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Research, Instruction, and Student Outreach: Reflecting on Pandemic Changes for Growth in an Academic Library

Published onMar 29, 2024
Research, Instruction, and Student Outreach: Reflecting on Pandemic Changes for Growth in an Academic Library


While academic settings are often accused of moving more slowly than other industries, they are not immune to change. Academic libraries have had to adapt, pivot, react, and prepare for a variety of shifts within higher education. The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic forced adaptations in library services; in light of this, student expectations are changing, the field has seen significant turnover within the workforce, and faculty behavior has evolved. However, while the core and intention behind library services may stay consistent, delivery and process has changed. This article will discuss evolutions and changes in a mid-sized, comprehensive university library and how those adaptations affected reference, instruction, and student outreach areas.    


Libraries are places of change. Depending on the circumstances, changes can be internally initiated, pressured from external forces, and be part of the social ecosystem that molds our shared reality. Ranganathan’s fifth rule “the library is a growing organism” continues to resonate strongly with libraries everywhere and is especially true coming out of a pandemic with major ripple effects for what patrons want or have grown to expect. Continuing services that may have grown out of a temporary need during the pandemic, while maintaining services that were able to return to prior operation, requires intentional thinking about areas of greatest need.

Serving a specific population of students and higher education professionals, academic libraries face distinctive change forces that have caused growth in some areas and reduction in others. Shifts in student behaviors and faculty requests, and great turnover in the workforce have been major drivers in determining how to allocate resources and time. This article discusses developments and shifts made at Central Washington University, a regional, comprehensive university with some of those changes as a response to the pandemic that have led to smoother delivery of services. The case study examples discussed here include reference and research services, instruction services, and library orientations for new students. The review presented through this case study is intended to highlight adaptations that may be appropriate at other institutions responding to similar concerns.  

Literature Review 

At the core of library services, library research and reference services seek to “help users navigate and use library resources effectively to enable original research, teaching and learning, and service” and this focus became more pronounced when the COVID-19 pandemic forced learning institutions to shift services from primarily in-person to primarily virtual formats.1 Gerbig, Holmes, Lu, and Tang note that while “academic libraries increased their remote reference service offerings,” often significant staffing and training challenges arose alongside the benefits of virtual services.2 Despite challenges, the recent emphasis on virtual services and resources have increased service accessibility for patrons. Virtual services provide the opportunity for libraries to rethink service structures and models in order to make “information, activities, and/or environments sensible, meaningful, and usable for as many people as possible.”3

One-on-one research consultations are one of the primary ways that the university library provides information literacy instruction and research assistance for students and studies continue to show their benefits. Bruce states that, “the reality is that students feel the benefit of meeting with a librarian one-on-one, whether in person or via video conference” and goes on to emphasize that “the potential for relationship-building in the individual research consultation cannot be overstated.”4 Others have gone as far as suggesting that meetings with librarians be mandatory; research from Martin and Park suggests that mandating meetings with librarians helps alleviate library anxiety by reducing the stress associated with first asking for help.5

With the shift in focus to virtual systems, library chat reference services have significantly increased in popularity. Virtual chat services are another form of  one-on-one consultation, providing many of the same benefits for patrons. Flierl & Henkaline suggest that even though “reference questions at a physical desk may [become] less important for reference—chat reference services may be playing an increasingly important [role] in facilitating student learning.”6 As new students enter college and bring with them habits established during the time of solely remote learning, virtual reference services such as virtual appointments and 24/7 chat will likely continue to be one of the most frequently used library research services. 

Another important component of library services is the instruction libraries provide. Beyond the timeframe of responding to the pandemic, approaches and strategies for library instruction have steadily evolved from the more bibliographic-centric language of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Information Literacy Competency Standards to a more information-centered taxonomy in the ACRL Framework. Throughout these philosophical shifts, library instruction has evolved in critical approach and modality, while still demonstrating its valuable connection to improved grades and student retention.7,8 Arguably, it is a willingness to evolve instruction practices that merits continued value for students.9 While the speed of change required to respond to the pandemic by moving to online modalities didn’t allow for a thoughtful revisioning in the moment, it has proven the value of shifting to a teaching approach that centers information literacy for all sources, not just those found in the library, when access to a physical library was temporarily not an option for students. 

