Where Have All the Books Gone? Research and Writing During the Pandemic

books on a shelf

Part of my bookshelf. Photo taken by Erin Spinney.

This is the third post in the Pandemic Methodologies series. See the introductory post for more information.

by Erin Spinney

Books are a part of my life.  When I moved across the country, and then across the country again and again, the books were what got stuffed inside the trunk of the car and filled up the suitcases; while clothing, dishes, and small appliances were donated away.  The academic books I own are a significant investment of both my money and my time (as the notes I scrawl in the margins can attest).  Yet, while I do own a fair few, by no means are all the books that I need for my work in my possession.  I had relied upon access to a physical library for most of my book needs until the pandemic took that access away.

Here I want to recount my experiences as a pandemic researcher without physical library access. My barriers to access were not pandemic related – such as the rightful closure of library spaces to protect the health of library staff – but stemmed from my contract status.  These experiences underscore a wider problem with how historical research is conducted and how many barriers there are to the production of that work. I hope that this piece prompts us all to think about access to institutional libraries and how we can push for greater accessibility in an academy that relies on an increasingly precarious workforce and demands increasing numbers of publications during academic job searches and from newly-hired assistant professors. When, at some point, our time living with Covid-19 comes to an end, we can hopefully rethink how universities and university libraries operate.  I would also like to take the opportunity to acknowledge those librarians and other library workers who bore, and continue to bear, the risk of contracting Covid-19.  Rethinking how university libraries operate should include not just how to make these institutions better for researchers, but how to make them better for staff, without whom libraries cease to exist.

Even in the “Before Times,” I worried about library access. That moment when your time as a PhD student or as a contract lecturer ends, and with it the precious institutionally bound library access that permits historical research and writing. For a precariously employed Early Career Researcher (ECR), I’ve been lucky in going from library access at one institution to another, with only a period of a few months here and there without some form of access.

When the pandemic shift to work from home and online teaching began in March 2020, I was finishing up a nine-month contract at Mount Allison University.  In preparation for the end of my contract I had placed several interlibrary loan requests in February, and I was able to pick these up after the university closed through a contactless pick up/drop off system that the library had devised.

In September, while still living in Sackville, NB, I started working as a sessional lecturer with the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Lethbridge. With this new position came electronic library access, but no access to interlibrary loan or print books.  This same month, my husband accepted a job in BC, and we prepared for another cross-country move,  this time with the added concerns of pandemic travel.

In the past decade access to ebooks has grown significantly. However, books from more than 15 years ago are unlikely to be digitized. They also tend to be prohibitively expensive to purchase either as a print on demand or second-hand. The limitations of ebook access became glaringly apparent as peer review comments on my submitted publications have come in over the past year. My lack of physical library access has made addressing these comments difficult and costly as I buy some of the resources I need.

Until I started at my new position as a term Assistant Professor at the University of New Brunswick (Saint John) in September 2021, I was stuck in a publishing holding pattern. Even with the fourth wave of the pandemic and the rising case numbers in NB, and the accompanying risks to library staff, I have full access to a university library again. I’ve placed and received interlibrary loan requests, borrowed print books from the library, and my office shelves are filling up again with what I need to get out of my holding pattern. Yet the countdown is on, my current contract ends in April 2022 and with it the precious library access that many working within the academy take for granted.

Publishing is necessary for career progression, for landing a job interview, and ‘kitemarking’.  For ECRs like me, publishing during the pandemic has become more difficult, widening the already wide gap between us and tenured faculty.  Nor does this consider the gender gap in publishing during the pandemic. According to a survey done by Watchorn and Smith, the humanities have been the hardest hit with publishing delays during the pandemic. What can we do to lessen this gap? First, universities and hiring committees must recognize that library access is a necessary part of our work.  Like access to archives, without access to university libraries, we simply cannot write. It is not a question of motivation, drive, or desire, but an issue of access.

To improve access to university libraries for the precariously employed, I would recommend that all university libraries increase alumni support for graduates from PhD programmes for at least three years. This sort of increased alumni support would include access to library databases, books, and interlibrary loan. Making such a programme ‘opt-in’ would ensure that it was targeted to those who needed the continued access, while limiting the burden placed on university libraries. I recognize that university libraries are already strapped for cash, but I believe that PhD graduates would be willing to pay a nominal fee for continued library access. This would certainly be far cheaper than buying these books themselves. This fee would help libraries to recoup some of the costs for providing support for their graduates.  Furthermore, such a programme would help universities fulfil a ‘duty to care’ for their graduates. A similar sort of library access program could also be offered to local un-affiliated academics who are dealing with a lack of library access.

Finally, tenured academics should increase their number of open access publications. Open access publishing is a significant cost burden to tenured academics, but is completely financially prohibitive to ECRs and tenure-track faculty. As Tri-Council funding increasingly demands that research outputs are published open-access, more of this research will be freely available to those without affiliation with university libraries.

These changes to library access would have a significant impact on the ability of ECRs and precariously employed academics to do the writing and research that we want and need to do.  As the recent webinar series on precarity from the CHA has shown, the pandemic has made several of the disparities between the precariously employed and tenure track faculty more visible than ever.  This pandemic – as devastating and destructive as it has been – could be the opportunity to change library access for the better.

Erin Spinney is an Assistant Professor at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John. She teaches British and European History with a focus on the history of medicine, history of nursing, environmental history, gender, and the Atlantic World. Dr. Spinney is currently the President of the Canadian Association for the History of Nursing (CAHN).

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