A year ago, Carnegie Mellon’s library, where Dr. Salaz is an Associate Dean, faced major upheaval. Today, she speaks to Exact Editions about their pandemic response, the importance of cross-disciplinary teams, and what she’s bringing with her as the University of Oregon’s new vice-provost.

Dr. Alicia M. Salaz

The outbreak of the pandemic was especially difficult for academic institutions. As Associate Dean for Research & Academic Services at Carnegie Mellon University, you moved quickly to ensure access to resources, creating a controlled digital lending program, an on-demand digitisation service and an automated reservation system to regulate library visits. How did you prioritise the steps taken, and did the process of authorisation change in order to support you?
My top priority has always been the safety of our personnel and users, closely followed by (and essential to) the priority of offering an outstanding educational and research experience for our scholars. Some of our most popular services simply could not operate safely during the pandemic, including physical course reserves and heavily-used study spaces within our buildings; thus, we had to start with those services most heavily impacted and get creative with potential transformations.
The solutions our incredible access services team came up with were these new, digital services that required the creative repurposing of existing resources, or in some cases the acquisition/licensing of new software. The process for setting up these services was certainly not typical. We skipped formal project planning and proposal processes. I delegated rapid testing and prototyping of new solutions to a small team of library personnel who worked most closely with each service, and I trusted their recommendations. To expedite development, I personally intervened to overcome challenges — for instance, to request rapid review and approval of our plans from the University’s legal department.

In the interest of speed, I also accepted and expected imperfect, temporary solutions, that could be iterated, whereas typically we might take much longer to plan for and select more permanent solutions. For example, our team set up a controlled digital lending service very quickly, within a couple of weeks. We knew that the underlying technology and process wasn’t sustainable long-term, but it was a solid, serviceable, short-term solution that did the job for our users’ immediate needs and bought us time to explore and develop a more permanent solution. As the service grew through the latter half of 2020, it clearly needed a new technical platform that could support larger volumes of distribution, and we’ve now transitioned to a more sustainable platform and process that I expect will last long beyond the pandemic.

Many librarians who we’ve spoken to have revealed that the pandemic highlighted the use and worth of digital material, and only quickened the pace towards increasing these resources. Now that we are slowly moving out of COVID’s grasp, are there any initiatives born out of your COVID response that you might take with you to the University of Oregon?
Every institution is different, but one thing that really interests me and is relevant to most major research Universities and their libraries is the conduct of “team science” in remote or virtual settings. Prior to the pandemic, our library began to offer more virtual collaboration tools for teams of scholars, including platforms and services that support virtual lab notebooks, protocols, and other types of pre-publication scholarly communication. These really came into their own when the pandemic disrupted research operations. As scholars took more of their work home, what we didn’t want to see is grad students hauling physical lab notebooks back and forth to campus. Having all that in-progress lab data safely in the cloud and accessible to every team member 24/7 has made it easier for many researchers to continue their work while adhering to distancing and COVID safety protocols. There are benefits here that could last well beyond the pandemic.
Our arts and humanities scholars may have felt a bit differently about the whole thing. Access to primary sources and browsability for collections are still very important for a big chunk of scholarship in these areas, and in many cases, digital platforms and item replicas just aren’t quite there yet in terms of facilitating with ease the kinds of information behavior that print collections do, although they’re improving. This is also true for students’ learning — we know from the empirical record that e-reading doesn’t always result in the same learning quality as print reading, though I’m confident that advancements in technology can mitigate these differences. Systems that support visual browsing of content and preserve spatial relationships and qualities between images and text are important and necessary for capturing authors’ and designers’ original intent, as well as conveying any meaning derived from textual-visual interplay.
I remember a historian a few years ago telling me that he was free to travel the world and could continue his research uninterrupted so long as he was within physical proximity of an R1 library. When borders were closed and flights suspended last year, I immediately thought of him. Then I thought about the academic parents, particularly women, who over the years have told me how challenging it is to travel to academic conferences, research sites, digs, libraries, archives and museums, with small children; as well as all the scholars, particularly at smaller institutions across the United States and all over the world, who lack access to the kind of funding needed to travel for research. For those kinds of scholars, this kind of limitation to physical access may not be particularly new. There is a tremendous amount of potential for knowledge creation, and diversification of the scholarly record, if we as libraries and museums can use digital tools and enhancements to make our collections and primary source records available to the world, without requiring a physical site visit.
And, I have been at times pleasantly surprised at how well certain things work in digital space. In October, our special collections curator at CMU gave a fascinating virtual interpretive visit focused on a 1792 first edition of the Bill of Rights, one of only five copies known to exist, held in our special collections. I would expect to lose a lot in a virtual showing of an item like this — something about the physicality, the materiality of the item, that you can’t fully experience without being together with the item in the same room. Yet, it turns out to be an amazing close-up. With this format, it’s like being the only one on a private tour — rather than crowding around a table with a group of 10 or 20 other students or tour-goers, straining to see, everybody gets a front-row seat, and the best up-close look, and perfect ability to hear the curator’s explanations. There is so much about this that increases the accessibility of the material to a much broader audience…again here, I think the pandemic has in some ways opened my mind to new possibilities with these kinds of materials and I’m so excited to see what more we can do in the years ahead.