Instructional modality was a big area of change for libraries. It’s clear through observation of the volume of case studies in the literature that many libraries have deployed online tutorials, modules, and self-paced materials to meet the instruction needs of first-year students.10,11,12 While many libraries were employing online modules prior to the pandemic, the increase of case studies about their application in the library classroom demonstrates many were developed during the pandemic. However, rationale for making this transition has been multi-pronged and driven by desires to continue reaching a high volume of students despite fewer staff and create ease of access for students, in addition to necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic.13

Lastly, the pandemic created shifts in how outreach and orientation were conducted.  We Librarians asked, “How do we bring them back?”, highlighting a key outcome for libraries from interacting with students at orientation events. Academic libraries want to leave a positive impression that encourages students to return to the library and get the most of its services and resources. After all, studies have shown positive correlations between library usage and both higher GPAs and retention rates for first-year students.14,15 While pandemic times saw a rapid and necessary shift to the virtual realm, post-pandemic times have seen shifts that were not addressed by a simple return to ‘how things were’ pre-pandemic. How academic libraries conduct orientation events is no exception to responding to this need.

Approaches to student outreach and orientation to the library have traditionally been ad-hoc. However, the literature on library outreach post-pandemic, though limited, points to potential change for a more centralized outreach approach within libraries. The literature indicates a growing interest in libraries having formal outreach plans, and ones that consider a blend of in-person and online. Biddle & Gowen share an assessment of outreach during and post-pandemic.16 Though the survey focused on STEM outreach, they found that 12% of their respondents had an outreach plan in place and those who did not share a majority opinion, having one would be helpful. At another library, Mulraine-Campbell & Quintero discuss how their survey on first-year orientation touchpoints from 2018-2021 found that effects during and after the pandemic saw not just a need to plan for “periodic marketing initiatives,” but also a need to address how some library skills, such as tech-savviness on the part of library workers when the virtual switch occurred, need refreshers during times of change.17 The aligning thought here is that library outreach and orientation should be strategic, especially as students new to campus life may not fully grasp the importance of the library’s resources and services to their academic success.18

CWU Services Case Study

Research Services

The operation and delivery models for Research Services at Central Washington University Libraries have seen significant change, with increased emphasis on accessibility through virtual service options since 2020. CWU Libraries serve campus populations at the main CWU campus as well as two campus centers in Des Moines and Lynnwood. The research consultation process and communication among research services team members have seen significant changes since the return to in-person services, in addition to changes in the ways we document our training processes and collaborate with other university departments. 

Prior to the library closure during 2020, the CWU Library research desk setup was robust, but arguably unwieldy. Within the library building, there were four different patron-facing service desks: an information desk located on the first floor in the Learning Commons area housing one student employee and one librarian, a main circulation desk located on the first floor staffed by a student employee and access services staff, a Government Publications desk located on the third floor staffed by library staff and student workers, and a Music Library information desk located on the fourth floor staffed by staff, student workers, and a librarian. 

Desk consolidation was necessary during the pandemic, and after the return to in-person services in 2021, the library decided to continue the single point desk for several reasons. First, fewer service desks are a better fit with existing library service goals, particularly the goal to “create welcoming user experiences and inclusive access by transforming physical spaces and creating virtual spaces and services.”19 Consolidation of service desks helped eliminate patron confusion when entering the building and clarified where to go for assistance. 

Service desk consolidation has also allowed for more student employees to be present at the main service desk at any given time, making immediate assistance more readily available for patrons. Despite scaling down the number of service desks, the library has been able to maintain student employee levels. All students are trained to staff the main service desk and can pick up work in other more specialized areas. One goal for this cross-training is to allow students to engage in more specialized library work. In addition to streamlining the patron assistance process, service desk consolidation has also allowed for more consistent training for library student employees and enabled the creation of more shared training and reference documentation for both staff and student employees, enhancing consistency and reliability for student training, reference documentation, and learning experiences. Overall, the change from four desks to only one has been beneficial for library operations and research services alike. 

