University of Cape Town: UCT Libraries recognised in VC’s Service Excellence Awards

The University of Cape Town (UCT) Vice-Chancellor’s Service Excellence Awards recognise teams and individuals who “have gone over and above the line of duty to make a difference in the lives of others through transformative change”. This year, UCT Libraries was counted among those top achievers.

Announcing the awards in October, Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng acknowledged the difficulties that COVID-19 has brought about and noted her appreciation for all of those who have contributed to the sustainability of the university during this challenging time.

Professor Phakeng also highlighted the opportunities that the ongoing pandemic has presented. “This time has … also encouraged inventiveness, research rigour, voluntarism and community engagement, which in turn has promoted greater cohesion, care and collaboration with the UCT community and society at large,” she said.

Nowhere could this inventiveness and community engagement better be seen than within the UCT library system. When speaking with Executive Director: Libraries Ujala Satgoor, it immediately becomes clear that this achievement is in no small part thanks to the industriousness and passion of the executive director and her team.

Adapting to change

A hallmark of libraries – and academic libraries in particular – is that they are continuously evolving to provide relevant and useful resources to the communities they serve. The UCT library is no exception.

Prior to the pandemic, UCT Libraries had been working to position itself as a future-facing academic library, capacitating its sites for the digital age to maximise access to information and foster a culture of the library as a learning organisation. These efforts, said Satgoor, were guided by four considerations.

“Over the years, UCT Libraries has worked concertedly to position itself as a partner to teaching, learning and research.”

“First, one has to consider the position of the library within the university itself. Over the years, UCT Libraries has worked concertedly to position itself as a partner to teaching, learning and research. Second, we need to understand the needs of our users, what their requirements are and how we are able to respond to these.

“Third is looking at the emerging trends that are influencing academic libraries and librarianship. Fourth, and finally, is understanding the new roles that are being entrusted to or adopted by academic libraries,” she explained.

By better understanding the aspects of the academic library’s functioning within the university over the past few years, the executive director noted, UCT Libraries has been able to continually provide new services and adopt new technologies that support teaching and learning as well as research.

This ongoing dedication to improving library services certainly paid dividends at the onset of COVID-19 restrictions in 2020, ensuring that UCT students, staff and researchers were able to carry on their work virtually uninterrupted. “We were able to migrate fairly seamlessly to a virtual library service, because we work in a very sophisticated, technologically enabled environment.

“Most of our activities as an academic library were and are managed online. Although the physicality of the library is located on several sites and the facilities we have speak to a physical service, it’s underpinned by a virtual service.

“We have had to rethink many things, but the ongoing pandemic and the fire in April 2021 have also led to resources being made available that we otherwise would not have had access to.”

“However, the major aspects that have been impacted are the social and learning engagements with and within the library spaces. For example, the freedom to physically browse the shelves, select materials and work in the library for hours on end, dropping in to engage with library staff or using the library as a meeting place. Circulation of materials is now managed differently,” said Satgoor.

“While we were well-prepared, COVID-19 has forced us to think differently in terms of the use of technology and how we function. It has also meant upskilling and increasing the capabilities of our staff to function in a remote environment, and mainstreaming issues of emotional health and well-being.

“We have had to rethink many things, but the ongoing pandemic and the fire in April 2021 have also led to resources being made available that we otherwise would not have had access to. For example, library vendors have provided access to resources not within our licence agreements, and the global library community has continually reached out to provide support for the continuance of our academic project.”

Ensuring a meaningful and purposeful service

Regardless of the lockdown levels or restrictions in place across 2020 and 2021, Satgoor pointed out, the primary focus has always been to ensure that the UCT community has access to materials.

“The priority for us was to ensure that our user community was not denied access to any materials they required for the continuance of their academic programmes. Our staff sourced materials in alternate formats or recommended alternatives as required. The ability to ensure that the service was meaningful and purposeful was extremely important. It made staff aware of the value they were adding to the continuance of teaching, learning and research at UCT,” she said.

In addition to this, understanding the challenges presented by data costs and the lack of internet access, the library team worked closely with Information and Communication Technology Services (ICTS) to ensure that as many of the UCT Libraries websites and web pages as possible were zero rated.

“A keen sense of resilience permeated all our service and demonstrated our agility, adaptability and responsiveness.”

“The other [priority] was the need for access to conducive study spaces. Students needed a safe space to study, with stable connectivity. A fair percentage of our undergraduate and postgraduate students do not have the luxury of a study space at home, so we needed to ensure we provided that environment, in accordance with lockdown regulations,” added Satgoor.

The ability to ensure that all library users were continuously able to access materials and services, said the executive director, was largely due to the efforts of the UCT Libraries staff.

“I must commend the staff for their sterling work and their willingness to be on campus. Due to the nature of our work, there are certain tasks that can only be performed on site; and those library staff were the first to put their hands up to return to campus when the opportunity arose.

“A keen sense of resilience permeated all our service and demonstrated our agility, adaptability and responsiveness, which in and of itself is motivating when people are trying to make sense of what is happening around them.”

Get to know your library

With the ongoing challenges presented by COVID-19, Satgoor recommended that students become familiar with what the library can do for them – both during their studies and beyond.

“Libraries and librarians are geared to train you to engage with materials [and] challenge your thinking and ways of using information towards becoming a good researcher. Get to know the tools and learn the skills that will allow you to navigate different types of resources. Don’t be shy – introduce yourself to a librarian. Once we know who you are, we can provide personalised solutions that can help you immensely.

“Be curious and expand your thinking. As a partner, we are here to nurture your intellectual experience and support your lifelong learning.”