I understand you have a deep-seated interest in issues of equity, helping to establish CMU’s first ever Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. In regards to digital resources, how far can they contribute to equitable accessibility?
Like the physical world, the digital world can be designed to enhance equity and accessibility, or hinder it. I tend to think that nearly every choice is either doing one or the other, whether intentionally or unintentionally; there isn’t much neutral ground. Many of us are familiar with the perils of algorithmic biases. Digital resources and platforms can also be designed to be compatible (or incompatible) with common types of assistive technology that aid users with different abilities, such as screen readers that support users’ auditory strengths, rather than visual. Digital resources are not a salve or an injury on their own; it’s all in how people design and apply them, and for who. Assuming we choose wisely, there is almost unlimited opportunity to make participation in the human knowledge record more accessible and more equitable through the use of digital tools and content.

To connect the Pittsburgh/CMU community across disciplines, you aided the development of the Data Collaborations Lab at Carnegie Mellon. How can digital resources encourage cross-discipline cooperation, particularly now that many are in very separate and isolated work environments?
I talked a little bit about the ways that we can support team-based scholarship above, but this question approaches the very interesting arena of how we can support the formation of successful cross-disciplinary teams, which is increasingly important for today’s major research problems and challenges. Think software development + philosophy/ethics; or self-driving cars + public policy. When folks work in the same building, they tend to find out about each other and take advantage of opportunities for synergy. When they work on the same campus, but in different buildings, that likelihood goes down a little bit. When they’re scattered hither and yon due to a pandemic, or a post-pandemic expectation of more flexible, remote work, that question of continuing to foster the collaboration and magic that happens on a university campus becomes much more significant.

There’s a lot to say here, but one thing is that research libraries are in a unique position to leverage the information tools at our disposal, such as bibliometric analytic services, based on large-scale electronic metadata, to help identify and bring together scholars with complementary interests; in ways that go beyond even just common subject interests. For example, we have the ability to deduce who on a campus of thousands of researchers might be engaged in research that advances one of the seventeen United Nations’ sustainable development goals, or other areas of interest. This power enables us to work with university administration to design appropriately themed virtual or physical programs, events, or exhibits that can increase the likelihood of producing a match — creating an overall university environment that inspires the collaborations that lead to important new knowledge and development.

Finally, what advice would you give fellow libraries trying to support students in this new academic landscape?

One of the biggest crises we’ve all faced alongside our students this past year has been e-book pricing and access to course materials. I think for a long time, in a primarily print-based environment for textbooks and other course materials, students with limited economic resources have been able to skate by without purchasing course textbooks and instead using alternatives: borrowing from a friend; utilizing library course reserves. These mitigation strategies have had the unintended consequence of enabling Universities and faculty members to more easily sidestep the problem of textbook affordability for students. In a digital environment, we have suddenly hit a wall in many cases because there’s not an opportunity for students who are physically apart to share the material, nor can libraries lend e-textbooks, all due to copy controls and licensing restrictions.
One of the best things libraries can do right now today for students is get out there and start talking to faculty members and university administrators about the adoption of affordable e-learning resources. Finding and evaluating quality resources is our librarian bread & butter.
 My other advice would be to recognize that this pandemic has hit populations unevenly. There are students out there with much greater needs and burdens as a result. Focus limited time, effort and resources on identifying and reaching these students in order to level the playing field for everyone. A university’s division of student affairs is likely a great partner here.

Read what Elizabeth Hutchinson has to say on the value of school libraries here.

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