In addition to the consolidation of service desks, CWU Libraries also recently established a dedicated space behind the main service desk for one-on-one research consultations. The new Research Support room is labeled “Research Support” above the door and is clearly visible from the main library entrance near the front service desk. This newly established space provides a convenient, easy-to-find, comfortable place for students to meet one-on-one or in small groups with librarians and is equipped with everything needed for a consultation to be successful. 

Another change that library research services have implemented is a switch to an on-call model for research requests that come to the front desk of the library. Pre-pandemic, the library’s information desk (iDesk) housed one student employee and one librarian throughout the day, on rotating shifts. The librarian on shift would be responsible for any research questions that came to the desk. With the change to an on-call service model, student employees and access services staff are now the front line for library help, and are supported by librarians through the chat service and an internal email group when staff decide to escalate the question. Now, when a patron comes to the main service point with a research question that would benefit from a more in-depth discussion, the front desk worker can reach out to the chat group and the first available librarian will respond. From there, they can either meet the student at the Research Support room to discuss research needs further, or the student can set up an appointment for a future meeting. While student employees can answer most questions that come through the front desk, we are working to increase regular training on when referrals to a subject librarian are appropriate and how to talk with student patrons about research appointments. This on-call model allows for excellent patron service and timely research assistance, while also considering the reduced numbers of librarians and staff. 

Another recent improvement to research services is the creation of a separate Microsoft Team space as a knowledge repository and collaboration hub for library research services. While all library employees have access to a main CWU Libraries Employee Portal, we identified a clear need for a separate space in which to collect and organize research services, such as meeting agendas and recordings, guidance documentation related to calendaring and patron communication, and training for research assistance and best practices. Creation of more consistent shared documentation allows for frequently accessed documents and training materials to be found more easily, thereby increasing the use of the documents themselves and improving research services delivered overall. 

The Peer Research Consultant program at CWU Libraries is small with the intention to build out our offerings. Peer research consultants receive intensive research and reference training prior to becoming eligible to offer one-on-one research consultations for students, and training and learning experiences continue throughout their employment. Because of this training and their experience working with students, peer research consultants have been added to the research consultation process to provide an option for students who may be more likely to use research consultations from other students, grow our student employee research knowledge, and spread out the workload of chat hours. 

Library partnerships with other university departments and entities as well as the community are essential for a healthy research ecosystem. Recently, the library collaborated with university orientations and the University 101 class on an assignment that required students to meet with a librarian to get assistance with a research assignment. The initial assignment was presented as an extra credit opportunity, with the potential to be a required assignment in future quarters. The increased workload on librarians was managed through an organized team approach, clear communication of assignment expectations, and keeping individual appointments to 30 minutes. This collaboration with university orientations significantly increased the number of new student research consultations, and proved to be an excellent opportunity for students to meet with librarians in a low-stakes situation to become more familiar with library resources at an early stage in their college career and reduce the anxiety that can often accompany asking for librarian help.


As a core service for the library, instructional services continue to be an area of development and continued growth. The breadth of options for what the library offers has changed significantly over the past ten years, but like many other libraries, 2020 saw the most rapid changes. Shifting services to new modalities or changing the process of how these learning objects were marketed was driven more through reacting to circumstances than strategic choices with advanced consideration. While this method serves a purpose for a short period, it has repercussions later when a library is forced to revise a quickly implemented strategy if people have come to expect it as the new normal. However, an element of instruction that has made the revision process easier is that other teaching faculty on campus expect instruction practices or modes to shift. Therefore, walking back a service or model within instruction hasn’t received as much pushback or felt like a retreat in the same way that removing curbside pick-up might cause hard feelings. However, many adaptations within instruction have continued alongside the libraries’ in-person learning experiences. 

