Libraries Shift to Digital Mode

Amid pandemic uncertainty, Tisch Library and its branches and the Digital Collections and Archives rely on their preexisting digital plans and platforms

The exterior of Tisch Library in summertime. Amid pandemic uncertainty, Tisch Library and its branches and the Digital Collections and Archives rely on their preexisting digital plans and platforms

The doors to Tisch Library and Digital Collections and Archives may be closed, but the librarians and archivists there are busy making sure that teaching and research continue.

Tisch Library and its branches, the Lilly Music Library and the W. Van Alan Clark, Jr. Library at the SMFA—which support the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering—remain focused on supporting faculty and students.

The pandemic has shut down traditional services like checking out books, but COVID-19 has not displaced the myriad of resources available, including research support via chat, email, and Zoom; access to electronic resources such as journals and databases; or online consulting with the Digital Design Studio and the Data Lab.

For Dorothy Meaney, director of Tisch Library, the pandemic brings new appreciation of the nimble digital strategies the library adopted in years past and that are helping it adjust now. It is also raising new questions about how the libraries will be used in the future.

“To make sure that we’re as responsive as we can be, we are not only tracking usage, but also analyzing transcripts and questions so we can build a knowledge base of frequently asked questions that will guide us going forward,” said Meaney. “We can use this moment to focus on what libraries can do to facilitate faculty and student understanding of what’s possible with digital content and our online services. Before, these were available, but now they are critical.”

In the book stacks, back in the good old days. Photo: Alonso NicholsIn the book stacks, back in the good old days. Photo: Alonso Nichols
Meaney said that Tufts, like other colleges and universities, have also benefited from the swift generosity of the large collective digital library HathiTrust, which put in place emergency temporary access so that now 45 percent of the Tisch print collection is available online.

“We’re grateful that a lot more content from a variety of publishers and sources has been made available to us for free,” said Meaney. “We’re working with our publishers and vendors on making the expanded content that they’ve made available easy to find.”

Tisch has also instituted new workflows to quickly purchase e-books quickly. In normal times, the libraries participate in an interlibrary loan system and borrow physical books, “but no one is shipping print books from one place to another right now,” said Meaney. “If we can purchase it as an e-book and make it available quickly, we will.”  

Delving into the Past

At Tufts Digital Collections and Archives (DCA), the University’s archives and manuscript repository, access to 10,000 boxes of physical material is off limits, and the reading room is closed for now, but staff are remotely responding to questions and research inquiries using digital resources, including the Tufts Digital Library, which  includes descriptions of more than 700 archival and manuscript collections and thousands of digitized photographs, oral histories, and student and university publications. Staff are also available for archival research consultations and university records management advice via phone, WebEx, or Zoom, or email .

Director Dan Santamaria said ongoing work encompasses cataloging, processing, and digitization projects and helping researchers from across the university, the country and the world access vast troves of digital content.

Popular publications recently digitized include student publications created by African American, Asian American, and South Asian student groups, Tufts Weekly and Tufts Observer newspapers dating to 1936 and the Jumbo yearbooks, all the way back to 1916.  DCA has tracked requests and usage formally since 2016 and used that data to inform decisions on cataloging and digitization.

“We’ve heard from students that these resources have been exceptionally useful as they completed their work this semester,” said Santamaria. “In general, we’re in good position to help people in our current state because of our staff’s skill in managing and providing access to the enormous amount of digital data that’s produced at Tufts, and because we’ve done a lot of work on systems infrastructure to support it.”

Santamaria said the continued investment in digital infrastructure is complemented by staff expertise in digital preservation and archival processing. “We’ve revamped or implemented several new systems over the last few years that allow us to both complete our core work away from our offices and, most importantly, provide access to archival material to students, faculty, staff, alums, and other researchers,” he said.

DCA is also beginning a project to document experiences related to COVID-19. The university-wide COVID-19 Documentation Project seeks community reflections on this extraordinary time for future generations. Firsthand accounts of life during a pandemic will record history-in-the-making, “but can also serve as an emotional outlet for the people living through it,” according to the project website. (Learn more about how to submit contributions, including journal entries, videos, and photographs.) 

Meaney and Santamaria credit staff with their agile response to the shutdown; both spaces were closed on short notice on March 13 to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. “The staff at Tisch Library is truly amazing,” said Meaney, noting how some have taken on new hours to accommodate students working in different time zones around the world.

Santamaria said he is “incredibly grateful” to work with the archivists in DCA. “They are, as always, dedicated to stewarding our collections and supporting the Tufts community,” he said. “With the current circumstance, I also have witnessed everyone managing to take care of their loved ones, themselves, and each other. That’s something I’ll never forget.”

While Tisch Library and DCA have a solid digital footing, both directors ponder the impact of the COVID-19 on big picture planning.  

“We’re looking forward to getting back to our spaces when it’s safe to do so,” said Santamaria. “There likely will be changes in archival research practices, particularly for researchers who travel from out of state or abroad to access physical material, which will likely mean even more demand for digitization and remote consultations. We’re well positioned in many ways because of our previous work and planning but we’re talking about the best way to meet these increased needs and demands.”

At Tisch Library, Meaney said the library’s 2019 strategic plan is helping everyone stay grounded amid uncertainty. “We had an all-staff Zoom meeting recently, and when we looked at the plan, we said, ‘Our direction is the same. Our values are the same. We just need to find a different path to get to those goal, with a virtual environment or a socially distanced environment, or whatever the future will hold.’” 

Laura Ferguson can be reached at

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