When Yaying (Tiffany) Bai ‘21 learned that UCLA was suspending in-person classes and halting most of its campus operations on March 11, 2020 to stop the spread of COVID-19, she felt suddenly unmoored, as did many UCLA students.
The art history major was in the middle of researching her senior thesis on the changing nature of Korea and Korean art as reflected by international expositions during a turbulent era from the 1890s to 1920s.
“I was so reliant on the physical copies of books, and I was new to the digital interface,” Bai recalled. “A lot of students go to the library to find books and other resources, but we also go there because we know librarians are always on site to help us with bibliographies and with locating books and images. They are always so resourceful. I think many of us didn’t know at first how to reach out to them after the shutdown.”
For Assistant Professor of History Bharat Venkat, who was teaching a capstone course in conjunction with his UCLA Heat Lab, the campus closure added a whole new level of difficulty for him and his students.
“Our goal was to use digital tools and resources to learn something new about heat,” Venkat said. However, he wasn’t quite sure how he would prepare his students to do that when his class went virtual. “Like most of us, I was figuring it out as I went.”
Fortunately, Bai and Venkat, along with the vast majority of students and faculty at UCLA, had people they could turn to: the information specialists at UCLA Library.
I think the Library did a great job of ensuring that its resources and staff were available to students who needed it throughout the 'virtual' year.
Through online tutorials with librarians, for example, students enrolled in Venkat’s “Red Hot LA: Mapping Racism, Urban Design and Thermal Inequality” course learned how to thread their way through layers of online databases, archives, collections and search engines to find the resources they needed for their research. With the help of Library specialists, they discovered a dynamic new way to tell a story online about how a community’s experience of heat and extreme heat events is affected by urban planning policies and the availability of greenspace, primarily provided by parks and trees.
“UCLA Library staff were absolutely brilliant,” said the history professor, “pointing us to digital archives we hadn’t even thought to ask about – films, newspapers, archives related to local figures … as well as teaching us how to use a range of tools, such as ArcGIS Story Maps, to make powerful arguments using these materials.”
Bai soon discovered that librarians were highly responsive during the 18-month closure if she needed a book or help finding an image for her project. “I knew I could get whatever I needed really quickly. If they couldn’t get me a scan of what I needed, then I was referred to another library or database.” Being able to easily reach a librarian “was so reassuring. Just knowing there was someone there for you during this time of uncertainty was really helpful.”
Statistics tracking interactions with Library users show that students – whether they remained in Westwood or returned to their home states and countries – took advantage of the Library’s new pilot emergency services, developed to support remote learning. By the time campus resumed in-person classes in Sept. 2021, the Library had provided 6,059 virtual research consultations, held 93 online workshops, embedded librarians into 332 Zoom classroom sessions, loaned 2,902 laptops, tablets and wifi hotspots, and delivered via email, mail and campus pickup nearly 10,000 books, scanned chapters and journal articles, and other materials. And almost 4 million pages were viewed through the HathiTrust Digital Library Emergency Temporary Access Service, which provided access to UC-held physical copies of materials made unavailable by the pandemic closure.
A lot more work is going to be done remotely, even on a campus like UCLA’s that is about the in-person experience. Looking ahead, UCLA Library will accelerate its transition to a digital environment while balancing in-person and remote services to meet our users’ needs wherever they are.
While statistics reflect the Library's high level of engagement with students, there was also concern about their mental wellness during this most trying of times. To help students cope, the UCLA Library offered virtual stressbusters care packages(opens in a new tab) each academic quarter during the pandemic. The webpage aggregated free films, positive affirmations, fun e-reads, puzzles, games and shared online meditations and culinary workshops being offered virtually by other campus organizations.
Another critical factor that helped researchers advance their work was collaboration among librarians with different skill sets and expertise in specific collections, subject matter and data expertise.
With communication channels now open on Zoom, Google Workspace, Slack and other platforms, Library colleagues shared their experiences to develop best practices for online teaching, consulting and working online, said Zhiyuan Yao, a specialist in spatial data science at the Library’s Data Science Center.
The feedback and collaboration among librarians with different skill sets and expertise was invaluable, said Yao, whose advice and suggestions were critical to the success of students in the “Red Hot LA” class, Venkat said.
Fortunately, Yao already had a working relationship with Zoe Borovksy, librarian for digital research and scholarship and one of the staffers who reached out to Venkat's students with tutorials. "This project gave us a chance to show off our teamwork across Library departments," said Borovsky.
The student researchers received valuable assistance getting around other roadblocks. When they struggled to gain access to online subscription resources typically available on campus, UCLA Library created a helpful, user friendly website(opens in a new tab) with student-produced videos and staff-created digital handouts to instruct students on how to set up a UCLA VPN (virtual private network) or proxy server that allows the Internet to recognize that an off-campus user is affiliated with UCLA.
When Tamar Ervin ‘22, a third-year studying space physics, needed help getting into restricted sites to do research for her final project for Jacob Bortnik’s class in machine learning for the physical sciences, she turned to UCLA Library, which had “tons of information online about how to access resources.”
“Instructions for using the VPN and other online resources are very clear and understandable, even to someone who may have never used these resources prior,” Ervin said.
Everything she needed, she found, was available online to complete her final research project on using machine learning techniques to improve the detection of coronal holes that exist on the outer layer of the sun. NASA and the U.S. Air Force funded her research.