The biggest shift experienced in instruction has been moving instruction to digital platforms, especially in determining how to do it with intentional learning goals. As campus faculty struggled to quickly convert their classes to an online format, maintaining a library session (even where there had always been one) became an afterthought and requests for instruction were reduced significantly in 2020. With 23 fully online programs and online general education classes in place at CWU, library video tutorials, online instruction modules, learning materials, and live sessions were already available to students and faculty. While views on library YouTube tutorials and Canvas module downloads increased during the pandemic, requests for live or customized instruction decreased. A planned change that unintentionally played out well in 2020, was the development of Academic Writing I and II library modules in Canvas for instructors to use in place of an in-person class. 

Another contributor to faculty requesting less instruction is lack of awareness. Faculty who joined the institution in the past two to three years missed orientations that included resources and methods for integrating the library into their classes. Making this connection, the library worked to develop outreach emails to all the new faculty. Correlating this lack of face time with lack of requests feels like a safe assumption given that since their return to campus and after introductions, marketing materials, and social events, requests from newer faculty have made up nearly 50% of requests. However, comparing trends to 2019, requests are still down. More self-service videos and material online, may be contributing to the slow return of faculty reaching out to subject librarians.

A new service area for instruction that evolved during the pandemic, but not because of it, has been the Research Smartz workshop series. These quarterly workshops cover various topics of interest with titles like “Organizing your Life” and “Zotero, Mendeley, and other citation magic.” With time to build out these shared lesson plans, library faculty can easily draw from the lesson repository from quarter to quarter for popular workshops, while adding new titles and topics. From the feedback we’ve collected through the Springshare registration system and data, the audience is mainly students with equal enrollment of staff and faculty. Regarding reasons for attending, 27% of participants joined for the extra credit and 63% signed up because they were interested in the topic. After hosting a few of these workshops in-person when able to, it became clear that online was the preferred format by participants. Functioning similarly to the webinars so many people had become accustomed to, the online format has stuck around as the new preference for attendees given the nature of the content. With two Center locations and online students around the state, this online series has turned out to be an excellent way to include our distance learners who can’t participate in other in-person only events on campus. 

One constant in the library instruction space pertains to student knowledge and expectations. Early instruction advice most librarians will receive is not to make assumptions about student knowledge or comfort using the library during an instruction session. This has only become more poignant as high school students who have not had the ability to use their school library in-person and students who have only experienced online library modules are now (re)entering college, discovering library spaces, and/or encountering the need to know what a call number refers to. Students who have recently come from a primarily online learning environment crave the social interaction afforded through in-person classrooms but are sometimes unsure how to engage with their peers. Employing interactive activities can help increase class engagement and give students a chance to practice the interactions they’ve missed out on previously. Taking note of student comments during instruction, feedback on post-instruction surveys, and student interest areas of the incoming class can offer insight into what areas your current students might struggle with and what to ensure you include in instruction. 

One such topic area for our current students is artificial intelligence. AI makes up a growing set of the tools used by our students and disrupts the education environment as it continues to evolve. Uncomfortable with the prospect of being accused of using AI wrongfully, some students are choosing the path of entirely avoiding available tools. However, anecdotal conversations suggest that more students are using AI than avoiding it. Other evidence from class discussion posts, essay assignments, and phantom articles that come through research questions also suggest that these tools may be employed more than they’re not. After significant summer discussion groups about applications, the librarians decided not to develop a standardized curriculum for teaching ethical use based on the evolving nature and nuances of what different faculty will require. However, within our own Library Science classes that students can take for credit, we do restrict the use of text generating software and have adopted the following standardized language for our syllabi:  

Use of Artificial Intelligence

Education is both a financial and mental investment. My goal as an instructor is to help create a learning experience that’s worthy of that investment by helping you graduate with new knowledge and the critical thinking skills that will be even more essential in an AI-influenced world. ChatGPT or other forms of open AI can be a useful tool for summarizing, explaining concepts, or generating questions. Like any tool, it also has its flaws and is not a replacement for human understanding, creativity, or ethical thinking. Open AI and language generating tools have shown to be especially inaccurate when it comes to citations. As a library professional, integrating resources and using proper citation is an essential skill that can’t be shortcut through a language tool. In this class, you may use ChatGPT as a resource. You may not copy text from ChatGPT or other language model AI to compose text that you are submitting as your own for this course. You are responsible for both the structure and wording of your answers on your own. 

