With Duke’s recent addition of Hawaii to the list of states where university employees are allowed to work remotely, the Duke University Libraries announced today that its entire 250-person staff will be working full-time from the Aloha State, starting this spring and summer.
In what’s being described as a radical experiment in putting the lessons of the pandemic to work, Duke will have the first library system in the nation to be operated entirely remotely, from nearly 5,000 miles and five time zones away.
Though it will take some getting used to, the change will come with major benefits for students, said retiring University Librarian Deborah Jakubs, who has already gone ahead to the popular vacation destination to oversee the staff move.
“For years, Duke students have been asking us for more study space in the libraries,” said Jakubs from a private lanai overlooking a breathtaking Pacific sunset. “Now we’re finally able to give them what they want. With staff offices empty and all of us out of the way, students can finally have the entire place to themselves,” she added between sips from a tall, cool Mai Tai.
How exactly will a remotely operated research library work? Largely on the honor system and with the help of student employees, said Dave Hansen, Associate University Librarian for Research, Collections & Scholarly Communication. “The past two years have prepared us well for maintaining high levels of service even when we’re not onsite,” said Hansen, sporting a three-day beard under a wide-brim sun hat. “The Libraries employ almost 200 highly trained student workers who are already accustomed to assisting patrons and performing various support functions that keep our operations going.”
Books and other materials in the circulating collection will be available on a self-checkout basis, Hansen explained. The Libraries are purchasing additional self-checkout stations, which will be installed near every library entrance.
“And here’s the best part—once you’re done with your books, DVDs, whatever, you just put them back on the shelves where you found them,” said Hansen, the faint sounds of a ukulele strumming somewhere behind him. “We totally trust you.”
“Our librarians will still be available for consultation via Zoom,” said Emily Daly, Interim Head of Research and Instructional Services, casually waxing a Duke blue surfboard. “Whenever students or faculty need help with a class or research project, we’ll be just the click of a button away,” Daly added, as dolphins could be seen cavorting in the gnarly whitecaps behind her “office.” When scheduling Zoom appointments with library staff, Duke students and faculty are advised to add a 30-minute buffer on either end to account for “island time.”
While books and other materials in the Libraries’ general collection will remain onsite in Durham, some 65,000 linear feet of archival material in the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library will be relocated to a secure facility on Mauna Kea on Hawaii’s Big Island.
“We believe the best way to preserve Duke’s priceless special collections is to put about 4,700 miles of distance between them and the researchers who need to consult them,” said Naomi Nelson, Associate University Librarian and Director of the Rubenstein Library. “With its low temperatures, low humidity, and clean air, Mauna Kea has some of the best environmental conditions anywhere on earth for preserving rare books and historical papers,” Nelson explained, tossing a few more logs into a fire pit where she planned to slow-roast a pig over the course of the day. “Not to mention the billions of stars you can see out here at night. Really helps you keep all that important ‘research’ in perspective, you know?”
Nelson confirmed that the Rubenstein Library will continue to staff a reading room for researchers who wish to consult special collections material in person, “assuming they don’t mind a 15-hour flight.”
With Duke’s current University Librarian Deborah Jakubs set to retire in May, one unanswered question is whether her eventual successor will join the library staff or remain in Durham as the “face” of the Libraries on campus.
“We appreciate everyone’s patience and flexibility as we work to serve Duke better,” said Jakubs, reclining into a hammock slung between two palm trees that gently swayed in the sea breeze. “Mahalo.”
Can this flexible work arrangement be for real? Unfortunately it’s not a “remote” possibility. Happy April Fools’ Day, Dukies!