September/October 2020Vol.XXXIII No. 1

Mission, Safety, Equity: Navigating Fall 2020 at MIT Libraries

Chris Bourg

Like you, we in the MIT Libraries find ourselves in a most unusual fall semester. Over the past eight months, we have aimed to balance the research and learning mission of the Institute with the health and safety of our staff and the MIT community, and we have endeavored to approach our many challenges with creativity, compassion, and equity in mind.

I’d like to take this opportunity to recap for MIT faculty what library services look like this fall and to share some of the thinking behind our decision-making.

Same Vision, New Urgency

After Covid-19 sent most of the community off campus, the Libraries’ leadership reexamined our vision, defined by the MIT Task Force on the Future of Libraries, in the context of the pandemic and our all-remote environment. In May we shared the resulting document, MIT Libraries Vision: A New Urgency, which articulates and amplifies that existing vision with a sharpened focus and a clear set of principles to guide our decision-making.

Our essential goals remained the same – open and equitable access to knowledge and collections and services tailored for maximum and inclusive impact on our community – but their importance was heightened by the disruptions of Covid-19. Some of the key elements of this crystallized vision include:

● Digital-first strategy: Physical items are accessible only to a limited number of people in a fixed location. We must be a digital-first library in order to maximize equitable access to content and services.

● Focus on essential physical collections and space: Some collections and services cannot be meaningfully replicated in a digital or online form. We will focus these to an essential core, defined by their exceptional quality and singular relevance to MIT research and teaching.

● Advancing open scholarship: Unimpeded access to knowledge has never been more critical for accelerating the progress of science and facilitating learning – on campus, remotely, and in communities across the globe.

The Libraries’ approach to reintroducing services that demand an on-campus presence was driven by these principles, along with our own safety protocols. Our initial efforts address the biggest needs in the most equitable way possible, and we will make any needed adjustments or improvements as the semester unfolds.

Fall 2020 Services

The Libraries have continued to provide extensive services online since March, and this will not change, with a large percentage of the MIT community continuing to learn and work remotely. These services include access to millions of online resources, online consultations with subject experts, quick help via our Ask Us service, virtual workshops, and more.

We recognize that many scholars rely heavily on access to our physical collections for their teaching and research, and that lack of access has been especially challenging for them.

For the fall semester, we restarted services that provide access to tangible collections while library buildings remain closed:

● Digital delivery of materials in our physical collections: Request items from general circulating collections or Distinctive Collections; if we cannot provide a digital copy through other means, we will scan material in our collections.

● Shipping and delivery: We are shipping circulating collections to home addresses and offering office delivery on campus.

Our fall course reserves service has also adapted to the largely online environment. There is no print reserves service this fall, as we cannot provide access to materials equitably (with most undergraduates off campus) or practically (due to quarantine periods for returned materials). Our staff are ready to help by providing access to online and open alternatives or scanning physical materials.

Adapting to our current reality and to a post-Covid world will require creativity, grace, and flexibility across the Institute. Please know that, whatever life and work at MIT looks like in 2021 and beyond, the Libraries will be here to support, equip, and inspire our community to solve complex problems in the service of humankind. If there is any way we can help you this fall, please reach out to us at or through your department’s liaison.