Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, academic libraries have experienced unprecedented change. For many libraries, anticipated budget reductions, the realities of remote work, and responsibilities related to rapid campus closures and tentative reopenings have put a strain on resources. At the same time, libraries have new opportunities to play a prominent role on campus in supporting online learning and helping researchers work with secondary data. With access to physical collections and spaces curtailed, there is ample room for innovation in digital collection, service, and outreach strategies.

Effective stakeholder engagement will be critical for libraries to navigate this period of uncertainty successfully. A stakeholder can be anyone who is impacted by the library’s work. By engaging stakeholders, libraries can help get the word out about the library’s resource and service offerings, inform strategic decisions and improvements, and lead to productive cross-campus collaborations. The cancellation of Big Deal subscription packages provides a useful example. As the experiences of universities who have recently canceled attest, effective communication can make users aware of the tradeoffs involved in difficult collections decisions and even convert them into advocates for the library’s negotiating position. Stakeholder engagement has always been important for libraries, but COVID-19 has made it more urgent and, in many cases, more challenging.

Stakeholder Engagement in Ithaka S+R Cohort Projects

At Ithaka S+R, we’re currently collaborating with over 65 library research teams to conduct large-scale, qualitative research projects into teaching with primary sources, teaching with data in the social sciences, and big data research. During and after each project, these teams communicate with stakeholders including library leadership, academic department leaders, faculty, and staff from other campus units like IT and the center for teaching and learning. In this post we share what we’ve been learning alongside our partners to ensure that stakeholder engagement can be meaningful and manageable during these challenging times. 

Stakeholder engagement has always been an important part of our cohort projects. But when we transitioned the two data projects (Teaching with Data in the Social Sciences and Supporting Big Data Research) to a remote-only model due to COVID-19, we knew that we’d need to rethink how we lead our partner research teams through the stakeholder engagement process. Not only was the pedagogical format differentin the past, teams shared about their stakeholder engagement plans in small groups at our in-person training eventsbut with campus closure and reopening statuses changing daily, the experience of reaching out to key individuals itself would be different.

Adapting Stakeholder Engagement to COVID-19

Instead of encouraging researchers to develop comprehensive stakeholder engagement plans during a time when even the most basic aspects of campus life are in flux, we decided to focus on the first step: talking to someone. We asked each team to identify one to three key stakeholders and reach out to them to set up informal conversations about the project, the stakeholder’s role in supporting teaching or research with data, and any possible collaborations that might arise. Although scheduling was inevitably a challenge at times, most teams didn’t struggle to set up conversations. Between the two projects, 41 teams had 87 meetings with individuals ranging from fellow librarians to university-wide leaders. Each team summarized their conversations in a simple Google form. Ithaka S+R reviewed all the submitted summaries and shared the aggregated trends from across all the conversations with the teams. Each project cohort gathered for a remote meeting in which we shared those results and then participants used breakout rooms to review their conversations in “peer learning groups” of two to three teams before feeding back to a large-group conversation. 

As a result of these conversations, many teams received recommendations for whom to interview or were offered help with advertising the project and recruiting. Teams also used the exercise as an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the landscape of data teaching or research on their campuses, which will help them analyze their findings and write actionable recommendations tailored specifically to their campuses. Finally, a number of teams were able to already start conversations around future collaborations and professional development opportunities, such as instructional support, training webinars, and faculty forums. As the project progresses, these initial meetings will allow teams to identify and engage additional stakeholders, follow up to share project results, and build cross-campus relationships in the long termeven amid significant uncertainty.

Best Practices for Stakeholder Engagement Today

Don’t be afraid to reach out. Our project participants found that even during uncertain times, stakeholdersincluding many individuals who didn’t already have a working relationship with the librarywere open to talking. The vast majority of stakeholders teams spoke with expressed an interest in hearing more about the participants’ research findings, and several conversations led to more immediate collaborations. For example, one team was invited to attend a standing meeting of research leaders to share about data management planning. Even if a stakeholder indicates that they don’t have availability for a meeting, reaching out still lets them know that the library is interested in their work and actively building campus partnerships.

Make engagements manageable. Help stakeholders say “yes” by keeping your initial ask to an informal, exploratory conversation. Many of our participants treated their meetings simply as learning opportunities and were able to increase awareness of library services as a result. Others concluded their meetings by asking stakeholders about their willingness to engage in specific ways, such as attending a meeting or contributing to a webinar, at a future time. Both strategies result in positive outcomes, and both are appropriate during a period when asking for substantial, near-term commitments could pose difficulties.

Continue to make stakeholder engagement a priority. During times of uncertainty, it’s important to maintain and build key relationships. A number of teams in our projects decided to approach stakeholders whom they had already worked with in the past or faculty whom they considered “champions” of the library among their peers. These individuals, who already have a good knowledge of the library’s services and priorities, can help provide up-to-date information about the “pulse” of the campus during times of flux. For stakeholders who are new to engaging with the library, look for opportunities to check in again following the initial meeting in order to build trust and identify additional areas of shared interest. This is particularly important when the possibility of physically running into someone on campus is limited by campus closures and physical distancing measures.

Like nearly every aspect of library work, stakeholder engagement has to be adapted to the unique context of COVID-19. But in a time of physical separation and organizational transformation, finding effective ways to build campus relationships is more important than ever. We’re looking forward to partnering with our research collaborators as they continue to engage stakeholders in the coming months.