offering zoom consultations for the past two semesters, and having that experience under our belts was helpful. 

DALY-BOAS: I’ve been working as the outreach librarian for the Warner School of Education for three years. I have also been involved with their Center for Learning in the Digital Age, so I was already familiar with a lot of the technology and research for online learning. But nothing prepared me to switch to having everything move online so quickly.

ELMORE: Making that switch mid-semester is like being told to dive into a somersault, mid-sprint when you thought you’d be jumping over hurdles. Translating what you might do in-person to an online course definitely requires adjusting the way assignments are designed, how students access and use the resources needed to complete them, and how to incorporate library instruction when needed.

BAKHMETYEVA: I need to comment on their calm in the midst of the storm! It was that calm and reassuring presence—both in person but also in emails and Zoom meetings—that significantly eased this challenging transition. Both Justina and Eileen replied immediately and generously to my many questions and concerns, at all hours of the day and all days of the week.

They guided me through Zoom, worked with me on getting e-books for my students, and were ready to meet with students to answer their questions about research.

DALY-BOAS: Faculty members like Tanya signed up for morning sessions over the weekend to learn Zoom, including how to create meeting rooms, organize breakout sessions, and record sessions for students who might be working at a 12-hour time difference. 

It can be really humbling to have to learn new technology at a stressful time, but Tanya showed up ready to focus. There was frustration, but there was also a lot of laughter and a lot of celebration of small victories.

BAKHMETYEVA: As the subject librarian for gender, sexuality, and women’s studies, Justina continually amazes me with her knowledge and creativity. Acknowledging the new research challenges for students, she alerted me to available on-line collections of primary sources that students could use in their adjusted research topics. 

This transition would have been much more difficult and rocky if it had not been for wonderful librarians, our colleagues in teaching. 

DALY-BOAS: One thing that will really stick with me is how much everyone cared—not just about doing a good job, but about each other as individuals going through a shared crisis. It could have been a time for students, faculty or staff to focus on the negative, or to behave as if their problems were the only ones that mattered. All my emails asking for help always also asked how we were holding up, and that was really touching. 

‘She offered to do anything short of walking people’s dogs’

On March 12, Lara Nicosia, the outreach librarian for history and religion and classics, sent 30 professors an email as they prepared to transition from in-person to online instruction. In 700 words, she provided the email equivalent of someone handing out power gels and hydration belts at the starting line of a marathon. 

The email lists more than half a dozen ways Lara can help the faculty members and their students. She then provides a wealth of information on resources and services available to them. 

About a week later, Lara went back to the same group with an “Everyone doing okay?” email. She reiterated some of the previous email’s content, but the take away is: She is 100 percent here for them. Whatever they need. They’re not alone. 

Among Nicosia’s email recipients was Laura Smoller, professor of history and chair of the history department. Smoller reached out to Nicosia about a faculty member and student that might need extra assistance. In three emails, Smoller describes her experience working with Nicosia.

To Tower Talk Editor Matt Cook: For me, she made sure students had access to electronic versions of all required books for my course. For another colleague, she managed to engineer enough online sources that students could complete the research project he had designed based solely on printed sources. And if you look at her email, she offered to do anything short of walking people’s dogs to enable them to teach. I just found her goodwill and her sincere offers to help—as well as her amazing follow through—extraordinary.

To Nicosia: For years, I have taught a version of a history of plague/history of disease class, and often I taught Camus’s The Plague. I love that book because of the cadre of core characters, each of whom does his decent best during the onslaught. Not all are doctors or medical people—just human beings, each doing their part as they can. I’ve been keeping a little mental list of all the people I’ve encountered in the last few days who would be similar heroes and heroines. You’re one of them.

To Dean Mary Ann Mavrinac: Last week, Lara scrambled to make sure there were e-book copies available through the library of all the books I had asked my students to buy this semester. I was already grateful to her for that service and for her offers to my faculty to help out in any way possible.

Now the pressure is on in my class because my students have a take-home exam (aren’t they all now?) due on Tuesday for which they need one of those books Lara acquired for the library last week. When one student emailed me at 7 p.m. last night (Friday night) looking for the book, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to get her a good answer until Monday and was already stressing about composing some alternate essay question for her (and if that would be fair for the rest of the class).

But Lara was on the spot (at 11 p.m. on Friday night!) with a link that got my student straight to the as yet uncatalogued e-book.
It’s the Lara Nicosias who are making it possible for things to continue on as well as they are at this University. I just thought you both should know how she has (and not just this time) gone above and beyond to make sure our students can continue their work as seamlessly as possible.

She’s a treasure.

Some of the responses above have been edited for length and clarity. If you need a librarian’s assistance, you can make an appointment here. Enjoy reading about the University of Rochester Libraries? Subscribe to Tower Talk.