While states across the US have begun vaccine distribution and plan for further tiered rollout over the course of the year, COVID-19 cases, deaths, and hospitalizations continue to be at all-time highs across most of the country. Campuses continue to push back the start date of the spring term, and the CDC has just released new data tying county-level, off-campus infections to on-campus residency. It is all but certain that higher education institutions will continue looking to hybrid and hyflex modes of instruction along with ways to reduce on-campus residency over the next semester, if not the full calendar year or longer.

Against this backdrop, many academic libraries continue to function with limited hours, restricted building access, and lower density campus populations. Thus, an emerging set of technologies that simulate library space are becoming increasingly important for carrying out key components of the academic library mission: fostering a sense of belonging and community, and enhancing independent and collaborative student work.

Last month, I detailed a few specific technologies, including Zoom, Discord, SpatialChat, YouTube, and InSpace, that academic libraries are using to create these virtual spaces, and some of the opportunities afforded by and tradeoffs associated with each. In today’s post, I offer reflections on how academic libraries might best maximize value and assess engagement with these spaces.

Maximizing value

While on-campus, in-person library space is often managed by a particular set of individuals with oversight of facilities and operations, either within the library or in a central facilities office, decisions regarding virtual library space tend to be more idiosyncratic and spread across individuals in a variety of roles. In other words, many library employees who are looking into these emerging technologies may find themselves relatively unfamiliar not just with the landscape of technologies but with space considerations more broadly.

Generating a basic inventory of technologies that students are currently using, familiar with, and perhaps already fatigued by is therefore an important early step, which some libraries are already taking, to determine the kind of virtual space functionality best suited to their student population. As the library is far from the only source of institution-provided technology, this inventory would benefit greatly from connecting with teaching and learning centers, distance learning units, and IT departments. These offices are often responsible for licensing institution-wide tools and likely already have insights to offer on their pros and cons. And, starting with these colleagues helps circumvent the need to, for example, approach or survey students about their preferences at a time when they are already experiencing extreme survey fatigue.

After selecting a particular tool or set of tools, it is essential to advertise the virtual library space through a variety of different channels, similar to how information on in-person spaces and events might be shared. The University of North Florida, for example, promoted their finals week livestreams via social media, the library website, the university’s calendar of events and newsletter, and through campus partners. Given the overwhelming volume of information that is being pushed to students and the variety of channels available for seeking such information, ensuring that information is posted in several places is key. Partnering with the offices listed above, along with additional student affairs offices and academic departments, will also help to enhance awareness.

Evaluating engagement

Evaluating engagement with virtual library space frequently aligns with how in-person space is measured. The traditional metric of “door counts,” for instance, is easily translated to digital clicks or log-ons. Just like with in-person space, the ways that virtual space is used and how satisfied students are with that space can be captured through a combination of observational and self-report approaches (e.g. surveys, interviews).

Academic libraries can also look to new approaches for evaluating engagement with these virtual spaces. Measuring the duration of time that a user spends in the space, or the location they are coming from, to offer two examples, can be accomplished through web analytics or a registration form. One librarian recently shared with me that they are seeing individuals attend these spaces from a wider variety of geographic locations than they ever were able to reach for in-person spaces and events, not just including current faculty and staff that have been geographically displaced but alumni and international audiences as well. And, when these sessions are recorded and made available for later use, as is often the case with YouTube videos, engagement can continue to be measured over time as additional interactions are registered.

Looking ahead with a few questions

While a particular set of approaches has begun to emerge for maximizing and assessing the value of these virtual spaces, there is still much to explore in the months and years to come. For example, is an investment in them a good use of resources? And how might success be measured? Evaluating whether virtual library space has achieved not just engagement but substantial value or impact will naturally depend on the investments, both personnel and monetary, made in these spaces and the goals of their provision. Virtual library space will not be able to serve all of the user needs that in-person space does—for instance, access to technology—so being realistic about what the spaces can and cannot achieve is important when establishing these goals.

And, as libraries continue to purchase, license, and otherwise employ these tools to simulate in-person spaces in virtual formats, will they find current options to be sufficient? Will any new tools and functionality emerge based on unmet library needs? The ways in which the value of these spaces is generated and assessed is bound to evolve over time as (and if) new solutions are developed.

I hope that the overview above can serve as a jumping off point for guiding decision-making. If you are interested in digging into these issues with us at Ithaka S+R further, please drop me a note at christine.wolff-eisenberg@ithaka.org.