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Harnessing the power of a library

ASU Library highlights community access to resources during National Library Week, April 19-25


Student walking into Hayden Library

Photo of Hayden Library by Jarod Opperman

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April 17, 2020

“Wake up and read!” was the theme of the first-ever National Library Week, launched in 1958, by the American Library Association, fueled by national concern that Americans were reading less than previous generations.

The annual celebration has since highlighted the critical role libraries play in society, particularly during times of crisis.

“Historically, libraries have served as hubs of resiliency, supporting and strengthening communities,” University Librarian Jim O’Donnell said. “During the Great Depression, librarians actually delivered books on horseback to some of the country’s most rural, hard-to-reach areas that had some of the highest rates of illiteracy.”

Known as the Pack Horse Library Project, the program was born out of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and deployed dozens of horse-riding librarians into the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky, where they reached about 50,000 families in just under a decade, with the goal of laying the foundation for future educational and economic growth.

“What we’re seeing right now during this global pandemic is a very library-centric approach with the proliferation of free educational resources, like ASU for You, and far fewer restrictions to information sharing,” O’Donnell said. “Libraries have been doing this work for centuries. Our mission has always been, ‘How can we get you what you need?’"

Essential resources

Last month, as Arizona State University began to transition to online-only instruction, the ASU Library, together with the University Technology Office, quickly prepared hundreds of laptops and hotspots to loan out to students who needed them to attend class, complete coursework and conduct research.

In response to the rapidly developing health crisis, the library's Labriola National American Indian Data Center, in collaboration with indigenous communities, created an online guide for students and the wider community with critical information, Indigenous-centric resources and tribal perspectives regarding COVID-19.

The guide, which has received more than 2,100 views and is updated frequently, includes links to native news coverage, parental resources, health data and statistics, academic support and mutual aid projects.

"It really is a living document and you can contact us with your questions, concerns or resources that you feel we’ve missed," a message states on the Labriola Center's Facebook page. "Now is the time to share quality information, and we’re doing what we can while we shelter in place ourselves."

The library also updated its support resources and extended the hours of its remote help service, Ask A Librarian, which connects library professionals to students in need of research assistance via phone, text, email or online chat.

“This is a challenging time and even though the libraries are not physically open, we want students and faculty to know that we’re still here. We want to help in whatever way we can,” said Daphne Gill, manager of learning services for the ASU Library, who has seen an uptick in the number of students utilizing the Ask A Librarian service since the hours were extended. 

Although book browsing inside any of ASU’s eight libraries is on indefinite hold, O’Donnell says that “for every book the ASU Library checks out, something like 150 journal articles, database searches and e-book views are recorded” in the library’s vast online collections. And he has encouraged students to explore the abundance of digital resources to which they have free access, including streaming services and subscriptions to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, more than 650 research databases and over 450 library guides.

Additionally, the library curated a collection of high quality resources, as part of ASU For You, for learners of all ages. The collection includes access to e-books, journals, multimedia, data sets, and educational and training materials.

“We’re truly open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year — pandemic or no pandemic,” O’Donnell said.

Personal protective equipment

While Hayden Library is quiet these days, the library’s 3D printers have been running nonstop for the last two weeks — thanks to Victor Surovec and the work he and his staff are undertaking, as part of ASU’s COVID-19 emergency response.

Surovec, program coordinator for the ASU Library Makerspace, is helping ASU produce hundreds, possibly thousands, of face masks and face shields, in critical short supply, for those working on the front lines of the pandemic.

“It’s a big ASU effort and I’m proud the Makerspace is part of it,” said Surovec, who lately has been the only human in a library space defined by collaboration. 

Socially distanced and sleep deprived, Surovec has been working around the clock to produce the essential 3D printed parts needed to construct face shields. 

“I’ve got seven 3D printers going constantly. I’m in production mode,” he said. “All the machines are different, requiring different software, so each machine means a new project. It’s time consuming and labor intensive, but we need to get these supplies out to the medical community.”

The library’s Conservation Lab, led by Suzy Morgan, has also donated N95 masks. Supplies are being delivered to the Biodesign Institute on the Tempe campus.

Computing power

Another resource the ASU Library has tapped during these unprecedented times are its many computers.

While the computers in Noble Library may appear unused, they are actually conducting important work — running simulations, as part of the Folding@Home program, which could help scientists understand how the virus proteins work to suppress the immune system and thus develop treatments.

By activating a cluster of volunteer computers, including those at Noble Library and other places around campus, scientists are able to speed up the simulation process considerably.

“This project typifies the extraordinary ways the library is retooling its resources in order to respond to the current crisis,” said Debra Hanken Kurtz, associate university librarian of Technology Services for the ASU Library.

Other powerful computing resources include a COVID-19 data web browsing tool developed by the ASU Library’s unit for Data Science and Analytics. The tool is aimed at helping researchers browse and process a vast collection of biomedical research related to COVID-19. The research is being collected and distributed by Kaggle, an online community of data scientists and machine learning practitioners. 

Kaggle challenged its online collaborators, including Michael Simeone, director of data science at the library, to develop data solutions that will help medical professionals keep up with the rapid acceleration of coronavirus literature.

“The development of the site began when Kaggle first announced the challenge,” Simeone said. “There were a number of questions that Kaggle posed that developers could help answer with an AI, but we thought it would also be helpful to put these documents directly in the hands of biological, medical and epidemiological researchers, enhanced by search and summarization capability.”

Simeone says the site uses a special search algorithm to help retrieve search terms, similar to what search engines use to help make sure results capture the spirit and not just the letters of the search. 

“It also uses a summarization routine that ranks sentences based on their information content and presents the ones, in order, that may be most informative,” he said. “Good information right now is absolutely crucial.”

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