This article was written by Bart Ragon, and edited by Kimberley R. Barker.
On March 10, 2020, Dr. Bart Ragon boarded a plane for New Mexico bound for the Research Data Access and Preservation Association's 2020 Summit. Three days later, most conferences had been cancelled and universities began to ban travel. Below, Bart reflects on both the experience of leading remotely and on the ever-changing world in which we now live.
Bart Ragon on the way to the summit, with two longtime medical librarian colleagues from different institutions.
The trip itself started off somewhat normal and fun. Since it’s easier to fly into Albuquerque than Santa Fe, I had made arrangements to meet up with medical library colleagues from different institutions. We rented a car and stopped by the Petroglyph National Monument on the way to Santa Fe. It was during the drive that my colleagues and I first began to discuss COVID-19, as we were each naturally curious about how the others' institutions were responding.
The very next day the University of Virginia moved all courses online, effective immediately, and instructed students to not return from Spring Break. At Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, we on the leadership team were figuring out what this meant for our facilities, staff, and our ability to continue to provide services. One aspect of the medical library profession that would prove valuable over the next few days is the diversity in scope and reporting structure; the two colleagues with whom I'd traveled are medical librarians in different environments. For example, my library reports directly to UVA Health and supports the medical center, School of Medicine, and School of Nursing. My colleague Melissa’s library reports to the university library, but also supports a medical center and professional schools. Beth’s library reports to the School of Medicine, but does not support a medical center. The differences of perspectives in each of our states and at our institutions meant that we all had similar, yet different, experiences while living through the emerging crises.
Throughout the conference while attending the sessions, we each awaited official statements from our institutions. We each were called away at different points to attend emergency meetings with our respective libraries, and each began to work with our respective teams to develop contingency plans for an unknown future. Beth’s library moved quickly to a modified staffing model meant to reduce exposure of staff in the physical library, but kept the library open for medical students. My library began to imagine how the medical center might need to use our space and how our staff might work from home. Melissa’s library was hosting a conference the following week and she was dealing with a multitude of speaker cancellations (ultimately canceling the entire conference). She was also pulled into a three- hour library system meeting to discuss the crises and impact on services.
What struck me about this whole experience was the value of my professional relationships: each of us was listening closely to federal and state governments, our host universities, and our organizational superiors and, throughout the conference, we kept each other up-to-date as information emerged from our individual institutions. Each of us could then factor in our own organizational needs with what we were learning from each other. For example, I was able to inform my library about what I was hearing from our peer libraries and discuss with my library's leaders how we may or may not want to apply similar measures at UVA. It was a quickly-moving crisis and I was thankful to hear how other libraries were responding, even if it wasn’t applicable at my institution.
It helped to go through the stressful situation together, to not be alone with the uncertainty. Since then I’ve stayed connected with Melissa and Beth and we have continued to share updates with each other. It is also nice to know that each of us and our families remain safe. I doubt that life will ever go back to the way it was. COVID-19 and its impact will forever alter the American story. With that knowledge I take comfort that I am not alone, that we will get through this together, and that I have amazing colleagues who will share the experience with me.