BCLA Perspectives

Online Only: Inclusivity and Accessibility in Library Services & Instruction


During this transitional time of remote learning in post-secondary, we chose a question-and-answer format to share our logistical responses to COVID-19 closures, as well as our initial reflections. We are curious how others would answer these questions and encourage you to respond in the Comments section, or email us directly to turn these initial musings into a more fulsome conversation.


Introductory Reflections

Barbara: As a Public Services Librarian, much of my pre-COVID-19 work focused on creating a welcoming service environment through staff training, inclusive programming and physical space design. COVID-19 has caused our library to redesign service delivery, and has also provided opportunity for reflection on our standard practices. A virtual service model is not a common approach in academic libraries; rarely do you see a “virtual branch” as is prevalent in public library systems (Cahill 2009). Located in Kelowna, BC, the UBC Okanagan Library forms part of the UBC Library system, but is normally separated geographically by 400km. The most overarching service implication of a fully remote service model is that the entire UBC community now has one main portal for Library services, a website. The sixteen specialized and nuanced spaces that we normally staff as starting points for engagement are far opaquer to patrons with physical doors closed. The implications of a fully virtual environment for inclusive library services are significant with serious challenges as well as meaningful opportunities for improvement. There are many articles speculating whether libraries will persist or decline in the “internet age,” and yet we would have never collectively considered the possibility of all campus operations moving online – not just the library. As our initial responses were justifiably focused on logistics, we are only now beginning to examine the broader ramifications of “virtual only” or “virtual first” as a service model (Cox, 2020; IFLA, 2020; Ma, 2020).

Sajni:  My role as a Learning and Curriculum Support Librarian at the UBC Okanagan Library has primarily focused on instruction from the perspectives of strategic and individual practice. I aim to provide direction to my colleagues in the creation of classroom experiences that are engaging, active-learning focused, and inclusive. This approach has been informed and structured around texts such as Feminist Pedagogy for Library Instruction, the Critical Library Pedagogy Volume 1 and Volume 2 setand Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods. At UBC Okanagan Library we have a teaching space that I co-designed, which is intentionally built to have students engage and talk to each other at group tables, rather than behind computer screens. Up until recently, my instructional work has been focused on the physicality of in-person learning. However, leading up to the pandemic, the librarian team had started to think about opportunities to blend and flip library instruction. Through a UBC grant, and in collaboration with colleagues at UBC Vancouver, we hired a graduate student to support the creation of a series of foundational information literacy skill modules to embed into the learning management systems [LMS]. These modules were intended to be used in advance of introductory level library instructional sessions so that the in-person instruction could focus on higher level skills and application. This project was in its first year and was still very much in its initial development when the pandemic hit. We were able to advance our project timeline and launch the first couple of modules to meet the immediate need of finishing out the academic year. That being said, module creation at that point was, at best, informed by a basic level of inclusion, accessibility, and engagement principles to meet the pandemic-imposed timeline. The initial modules were created without thinking about the opportunities and challenges of actually creating an accessible and inclusive online space for learning from the library perspective in a long-term, holistic way. Now that we are somewhat through the panic mode of moving online, there feels to be more space to engage with how this new context can allow for more inclusive practices in an ongoing way.


What does it mean to provide an inclusive library services without a physical building?

Barbara:  From a logistical standpoint, our library has adapted the following from being location-based to virtual services: reference via AskAway, email and Zoom consults, contactless materials lending, remote access to computers, and online programs and workshops. In all of these service examples, accessibility, equity and diversity can be thoughtfully incorporated to ensure inclusion as a guiding principle, with important impacts for patrons and library employees alike. And yet, we are constantly referencing our physical space – it remains dominant in our web presence through imagery and “services not currently available” notices. I ponder these questions: Is there actually a library without a physical space, or is space part of the definition? What about for the majority of our patrons who never physically enter our library – have they seen a drastic improvement due to focused virtual service delivery? How can we take basic inclusivity measures and expand them into proactive approaches to build services that expect diversity rather than react to it?

Sajni: This question is so essential as we approach one full year in an almost exclusively online learning environment. As with Barbara’s comments above, there are some logistical considerations that the online environment greatly enables that make library instruction significantly more inclusive from what has been my established practice for in-person instruction. As I mentioned previously, the classroom in which I typically teach is designed for students to work with each other to problem solve and discuss questions that I pose, with me there to facilitate. This has been harder to replicate in the online environment where students are not forming the same connections that they might in person. That being said, there is a significant amount of utility in using what we have learned in transitioning to online to inform how we will do in-person instruction when we return. The online environment lets me provide multiple examples in multiple formats and allow me to ensure that accessibility best practices are being met. It also creates a large library of learning objects that can be updated, assessed, and reused in an ongoing way. I can see using this to blend and flip the classroom going forward, and allow more space for questions, discussion and application during synchronous sessions, either in-person or virtual.


