Penn Libraries prepares for a new semester

The Libraries’ goals for the spring semester remains the same as before the pandemic—to get materials into the hands of library users, either literally or virtually.

Person wearing a mask stands in the library stacks holding books.
The Penn Libraries is sharing materials with patrons by scanning and sending, or providing them for pickup. Librarian Megan Brown pulls books from the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center stacks.

It goes without saying that 2020 was a year of extraordinary change and disruption. The world, the country, and the Penn community grappled with a pandemic, protests, and a fraught election season. In the midst of it all, Penn librarians sought to adapt to the “new normal” created by COVID-19, developing innovative ways to serve students, faculty, researchers, and other members of the Penn community. “It required changing everything about the way we did things, changing everybody’s responsibilities and everybody’s duties,” says Emily Batista, acting head of circulation, speaking of how her team prepared for the fall semester.

How are librarians focusing their energies as the new semester begins? For staff members who work in Access Services—the department that looks after the circulating collections, helps out students and researchers in Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center, coordinates inter-library loans, and more—the goal remains to get materials into the hands of library users either literally or virtually. Over the course of the last 10 months, the Libraries has made a significant investment in order to purchase e-book collections and increase access to digital and video streaming resources. Librarians who once spent their time pulling books or helping students in person now scan articles and book chapters for digital delivery, and answer questions that come over email or through the Ask chat service. “The circulation staff have done a fantastic job at pivoting to all these new jobs that they have never done before,” says Sheila Ketchum, head of resource sharing.

Tom Bruno, director of access services, is excited that this semester, the Libraries are expanding the seat reservation service that began in the fall. Open to students who will be on campus and participating in regular COVID-19 screenings, the service allows those who are eligible to study in the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center while maintaining a safe, contact-free environment. Starting Feb. 1, one can reserve spots Monday through Thursday, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and on Fridays from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. While the system cannot accommodate groups, it will offer a quiet place to work that’s safely separate from other aspects of life.

Tables inside Van Pelt library covered in bags of books reserved waiting for pickup, on the other side of the windows stands a person outside walking a dog looking in.
Library patrons can request books and pick them up at the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center using Pickup@Penn.

David Truluck, a master’s student in the School of Social Policy & Practice, was part of the seat reservation pilot program in the fall. “As a result of the pandemic, I had few options for places to study aside from my own bedroom,” he recalls. “I found it difficult to study alone however, and so sought to study someplace more public.” While noting that this system could not replicate the experience of studying in the library during a normal year, he says, “there were a lot of major events that went on during the semester, from the pandemic to the protests to the election, and as a student the seat reservation program was an aid considering everything that went on.”

The seat reservation service will resume on Monday, Feb. 1. The seat reservation service may expand further in the near future, and students can find out more and reserve a spot on the website.

As in the fall, library users can request books from the Libraries’ circulating collections in two different ways. Books By Mail ships requested books anywhere in the United States. Pickup@Penn hours are Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and requested books are held for one week. Books by Mail requires advanced registration.

Students also shouldn’t hesitate to contact librarians with questions. Specific information about Pickup@Penn, Books By Mail, Inter-library loan, or other matters related to circulating collections can be emailed to

Students can also ask general questions using the Libraries’ chat service. The live chat is available Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. To ask a question outside of those hours, fill out this online form, and a librarian will respond within 24 hours.

Looking for information related to a specific topic? Email the subject specialist whose focus aligns with your particular research question, or make an appointment to consult with a librarian by video.

At left, a person wearing a mask working in the Penn libraries holds a large framed piece of art for scanning. At right, a person wearing a face mask scans an old pop-up book into a laptop on the desk beside them.
John Pollack, curator of research services, uses a document camera to scan requested items from the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.

In the Kislak Center Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts, librarians are also continuing to find new ways to share the Penn Libraries’ special collections with people both inside and outside the Penn community. During “normal times,” hundreds of researchers visit the Kislak Center’s Charles K. MacDonald Reading Room every year, and this year staff have developed innovative ways to help people do research from afar. “We’re working as virtual eyes for researchers,” says John Pollack, curator of research services. Usually, they would respond to research requests by scheduling a time for the researcher to visit in person, but that’s no longer possible. “Instead we tell them, ‘we’ll have to do the looking for you.’”

What does this look like in practice? Last fall, Lynne Farrington, senior curator of special collections, worked with the Maternity Care Coalition to choose a series of historic photographs from the organization’s archive that the group planned to use in a grant-funded project. Before COVID-19, the group would have visited the Kislak Center in person, requested the appropriate folder of photographs, and looked through them themselves. Now that whole experience takes place virtually. “I pulled a lot of photographs, and I went through them [over Zoom] while the Coalition decided which ones they wanted to have digitized.”

Many students appreciate the unique opportunity to see and touch Penn’s special collections as part of their classes, and in the age of COVID, Kislak staff have also found new, creative ways to replicate these experiences virtually. Already, they have begun collaborating with instructors who are planning to integrate virtual visits in the spring semester. “Everything is customized,” says Pollack. “We don’t offer a cookie-cutter experience, and I like that.”

Anyone who wants to review collections items, consult with a Kislak Center curator about research, schedule a virtual class visit, or receive digital productions of research materials should take a look at the Kislak’s Resources for Remote Learning.

An old, rare book laid out in preparation for scanning at Penn Libraries.
Librarians are finding new ways to virtually share even the rarest items in Penn's collection, like this illuminated manuscript dated to 1350. 

Students are a vital part of the Penn Libraries community, both as users of library resources and as colleagues who keep services running and bring life to the stacks. “We miss our student assistants so much,” says Batista. “We’re missing that youthful energy.”

Pollack is also looking forward to being able to again share special collections with students in person. “One of the things we have tried to do is to introduce people who don’t know anything about the kinds of resources we have to using them. A freshman can come look at a 17th century Shakespeare book, and they wouldn’t know to do that unless we or the faculty was helping bring those materials to them. And that, of course, is very challenging now.”

All of these services and more are only possible because of the extraordinary work of people from all over the Penn community. Door guards at Van Pelt-Dietrich welcome patrons and bring their reserved books to them. Wellness Ambassadors from the Penn Wellness Program keep students who have reserved study spaces safe by ensuring that all health and safety precautions are followed. Librarians and other staff continue to take on additional duties and overcome creative challenges in what has been an incredibly difficult time for all of us. “[The staff] deserve a humungous party when all of this is behind us,” says Batista.

This story is by Rebecca Ortenberg. It originally ran in Penn Libraries News.