“I think the Library did a great job of ensuring that its resources and staff were available to students who needed it throughout the 'virtual' year,” said Ervin. She is currently wrapping up her undergraduate degree, applying to Ph.D. programs and working with Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s exoplanet research group.
Ervin also took advantage of another Library service when her own computer malfunctioned. She was able to borrow a laptop through a UCLA Library program that lent laptops, chargers, headsets and other items to students, even if they needed them long-term.
“Tamar did a significant amount of independent research for her final project, extensively using a range of UCLA Library-provided journal papers and electronic textbooks that allowed her to rapidly learn the material she needed,” said Bortnik, associate professor of space physics, who described her project as “truly top-notch.”
A good illustration of what Bruins were able to achieve during the closure was provided by 16 outstanding scholars who were honored last May with the annual UCLA Library Prize for Undergraduate Research. Awarded since 2009, traditionally during a ceremony held in the Powell Library rotunda, 2021’s digital-first cohort showcased eight research papers or course projects in four different categories, some individually and some as group endeavors, which demonstrated exceptional use of Library collections and services. The award is a cornerstone of the campus’ annual Undergraduate Research Week.
Prize winners, including Bai and Ervin, launched investigations into complex problems that ranged from the effects of COVID-19 and social stigma on the undocumented Latinx community in California to the decline of competition in the agricultural marketplace due to decreasing antitrust enforcement.
“We would have loved to visit the parks in person,” said Alexandra Nechaev ‘21. But the pandemic made transportation and field research impossible.
Overcoming this challenge “required both resourcefulness and creativity to find source materials that could be used to explore their question,” Venkat commented in his letter of recommendation to the prize selection committee, composed of librarians and faculty.
The “Always Sunny” researchers turned to Borovsky and Yao, who helped guide them along their research path. Yao taught them the fundamentals of geospatial data, introduced them to datasets and cartographic sources, and showed them how to work with ArcGIS story mapping tools to build an immersive narrative using interactive maps, text, photographs, videos and other resources in a coherent way.
The learning curve for the students was intensely steep, Venkat noted. “Dr. Yao’s support was absolutely critical. Not only did she offer us brilliant tutorials on using ArcGIS tools, but she remained a critical support for students throughout the term.”
In one of the most challenging projects, “It’s Always Sunny in Central LA,” four students enrolled in Venkat’s “Red Hot LA” class focused on two parks in the Westlake neighborhood – MacArthur and Lafayette parks. But because of the lockdown, the students couldn’t actually visit these spaces to conduct field work, take temperature readings, measure the canopy cover or interview park visitors.
In Zoom sessions from her home, Borovsky showed students the resources available to them online, including the University of California’s Calisphere, a digital treasure trove of more than 2 million images, texts and recordings from California libraries, archives and museums.
“Zoe guided us through UCLA’s extensive databases and Special Collections archives, which were extremely helpful for our urban planning research and for accessing archival primary sources to better understand the parks we studied,” Nechaev recalled.
“From primary sources to demographic information, the resources we found were much more accessible to us than I could have imagined,” said the UCLA graduate, who is now doing a year of volunteer service before starting work on an M.D./Master of Public Health program.
Archival images of MacArthur and Lafayette parks helped the students visualize changes in the physical greenspace over the years while current-day videos they found online gave them on-site and aerial views.
Data sources from lists compiled by the Data Science Center “enabled us to see where parks were located within various Los Angeles neighborhoods in relation to the median household income, housing tenure and population density of the surrounding area,” explained Nechaev’s teammate Alice Lu ‘21 in a statement. The students also found quantitative data about the parks’ shape, size and features as well as the impact of heat on the area.
Pulling together all these factors, the students then delved into the history of public policy decisions affecting how greenspaces in the Westlake neighborhood were sized and shaped.
“In less capable hands, the sheer volume of data, and the range of data sources from which they drew would be overwhelming,” Venkat noted in his letter of recommendation to the prize selection committee. Instead, the students presented maps that allow the viewer “to superimpose layers that reveal critical insights about the intersection of thermal inequality, race, class and the built environment.”
Venkat also praised his campus colleagues. “The staff at the UCLA Library are brilliant educators as well as facilitators of student learning. I’m exceedingly grateful for their support, their flexibility and their immense creativity in finding work-arounds in difficult times.”
For its efforts, the team was honored as the top project for its use of Library Special Collections, sharing a $500 award.
While many in retrospect might remember the 18-month campus closure for what they lost, still others in the UCLA community will recall how much they gained from the experience.
“I think I am more resourceful now in terms of being able to look for the information I need,” said Bai, now an M.A. candidate in art history at Columbia University. “It’s helping me a lot in graduate school.”
While the pandemic greatly complicated students’ research progress, noted Kristopher Kersey, Bai’s art history professor, “she had no choice but to adapt to the digital research environment. Ultimately, I believe she developed into a skilled online researcher,” he said, calling her “one of the most diligent, responsible, highly organized and motivated students I have ever advised.”
Librarians on campus also gained new perspectives about Library services and how they may evolve in the future. “A lot more work is going to be done remotely, even on a campus like UCLA’s that is about the in-person experience,” said Ginny Steel, the Norman and Armena Powell University Librarian. “Looking ahead, UCLA Library will accelerate its transition to a digital environment while balancing in-person and remote services to meet our users’ needs wherever they are.”