While lenient about the use of AI tools in general, this language is more strict about not using AI text generating capacities. This was used because it emphasizes the need to produce and evaluate one’s own research as an information professional, which is a core skill of what these classes aim to help develop.   


There are a myriad of orientation events throughout the year at CWU, though the main ones occur during the summer and fall terms. Summer orientation includes the event series called Admitted Students Days, the most recent of which occurred every Friday of July 2023. The aim of Admitted Student Days is to kick-off the onboarding process for new students. Daily activities include campus-wide involvement and are broken into two components during the 9-hour events. Morning sessions were geared around housing tours as well as registration, financial aid, and advising assistance for students and their families. Afternoon sessions were a variety of 45-minute activities put on by departments across campus that students could attend, while their parents attended an English or Spanish parent panel. 

By the end of this orientation series, two areas of note that stood out to the library personnel who participated as library representatives, whether it was via the library scavenger hunt activity (see figure 1) for students or through one of the parent panels. One, students in 2023 involved in the coordinating and running of orientation sessions had likely not participated in an in-person orientation event themselves as the pandemic caused a marked difference with this batch of student workers who simply did not have the opportunity. As this was compounded with ongoing personnel changes across a variety of departments, it presented a challenge for communicating and coordinating orientation events that in the past had soft hand-offs with newer people. In fact, planning and coordinating Admitted Students Days in 2023 was tumultuous enough that pre-planning for Admitted Students Days in 2024 started earlier than what had previously been the norm. The second thing that stood out occurred during the Spanish parent panels in the afternoons, a session called Todos Somos Familia. In this event, different departments sent bilingual representatives to present their services to parents and answer questions. Because it was a much smaller and more intimate event than the English parent panels, the library workers who participated noted that making direct connections with parents was easy and more meaningful. A couple of parents contacted a participating librarian after the event, and though the matters were unrelated to the library, the personal connection made an impact on them.

Brooks Library Photo Scavenger Hunt screenshot asks, Find what the photo and question refer to. Write down the answer on your sheet. Return to the library when finished to receive prizes. Number 1: What floor has two large study spaces? Bonus: What are the spaces called? Number 2: What floor can you find 2 large globes of the world on?

Snippet of the library photo scavenger hunt.

Most of the latter observances were shared in the debrief session the library held after the summer orientation activities. As the personnel involved in outreach were newer, and being one of the first big series of events the library was involved with post-pandemic, there was a need to reflect on what had worked well and what didn’t. In reviewing campus activities, the library was among other departments offering a scavenger hunt as an afternoon activity and thus contributing to too many of the same activity type for students to choose from. It was also noted that it was difficult to tell if the event could have been more well-attended because of this. One of the librarians also noted that because they volunteered their time at a morning event unrelated to the library, they had managed to steer a few individuals to the library for the afternoon. This is the same strategy that Rhoades and Hartsell describe in their article in which they saw the highest number of participants visit the library during orientation activities when they had a library worker placed elsewhere on campus who shared information about and drove folks to the library.20 The library building also had multiple partners who held their own events, and it was difficult to discern what participants may have initially dropped by for one of those. All in all, the outreach workers found they didn’t have access to enough data from previous years to be able to fully discern what was ‘an improvement.’ 