What are some of the initial considerations that you made in switching to an entirely virtual environment? What are some of the individual and/or big-picture initiatives and changes that you have made to address inclusivity in your practices?

Barbara: At UBC Okanagan, we choose to create a streamlined set of pathways for patrons to connect: a single phone line for voicemails which forward automatically to email, a single general email with triage and referral done internally, a revised online form to improve accessibility in connecting patrons with subject librarians, and use of our existing participation in AskAway for on-demand assistance. We provided substantial training to reference assistants to support them in virtual reference and redirected most reference hours to our AskAway institutional queue. We have focused our social media campaigns and programs on equity-enhancing topics. Our regular ongoing staff training program has directly addressed equity considerations in an online environment, focused on the student perspective, and builds on an existing culture of collective learning and service improvement.

As a liaison librarian I have created asynchronous teaching materials with transcripts for all video content, in addition to teaching synchronous classes online, while being cognizant and directly addressing device and internet connection, as well as accessibility limitations of the platforms provided.

As the pandemic has been layered with global conversations about racism and inequity, there definitely seems to be potential right now for incorporating inclusivity into daily university practices, and beyond strategic documents. For me, the big-picture question is whether our existing efforts to create an inclusive service space could effectively be transitioned online. In many ways, it seems too early to assess whether we have achieved this goal.

Sajni: From the instructional perspective there were a number of things that were initially considered to get virtual instruction off the ground. Most of this tied into how were we going to create material that could be seamlessly added into courses through the LMS, and how we were going to ensure that students with all abilities would be able to engage with this material. This led to a number of questions including: “What are the best practices in creating accessible and inclusive online instructional learning objects?”, “What is an inclusive and accessible online learning classroom?”, and “How can we provide content in multiple formats for students to use and take away for ongoing use?”

From the big-picture perspective, the core elements of these questions are, or should be similar to in-person instruction. How should communication happen when we are not in the classroom all the time? How will we encourage and outline to students how they can connect and engage with the library outside of the prepared content? How will the design of learning objects help and/or hinder the learners experience? Where do we make assumptions about what learners do and don’t know about the library? How can we change that? Where are the implicit biases that we have about students and how they engage in the online environment? How do we be aware of our own biases when teaching online? How do we support students who have inconsistent or limited internet access? Like Barbara has outlined above, the asynchronous environment allows for providing materials in multiple formats, videos with captions and transcripts, and multiple examples of each skill or task, that in in-person instruction would have to all be provided in 50-80 minutes (for the classes I typically teach). I think these learning objects being embedded directly into course sites provides a precedent for including this content in multiple forms and access points even when we go back in-person.


How have your understandings and perceptions of inclusivity changed since March 2020?

Barbara: Late in the spring of 2020, when contemplating a virtual academic year, I reviewed the personal characteristics protected by the BC Human Rights Code as a critical lens into our virtual service planning. With AskAway as a crucial element of our service model, I also began to think province-wide, instead of being focused only on UBC Okanagan, which is my normal sphere of service delivery. What if we were to collectively consider what we could offer academic library patrons in BC to enhance their learning, teaching and research? Could we build on the work of BC Campus to more holistically approach library collaboration in BC? Could we offer a point of contact not tied to a computer? A province-wide 1-800 reference line to address internet connectivity and device limitations, mental and physical disability, and any age-based constraints to virtual services? Could we offer multilingual chat reference to support the languages spoken in our province and studied in our institutions? Does the anonymity of AskAway reduce known barriers (Daniels, 2013) to asking for assistance? Despite all of our efforts to design a welcoming and inclusive service model and space at UBC Okanagan (Sobol 2020), only a fraction of the university population engages with our service desk – could this be improved through a concentrated focus on virtual service offerings?

Sajni: It has become almost cliché to say that 2020 has been a challenging year. The pandemic, justifiable outrage and activism around the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the presidential election in the U.S. have created an increased urgency for many of us. This has been paralleled in Canada through the murder of Coco in police custody in Toronto as one of many other examples of our unjust society. How do we hold ourselves accountable for enacting anti-racism initiatives that are appearing on most of our campuses in response to these events? How do we incorporate this awareness into our work? How do we advocate in a meaningful way to incorporate anti-racist, anti-colonial, and anti-ableist perspectives and initiatives into all levels of the library work? I have no answers, except that these are the questions that we need to focus on going forward, both in our continued pandemic context, and when we eventually transition back to campus.


