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Mitigating COVID-19: The Contribution Research Libraries Are Making

scanning electron microscope image of SARS-CoV-2, also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19
image CC-BY 2.0 by US National Institute of Allergy
and Infectious Diseases–Rocky Mountain Laboratories

COVID-19 is an unprecedented pandemic for most of us. Research libraries have rapidly responded to the shifting needs of their communities and worked collectively to adapt, alongside public health officials, senior administrators, and city officials, as well as research communities. In our favor, technological advancements have made information more easily accessible than ever before, and global collaboration is already part of everyday research.

The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) is a nonprofit membership organization of libraries and archives in major public and private universities, federal government agencies, and large public institutions in Canada and the US. As leading institutions attracting millions of users every year, ARL members are uniquely positioned to champion change by proactively addressing the central information challenges and opportunities now facing research and learning communities. This role is particularly relevant during the COVID-19 outbreak, given that research libraries’ strength in connecting people and ideas remotely is absolutely critical to mitigating this pandemic. Never in ARL’s history has this been more true.

In the United States the initial hotspot was the Seattle area—the University of Washington (UW) rapidly engaged and took a national leadership role. Betsy Wilson, vice provost for Digital Initiatives and dean of University Libraries at UW and UW’s member representative in ARL, is part of the university’s response team. Early on, Wilson discussed the UW Libraries’ response in an ARL member videoconference and shared the lessons learned with the broader academic community.  This early engagement saves time for others. ARL continues to convene as research library leaders learn more about the virus’s behavior and its impact on their constituents. And, ARL shares its collective knowledge on its website and social media.

Human and natural disasters are not new to research libraries. Our community has successfully dealt with hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, previous epidemics, terrorism, and war. Research libraries safeguard and preserve human—and now machine—knowledge with the Wayback Machine, LOCKSS, CLOCKSS, and Portico, as well as by collaborating to build thousands of institutional and disciplinary repositories. Research libraries work with public policy and institutional decision-makers to ensure research integrity, open access, and intellectual property rights so that critical information is available as needed. For decades, ARL members have worked to provide equitable public access to trustworthy knowledge.

ARL member representatives are collaborating on the rapidly evolving challenges now before them—for example, supporting joint efforts to clarify the scope of fair use and prevent legal uncertainty from hindering emergency remote access to teaching and research materials. They are working with our International Alliance of Research Library Associations ( IARLA) colleagues, and associations such as the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL), and with research organizations such as Ithaka S+R on the survey on academic library responses to COVID-19, as the pandemic remains volatile.

As new knowledge about COVID-19 emerges and as the number of reported cases spreads, research libraries are partnering with scholars and with senior administrators in federal agencies, cities, and higher education to ensure their expertise and the information they provide is available. Particularly as students in the United States leave for spring break, as students in their final year continue with graduation plans, and as scholars and researchers necessarily continue their investigations or dive deeply into solving this emergency, research librarians and staff are quickly moving to optimize their services.

Research libraries have been providing virtual service since the internet began and, thankfully much, but not all, research library content is available online to their communities. With the dramatic shift to fully online classes, libraries are providing virtual consultations for faculty and students, guidance on fair use of materials in online courses, and instructional resource selections. While the situation is very fluid still, some libraries continue to provide open building hours, particularly for those individuals who have nowhere else to go, for those without internet access, for those who need to borrow networked devices, and for those who seek safe social-distancing spaces.

Never before has research information been more available than today. For over 25 years research libraries have been at the center of the discussions leading up to even greater public access to research information. For instance, today the US National Library of Medicine’s (NLM) PubMed Central—a leader in public access to federally funded research in the United States—provides access to over 5.9 million health science articles, including COVID-19 clinical studies. NLM led even before the 2013 Holdren memo in the United States. Public access to scholarly information is critical now—information exchange and accuracy is essential given the real-time consequences.

This is a global health crisis and the Association of Research Libraries and its members are actively engaged in ensuring access to trustworthy COVID-19 knowledge. ARL fully supports the requests of the chief scientific advisors or equivalents in 12 countries (including Canada and the United States) for publishers to make publications and data on COVID-19 publicly accessible. As strong advocates for FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable) data, we stand in support of GO FAIR’s Virus Outbreak Data Network, and the US Office for Science and Technology’s and global leaders’ call for AI-ready COVID-19 data and research.

We are incredibly thankful for the generosity of scientific associations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and publishers such as BioOne and commercial publishers such as Elsevier, who recently chose to open access to peer reviewed COVID-19 research. And, we support the International Coalition of Library Consortia (ICOLC) who is working with publishers and content providers to help them understand how the current global COVID-19 pandemic affects the worldwide information community.

There are unresolved issues still: making copies of physical materials available digitally, figuring out accessibility solutions for those who can no longer use in-library-only content, providing internet access to those who don’t have it, understanding enough about the virus to ensure we are safe. We are working on them in this emergency and reviewing what we can do now to advance network neutrality, increase access for people with print disabilities around the world with the Marrakesh Treaty, and provide digital access to physical copies through services such as controlled digital lending and the HathiTrust Digital Library.

The primary focus for all of us is the health and safety of our families, our colleagues, our communities, and our world. Research libraries—whether they are working with national labs, with faculty and students, or with the public—remain agile and will act as trusted partners as more facts present themselves. We will continue to do our part to ensure the research community has and continues to have access to the data and information they need so that we can all make the best-informed COVID-19 decisions. And, knowing that this event will change so much more than our fields, we will be ready to collaborate in building the future of research and learning too.


About the Association of Research Libraries

The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) is a nonprofit organization of 124 research libraries in Canada and the US whose mission is to advance research, learning, and scholarly communication. The Association fosters the open exchange of ideas and expertise, promotes equity and diversity, and pursues advocacy and public policy efforts that reflect the values of the library, scholarly, and higher education communities. ARL forges partnerships and catalyzes the collective efforts of research libraries to enable knowledge creation and to achieve enduring and barrier-free access to information. ARL is on the web at ARL.org.