This singular orientation event series post-pandemic has thus spurred the library to respond to changes in event planning and orientation involvement. The library was not immune to many personnel changes during and post-pandemic, including two new hires in roles that would serve outreach activities. However, there has been an ongoing conversation on the need to get more library workers involved in library events as it tends to be the same batch of individuals who volunteer and can lead to knowledge gaps if they aren’t available. This is being looked at in two ways. The first is to establish some internal documentation that illustrates the planning process behind events, with sample events to help fill gaps. While this is not the same as outlining an outreach plan as Hallmark, Schwartz, and Roy advise, it does consider the library's need to begin to capture data on approaches to planning for eventual assessment of strategies used.21 The second, which builds on the first, is to encourage all library workers to participate in a library event or library-affiliated orientation. For the latter, the library is not looking to implement any rule about library workers needing to meet a quota of volunteering time for events, but to instead consider ways to provide library workers with more opportunity to do so. These needs, documentation and more personnel involvement, were not concepts that were new for the library to address. These had been issues of conversation prior to the pandemic; but the pandemic’s ripple effects pushed these low priority items to the top. 

The post-pandemic orientation experience for the library also sparked a conversation about assessing the library’s involvement in events in general. This is not to imply that the library should not participate in activities meant to introduce and prepare students for university life, but that the library needed to address how to measure the success of involvement in such outreach activities. This is also for the sake of the pandemic-era downsizing of staff and faculty, from which the library has not been able to rehire for (and will not be able to soon). Although CWU Libraries is currently focused on documenting planning processes, the need to consider a more robust outreach plan is essential, not only in the face of the lingering effects on outreach post-pandemic (loss of funding, loss of personnel, and loss of programming momentum) but so that the library can both better pivot when needed in the future and set outreach outcome goals. 

For the latter, there is some literature on creating outreach plans that measure outcomes. LeMire & Graves discuss how they implemented the technique of curriculum mapping to outreach, to build and scaffold outcomes, and to make better decisions on how the library’s time and resources should be expended to get the message across to first-year students.22 Additionally, they noted how a lack of intentional information sharing can cause redundant messaging if all library orientation events share the same information each time. With the library recognizing the need to document event planning processes and the outreach workers noting a lack of data to make more informed decisions, having an outreach plan in place can situate the library in a better position to conduct said outreach. The following upcoming summer orientation sessions also give the library a chance to assess outreach goals. 


Academic libraries everywhere are always looking for ways to improve services and collections for patrons. While many of these moves were initially driven by restrictions and staffing changes from the pandemic, forced reflection has resulted in more intentional offerings. This is not to imply that some of these changes couldn’t have taken place prior to the pandemic, but the pandemic caused these cracks the library was aware of to surface and require change. Post-pandemic expectations of services have necessitated that libraries simultaneously continue to offer robust virtual services, while also trying to reestablish in-person opportunities to connect with the library. In the case of CWU Libraries, that meant reconstructing our research services model, changing the focus of our instruction model, and rebuilding orientation efforts after reopening. Rethinking the approaches behind some of our services has prompted broader questions about service intentionality, which is something all libraries contend with as they continue to grow with patron needs.  

Chelsea Riddle poses for a headshot against a blurred, outdoor background. She is wearing a white top and blue sweater and has her wavy brown hair down at her shoulders.
Chelsea Riddle is the Research Engagement Librarian at Central Washington University. She holds an MLIS from the University of Washington and an MA from the University of Central Florida in Literary, Cultural, and Textual Studies. In her spare time, she enjoys embroidery and outdoor activities.

Elizabeth Brown's headshot shows her smiling at the camera and wearing a brown top with a blue and tan scarf. She has wire frame glasses and her curly hair is pulled back into
Elizabeth H. Brown is the Instruction Coordinator at Central Washington University where she oversees library instruction and coordinates the undergraduate program in Library and Information Science. She has published and presented her research for regional, national, and international audiences and is the author of the book Learning Through Metaphor: an introduction to metaphors in information literacy.
Janet Calderon's headshot shows her smiling at the camera, wearing black frame glasses and a black and pink button-up with a floral pattern. Her wavy, dark hair is pulled back.
Janet (ya-net) Calderon is the Student Success Librarian at Central Washington Library. Her journey to librarianship comes after years of community-based work in crisis services and as a Spanish Interpreter. For fun, she plays videogames, goes camping, listens to podcasts, and annoys her cats.
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