Existing library practices have historical roots tied to race, class, and gender. Can we use this ‘virtual moment’ in time to plan for how we move past these practices when we “return” in a post-pandemic context?

Barbara: If remote work were a continued feature of library services post-pandemic, could we employ a more diverse set of library employees – on all the grounds of diversity outlined in the BC Human Rights Code? What are the potential technical solutions that would allow us to create meaningful connections with library patrons virtually, in a sustained way? The traditional reference desk heralds from a time of mediated stacks access for privileged scholars, and adaptations over time have been minimal – do we still need desks in order to provide library services that foster meaningful relationships while supporting learning, teaching and research?

Moving beyond service-model considerations, does this pause in normal operations provide a place from which to reevaluate the overall set of policies and subsequent services that academic libraries provide to their communities? What exactly are the bounds of our individual communities – enrollment and employment? As publicly funded institutions, is there opportunity to collaborate further to create more inclusive support services for learners, teachers and researchers, in the spirit of the open movement? I am very skeptical that this level of reflection and change will occur, certainly any time soon, but I do think that these conversations currently have a foothold that they did not pre-pandemic. Considering global library perspectives and solutions provides valuable insights for us to consider in BC (IFLA 2020).

Sajni:  In the move to online it became very clear that students on our campus heavily relied on the library’s desktop computers and laptops available through our lending program. It also became clear that the physical spaces for studying and engaging with each other was a vital component of the library’s physical space and how students saw the library as part of the campus environment. This is not really surprising, but was put into stark relief when everything shut down so quickly and right before the exam period. This should tell us a lot about how to support students when we do eventually return to the physical campus and how to consider equitable access to technology, spaces and services.

In addition, in light of everything that has happened in the last year, I think it further should draw our attention to how our collections, spaces, and contextual framings of information in academic libraries are still firmly rooted in white supremacy (Santamaria, 2020; Sierpe, 2019) and colonization (Edwards, 2019). While many of us are actively working to include a deeper awareness of this in our teaching, through critical information literacy, social justice focused practices, and OwnVoices we are still working within a system that does not always allow for this work to succeed. However, this perspective feels too hopeless. I think what this ‘virtual moment’ shows us is that we can be forced to change, and at a faster pace than we thought possible. We have learned that institutions, and those of us that work within them, can pivot, we can change. So, we can take this as an opportunity, where possible, and when supported, to ensure that we change our library practices, policies, and values to reflect the world we want to live in.


What opportunities do you see, or ideas do you have for the future to address inclusivity in library practices?

Barbara: One of the main challenges that I foresee in improving inclusivity long-term is a desire to return to “normal operations” when the pandemic draws to a close. I see an opportunity to examine library services from non-library viewpoints before restarting them. At UBC we have an Inclusion Action Plan, an Indigenous Strategic Plan, and Truth and Reconciliation Commitments on the Okanagan Campus. Can we imagine an exercise in which we take advantage of this pause in normal operations to examine library services from these perspectives, and then actually commit to making change based on the analysis? I would imagine that if we did this, the resources that we have traditionally put toward staffing service desks, operating buildings and purchasing collections would need to be realigned to ensure that those various elements of an academic library were in support of inclusion. When our library closed and halted most services in March 2020, the technology access issues that Sajni mentioned were definitely apparent. We heard immediately from many students who had no other place to study, and needed solutions provided by the Library in order to be successful in their education. Would an evaluation led by our strategic documents allow us to create robust access to space, technology, and collections that were flexible enough to support students in this unprecedented pandemic closure? Unlikely. But they may allow us to better support those students under “normal” circumstances by improving human connections, accessibility, socioeconomic-informed scaffolding of technology access and study space, and free/open access to resources.

Sajni: To start, I want to echo what Barbara has said above. I think we will need to ensure that we do not return to business as normal whenever we are able to return to the physical campus. UBC in particular has put out a number of plans that we will need to be held accountable for (Inclusion Action Plan, TRC, and Indigenous Strategic Plan). These provide us with a framework to build our work on as we go forward. I think there is an opportunity to use these documents to create more opportunities for students’ voices, diverse voices, and to provide space for those of us who work in libraries to listen to what is needed from our services. I think we have learned the services that students are using remotely can inform what they may continue to use more in the future: access to open resources and textbooks, multiple points of asking questions, ease with which to connect the library to open web sources, self-serve tools and resources, etc.

Barbara Sobol is a Public Services Librarian at UBC Okanagan Library

Sajni Lacey is a Learning and Curriculum Support Librarian at UBC Okanagan Library



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