COVID-19: has everything changed?

If there is one thing everyone seems to agree on about COVID-19, it is that nothing will be quite the same again. The worlds of higher education and of galleries, libraries, archives and museums have suddenly been upended.

In universities, already rocked (in the UK) by the recent strike, the shift to online tuition has been astonishingly rapid, and the whole shape of the next academic year is in question, as is the 2020 REF exercise, now postponed. GLAM organisations, forced suddenly to close their doors, have had to look across the whole range of their services and see which can be moved online, and which existing online provision can be expanded. Seismic decisions have had to be taken at a dizzying speed.

And the Web is full of predictions about how the future will look once the immediate crisis passes. This is not one of those predictions. Will all these changes be permanent, or will things snap back into their old grooves? No-one can say right now.

But neither outcome is inevitable. Organisations are not simply passive, helpless in the face of bigger forces that cannot be resisted. Though the situation is tragic, there is an opportunity – the kind that happens only very rarely – in the next few weeks and months to look at the fundamentals. Whom do we exist to serve? What do they need? How well were we serving them before the crisis? What have we been forced to learned about how to serve them differently?

Some things will return to the way they were before the crisis; others will not. But we must make sure that, whichever it is, it is for the right reason. Let’s not let things snap back into old grooves out of sheer relief. Let’s take the time to think, and be sure that (despite the crisis) those established ways remain the best ones. Equally, let’s not allow new ways of working become the norm simply because time and effort has been spent in creating them and we need a period of calm.

We should use this time to take a hard look at how well we serve all our stakeholders, and act accordingly. Yes, many things have been thrown into the air, but we can decide to take control of where they land.

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