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Virtual Desk Workers Keep Penn State’s Libraries Running Smoothly

If you’ve ever heard the saying, ‘The show must go on,’ you likely weren’t imagining the Pattee and Paterno libraries. But right now, it’s more fitting than ever before.

The library is one of the most centrally located and populated places on campus. Naturally, administrators and employees there had some critical questions posed to them when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

How was the library going to continue to remain open in a safe, effective, and manageable way? How would they make sure their employees were safe while keeping resources accessible?

So, the idea for virtual welcome desks was born.

If you’ve recently walked into the library entrances, awkwardly started at a person on a computer screen at the welcome desk, and scurried away, you’re not alone. It’s a unique idea that requires adjustments, but one that has still been rather successful nonetheless.

Charles Reinert | Onward State

“The number one priority for the University Libraries is to ensure the health and safety of both students and employees. During this pandemic, especially at the beginning, it was certainly a concern for both staff and students regarding in-person interactions,” Associate Dean for Learning, Undergraduate Services, and Commonwealth Campus Libraries Leo Lo said. “So we tried to come up with different ways to continue providing services for students while respecting social distancing.”

Lo said the library team saw a similar idea to the virtual welcome desks tried out at a university in Australia and thought it was worth a shot to bring this type of change to Penn State. Over the summer, library workers were actually able to remotely answer the phones for patron phone calls. But when it came time for the fall semester, a more sustainable and effective plan was needed.

Knowledge Commons Information Resources and Services Supervisor-Manager Rachel White has helped navigate and execute some of the logistics of a position like this.

White created two Zoom rooms for two of the desks located at the East and West entrances, which is how employees check in and “appear” for their shifts. All staff members are made to be co-hosts of these rooms, and they log in for their shifts just as they would normally show up in person at a normal time.

This idea has gone off mostly without a hitch, with employees experiencing only minor technical problems every once in a while. However, there have still been some adjustments and some things sorely missed about working in person.

“Obviously, the pros are that the technology allowed us to still help patrons while keeping our staff safe,” White said. “But with the in-person interactions, I think there’s something about it we all miss. And while we’re still able to provide services to those who need them, seeing what fall will bring for us will be really interesting.”

Virtual desk employee Jasmine Morgan said people frequently walk up to the desk, stare, and gawk at the reality that there’s an actual person live on the computer screen. She’s even had people come up and ask to record her sending happy birthday or anniversary wishes.

Managers and supervisors provided the virtual desk employees with some parameters for the job, like minimizing distractions in their background or utilizing Penn State or university-affiliated Zoom background to ensure a bit more privacy for their surroundings while on shifts.

White said the opportunity to conduct some of this business virtually has actually allowed the library and its employees to work more closely than ever before, putting an emphasis on community-building activities and training.

Before the pandemic, the library had to plan and provide a significant amount of coverage for positions like this since it’s open all the time. Now, they have more time for professional development opportunities, discussion forums, and even diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility meetings.

Although it’s unsure what the future holds specifically for these jobs, their virtual format is helping significantly for the time being.

“I can’t imagine that I would still have a job without technology unless I would have been required to go back in person when it wasn’t really the safest capacity,” virtual desk employee Grace Lemke said. “I think it shows that in any kind of situation, we can really use technology to be way more flexible to different peoples’ needs or accessibilities and to use it to the best of our ability.”

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About the Author

Ryen Gailey

Ryen is a junior early childhood education major from "right outside of Philly" - or in exact words, from 23.0 miles outside of Philly. She loves all things Penn State and has been a huge Penn State gal since before she could walk. Send her pictures of puppies, or hate mail at [email protected]

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