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Featured Article: Reflections of a Virtual Librarian

eNews Edition: Fall 2020

Librarian Liz Cheney
Librarian Liz Cheney

Contributed by Gina Flores

Librarian Liz Cheney was ready and responsive to a quick adaptation when the CSUN Library closed the building under pandemic guidelines in March 2020. She thoughtfully shared her perspective on the transition to serving the CSUN community virtually.

Tell us about yourself and your Library role.

Before coming to CSUN, I earned my MLIS and then worked as a science and engineering librarian at UCLA. I began working at the CSUN Library two years ago as a research and instruction librarian and as the liaison to the Department of Childhood and Adolescent Development. This means I work closely with students in identifying research topics, finding resources, formatting citations, and more.

What was the experience like going from a physical reference desk service to a virtual mode?

Going from seeing students in person almost every day to communicating just over chat, email, etc. was an adjustment. Virtual services are great, but they’re very different from talking with someone face to face. For example, if you’re talking over chat, sometimes it can take much longer to clarify what someone is looking for. In general, you don’t get to know students as people in the same way compared to talking to them at the physical reference desk.

There’s also the fact that we don’t bump into students virtually in the way we do in the Library building, where they might have come in to use a study room but then swing by the reference desk or my office with a question.

Recently, our web services coordinator and our systems librarian have made it easier for patrons to get in touch by placing the chat widget on frequently used pages (our resource discovery system - OneSearch, LibGuides, etc.) So even without the physical reference desk, help is just a click away, and for my part I’ve seen an uptick in questions.

What is the most frequently asked question from students?

Getting access to textbooks is a really common question, especially now! Students are curious about what options they have without being able to walk in and check out a book like they normally would. The Library decided to prioritize electronic textbooks as much as possible for the fall semester, and we’ve been encouraging faculty to consider switching to open access texts or eBooks that the Library already owns to minimize the impact on students. The students I’ve talked to have been excited to learn about eBook options and getting print books mailed to them, along with the other services the Library can offer.

What are some challenges you’ve faced serving students virtually? What opportunities for improvement have come to light?

One big challenge is overcoming communication barriers in virtual services. Even though the Library has offered virtual options for a long time, for some questions, there are big benefits to talking them over in person. With email or chat, we can’t rely on a patron’s body language or tone of voice to gauge how they’re feeling. So I try to be extra thorough in checking in with patrons, asking additional questions to see whether we’re on the same page and to make sure they’re getting what they need.

As far as opportunities, I think that the shift to remote learning has pushed us to reconsider how we teach. I’ve tried to streamline lessons and to really focus on key takeaways in order to make online classes as accessible as possible. Again, there’s the issue of not being physically present with students to see how they’re doing, so I’ve been extra careful to leave time for their questions when teaching. But all of this makes you consider how best to communicate with students, and how to make instruction engaging, which is always a good thing!

What is your favorite part of working at the CSUN Library?

My favorite part of the job is seeing students grow in confidence as they learn about critical thinking and the research process. It’s really rewarding to see their excitement when they’ve had a breakthrough! It’s also great to be part of a department and a campus that prioritizes student learning and social justice, and to see that these values inform everything we do.

What advice do you have for students?

Remember that even though the physical Library is closed, Library faculty and staff are still here to help! We want to connect students with the books and other resources that will help them succeed, so don’t be shy about reaching out.