This post was written by Sae Ra Germaine (Manager, Member & Academic Services) and Sara Davidsson (Member Services Coordinator) from CAVAL. CAVAL is a member-based for-benefit company that offers specialised products and services to the education and library sector in Australia and New Zealand.
CAVAL’s members and owners are some of the most prestigious Australian Universities and CAVAL enables them to access cost effective and collaborative library support services through economies of scale, scope, and expertise.
We may be fatigued from hearing how the COVID-19 pandemic was “unprecedented” and how many organisations, institutions, communities, and individuals had to “pivot”, but, at CAVAL, we think there’s value in taking a moment to: Pause. Reflect. Imagine.
And we think you might find some value in our reflections in terms of your own practice.
CAVAL and its Interest Groups are recognised for delivering high quality and relevant professional development through knowledge sharing seminars, forums, and community of practice events. These events have provided opportunities for CAVAL members from across Victoria to come together (usually in the Melbourne CBD) to learn and network with peers. Our mentoring program was very much state based and each of the groups gathered in a face-to-face capacity, in Victoria and New South Wales respectively.
When the pandemic kicked off, we were both relatively new in our roles and still finding our feet. We had worked with the Interest Groups and the Mentoring Program cohort to line up our year’s worth of face-to-face events. We were ready to go! When COVID-19 arrived on our shores, this is where we paused. Sae Ra and Sara were both on some of the last flights home to Melbourne from Sydney on the 10th of March 2020. We knew there was a virus going around the world, but little did we know that just 3 days later Australia would go into its first shutdown. We immediately looked for options to keep our member community together and our professional development offerings running.
It was evident for everyone that if the participants were unable to come to an event, the event would have to come to them. What better way to achieve this than moving planned events online? Although some of us were already slightly familiar with video conferencing products such as Zoom, it was a steep learning curve to host 200+ people at a collaborative, interactive event compared to a small team in a meeting.
What did we learn from shifting our events online?
- Breakout rooms make people nervous. People are uncomfortable being placed in breakout rooms with strangers, with the added fear that leaving a breakout room is more conspicuous than excusing oneself from a group face-to-face. To alleviate this, we trialled using facilitators to guide the conversations in the breakout rooms. This calmed most attendees who appreciated the structured approach to discussion and networking. While this approach is more labour intensive, it provided an excellent learning opportunity for library staff to hone their facilitation skills in a safe environment and many of them enjoyed it and found the experience valuable.
- Attendees from far and wide. CAVAL’s member libraries span campuses in regional Victoria as well as in metro areas of the state. The online events enabled staff in regional locations the opportunity to attend events without having to be away from their workplace for a half day minimum. This was also attractive to those creating rosters and managing staff availability. Additionally, the virtual nature of the events allowed for easy attendance to the events by participants from all States and Territories of Australia, as well as New Zealand. In a conscious effort to provide equity, CAVAL, with its members, decided to open their events to non-member libraries as well which saw an influx of attendees from public and special libraries whose experiences enriched the knowledge exchange.
- International and interstate speakers. The lack of interstate and international travel available during 2020 and 2021 made speakers from more diverse locations viable for events. While previously it would have been prohibitive flying an academic or a University Librarian in for a 60 or 90-minute event, the online landscape enabled us to host speakers from the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. This widened the perspectives we were able to offer our audience and learning of work practices overseas did not remain an onerous task.
- Staff of all levels could attend the events. With a half-day forum or full-day seminar in the past it was challenging for members to enable staff of all levels to attend events. In some cases, senior staff might have been encouraged to attend if they could combine the event with meetings near the event location, or staff from particular areas of the library were able to attend more events due to the nature of their work. When attending from their desks, the events were increasingly available to staff of all HEW levels, working in all areas of the library, from frontline staff supervising a service desk to the University Librarian.
- Online events are equitable. A common denominator for the dot points above are that all refer to the increased equity of virtual professional development, where finances, location, number of staff, and other factors do not impact the access to quality capability building.
- Longing for connection. This pandemic has locked us away from our families, our workplaces, and our colleagues. A common theme which popped up in the events was the excitement of being able to spend time with people other than our immediate teams, learn from others, and sometimes speak to someone whose life was less (or more!) restricted than ours depending on their location. The sharing of experiences and of how each library managed the pandemic differently was a wealth of knowledge. These sorts of conversations could not happen in corridors and, whilst somewhat forced, it was definitely welcomed.
This pandemic has left us with uncertainty but also with hope. We have built new skills, learned new tools, met new colleagues, and built our resilience. With the push to go “back to normal”, we don’t necessarily think that everything should go back to the way it used to be. We don’t want to waste what we have learnt from this pandemic. We still need to connect, and technology can make our connections reach further. We are keeping an eye on how hybrid events will actually work in the future, but we don’t necessarily think that with current technology this provides an equitable platform for learning and connecting. But. We are optimistic. We will continue to learn, we will continue to grow and most of all we are continuing our willingness to experiment with new platforms, new ways of delivering material, and facilitating new ways for library staff to connect.