Community colleges and their students have faced enormous challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Two-year colleges serve especially diverse student populations, including a high percentage of students of color, first-generation students, working students, and student parents, many of whom have been disproportionately impacted by the social, economic, and public health effects of the pandemic. Community colleges have made considerable efforts to meet student needs, despite having fewer resources than most four-year colleges and universities and in the face of especially steep enrollment declines that further stressed budgets. To adapt to these challenges, community college libraries have played and continue to play an important role in campus-wide response efforts and developing a stronger student support infrastructure.

Since 2019, Ithaka S+R has led the Community College Academic and Student Support Ecosystems (CCASSE) research initiative to better understand the academic and student support infrastructure at community colleges, and how libraries can best develop and sustain services to contribute to student success within this ecosystem. Through our initiative, we have seen that the pandemic has only magnified the importance of library services while placing incredible demands on the faculty and staff who administer them. As part of our ongoing commitment to support community colleges, Ithaka S+R has been gathering insights into how they have adapted their support efforts amid unprecedented challenges.

Earlier this year, we conducted a national survey of community college library directors, asking detailed questions about their current service provision and future plans, while also covering the pandemic’s impact on funding, services, and strategy. As we analyzed survey results for publication next month, we realized that it would be valuable for library directors and those in equivalent positions to be provided with a forum for sharing and discussing their pandemic experiences with colleagues from around the country. 

To that end, we hosted four roundtable discussions this spring, at which 31 community college library leaders shared their challenges and successes over the past year and reflected on how their experiences will shape the future of their libraries and student support initiatives.To promote candor within these conversations, we did not record these sessions, and neither participants nor institutions will be named here. However, because much of what we learned is likely to be useful for other library directors as well as senior administrators outside of the library, we are sharing some key insights from these conversations here.  

Becoming Rapidly Responsive

Unsurprisingly, the time since March 2020 has been difficult for library leaders, particularly in the pandemic’s early months. Leaders who attended our discussions still had vivid memories of the chaos of the time, when planning seemed constantly overtaken by the course of events. The uncertainty of keeping the library open, the pressure to adapt to new circumstances in real-time, and the continual need to make and then re-make plans took a substantial toll on the roles and responsibilities of library leaders and staff. As one library leader mentioned, “we learned to rethink things on the fly. Planning is obviously important, but we’ve learned to live without structure and with uncertainty.” Some leaders also reported that they were sometimes left to make decisions about policies relating to staff and users with little guidance from senior administrators, especially in the spring of 2020. 

While many campuses went entirely online for the entire 2020-21 academic year, many libraries did not completely shut down their physical locations, and others reopened to students and their greater community quickly. This left many librarians and staff feeling particularly exposed to the virus, and in some cases caused complications when other faculty and staff were working entirely from home. Librarians on these campuses had to balance their personal safetyand in some cases shoulder responsibility for enforcing rules around PPE in library spaces, much like public librarieswhile adapting to and supporting hybrid modalities for instruction and programming. Librarians on campuses that remained fully closed faced similar challenges of adopting new modalities as they grappled with remote instruction and student-librarian interactions. While some community college libraries had prior experience with remote instruction, the pandemic forced many to adopt new delivery models at scale and without warning.

The Growing Role of Library Leadership

Library leaders unanimously reported that their roles grew substantially during the pandemic, particularly in the area of student support. This is a space where community college libraries, like many four year college libraries, were already engaged, but the exigencies of COVID-19 made student support more urgent and complicated. Although the need for increased student support occurred across higher education, this was particularly challenging at community college libraries who have much larger staff to student ratios than those at four year schools. 

Despite this, community college libraries were central to their institutions’ response to the pandemicby providing laptops and other needed technology, educational resources and materials, and technical support to both faculty members and students in the transition to remote learning. In fact, some leaders reported that these quick and sometimes drastic changes to their long-standing collaboration networks and policies may be continued and/or rethought going forward in favor of their efficiency and utility. For instance, many leaders reported that they are considering expanding the length of time students can borrow different pieces of technology or textbooks, after realizing that restrictive, pre-pandemic policies were arbitrary and may have contributed to inequitable student outcomes.

Planning for Challenges Ahead

Meeting student and faculty needs throughout the pandemic and shift to remote instruction took a tremendous amount of work, and it is clear that many library leaders now face challenges associated with staff burnout and morale. However, a number also reported that their efforts had been successful in demonstrating their unique ability to provide both instruction and instructional support. There was near unanimous agreement that libraries had earned respect from senior administrators for their ability to pivot and expand their mission. 

However, community college libraries will continue to face major challenges over the coming years, and leaders surfaced several long-term questions that are still on their minds. What kinds of training and reskilling might staff still need to maximize the flexibility libraries need to maintain and enrich new service modalities? Can long-term planning efforts remain flexible enough to deal with the uncertainty new COVID-19 variants could cause? If the shift towards remote services is permanent, how can libraries remain central gathering places on campus? 

What’s Next for Ithaka S+R

What does seem clear is that community college libraries are positioned to emerge from the pandemic with expanded roles and greater visibility on campus. Whether that will translate into increased resources is much less clear given enrollment and funding uncertainties for their parent institutions. In addition to these roundtable conversations, we provide additional insight from community college library directors upon the release of our national survey findings next month. Later this year, we will also hold a series of virtual convenings to help inform cross-institutional collaboration involving the library. If you are interested in getting involved with Ithaka S+R’s work with community college libraries, or have ideas about possible topics for an upcoming virtual convening, please let us know.