The main entrance to the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center is now open. Van Pelt Library and the Fisher Fine Arts Library are currently open to Penn Card holders, Penn affiliates, and certain visitors. See our Service Alerts for details.

A woman stands on a round stool between two tall bookshelves.
Library clerk Megan Brown pulls books from the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center stacks. Photo by Eric Sucar.

It goes without saying that 2020 was a year of extraordinary change and disruption. The world, the country, and the Penn community grappled with a pandemic, protests, and a fraught election season. In the midst of it all, our librarians sought to adapt to the “new normal” created by COVID-19, developing innovative ways to serve students, faculty, researchers, and other members of the Penn community. “It required changing everything about the way we did things, changing everybody’s responsibilities and everybody’s duties,” says Emily Batista, Acting Head of Circulation, speaking of how her team prepared for the fall semester.  

How are librarians focusing their energies as the new semester begins? For staff members who work in Access Services, the department that looks after the circulating collections, helps out students and researchers in Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center, coordinates inter-library loans, and more, the goal remains to get library materials into the hands of library users—either literally, or virtually. Over the course of the last ten months, the Libraries has made a significant investment in order to purchasing e-book collections and increase access to digital and video streaming resources. Librarians who once spent their time pulling books or helping students in person now scan articles and book chapters for digital delivery and answer questions that come over email or through the Ask chat service. “The circulation staff have done a fantastic job at pivoting to all these new jobs that they have never done before,” says Sheila Ketchum, Head of Resource Sharing. 

Tom Bruno, director of Access Services, is excited that this semester the Libraries are expanding the seat reservation service that began in the fall. Open to students who will be on campus and participating in regular COVID-19 screenings, the service allows those who are eligible to study in the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center while maintaining a safe, contact-free environment. Starting February 1, you can reserve spots Monday-Thursday 11am-7pm and Friday 12pm-5pm. While the system cannot accommodate groups and won’t necessarily allow you to curl up in your favorite chair in the library, it will offer that elusive luxury in the age of COVID: a quiet place to work that’s safely separate from other aspects of life. 

Right image: row of brown paper bags on a library table with receipts taped to them. Right: A person standing off-camera hands a paper bag through a glass door to a woman standing outside.
Library patrons can request books and pick them up at the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center using Pickup@Penn. Photo by Eric Sucar.

David Truluck, a Master’s student in the School of Social Policy and Practice, was part of the seat reservation pilot program in the fall. “As a result of the pandemic, I had few options for places to study aside from my own bedroom,” he recalls. “I found it difficult to study alone however, and so sought to study someplace more public.” While noting that this system could not replicate the experience of studying in the library during a normal year, he says, “There were a lot of major events that went on during the semester, from the pandemic to the protests to the election, and as a student the seat reservation program was an aid considering everything that went on.” 

The seat reservation service will resume on Monday, February 1. The seat reservation service may expand further in the near future, so be sure to keep an eye on the website for the most up-to-date information about hours and eligibility. Students can find out more and reserve a spot here

As in the fall, library users can request books from the Libraries’ circulating collections in two different ways. Pickup@Penn allows users to pick up books in person at Van Pelt-Deitrich, while Books By Mail ships requested books anywhere in the United States. Pickup@Penn hours are Monday-Friday, 10am-2pm, and requested books are held for one week. Books by Mail requires advanced registration. Haven’t registered yet? Even if you aren’t sure you will need to use it, we encourage you to register right now.  

Students also shouldn’t hesitate to contact librarians with questions. Need more specific information about Pickup@Penn, Books By Mail, Inter-library loan, or other matters related to circulating collections? The Access Services librarians recommend emailing

You can also ask general questions using the Libraries’ chat service. The live chat is available Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm. If you want to ask a question outside of those hours, fill out this online form, and a librarian will respond within 24 hours. 

Looking for information related to a specific topic? Email the subject specialist whose focus aligns with your particular research question. You can even make an appointment to consult with a librarian by video.  

Over in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts, librarians are also continuing to find new ways to share the Penn Libraries’ special collections with people both inside and outside the Penn community. During “normal times,” hundreds of researchers visit the Kislak Center's Charles K. MacDonald Reading Room every year, and this year staff have developed innovative ways to help people do research from afar. “We’re working as virtual eyes for researchers,” says John Pollack, Curator of Research Services. Usually, they would respond to research requests by scheduling a time for the researcher to visit in person, but that’s no longer possible. “Instead we tell them, ‘we’ll have to do the looking for you.’” 

A man wearing a surgical mask looks down at a computer. Beside him is a large historical broadside with a bright blue document camera pointing at it.
Curator of Research Services John Pollack uses the Kislak Center document camera to show a framed copy of "J'Accuse...!," by Emile Zola, printed in L'Aurore, January 13, 1898. Photo by Eric Sucar.

What does this look like in practice? Last fall, Lynne Farrington, Senior Curator of Special Collections, worked with the Maternity Care Coalition to choose a series of historic photographs from the organization’s archive that the group planned to use in a grant-funded project. Before COVID-19, the group would have visited the Kislak Center in person, requested the appropriate folder of photographs, and looked through them themselves. Now that whole experience takes place virtually. “I pulled a lot of photographs, and I went through them [over Zoom] while the Coalition decided which ones they wanted to have digitized.” 

Many students appreciate the unique opportunity to see and touch Penn’s special collections as part of their classes, and in the age of COVID, Kislak staff have also found new, creative ways to replicate these experiences virtually. Already, they have begun collaborating with instructors who are planning to integrate virtual visits in the spring semester. “Everything is customized,” says Pollack. “We don’t offer a cookie-cutter experience, and I like that.”  

Anyone who wants to review collections items, consult with a Kislak Center curator about research, schedule a virtual class visit, or receive digital productions of research materials should take a look at the Kislak’s Resources for Remote Learning.  

At the end of the day, staff across the Libraries are eager to welcome students back in person as soon as it is safe to do so. Students are a vital part of the Penn Libraries community, both as users of library resources and as colleagues who keep services running and bring life to the stacks. “We miss our student assistants so much!” says Batista. “We’re missing that youthful energy.” 

Pollack is also looking forward to being able to again share special collections with students in person. “One of the things we have tried to do is to introduce people who don’t know anything about the kinds of resources we have to using them. A freshman can come look at a 17th century Shakespeare book, and they wouldn’t know to do that unless we or the faculty were helping bring those materials to them. And that, of course, is very challenging now.” 

All of these services and more are only possible because of the extraordinary work of people from all over the Penn community. Door guards at Van Pelt-Dietrich welcome patrons and bring their reserved books to them. Wellness Ambassadors from the Penn Wellness Program keep students who have reserved study spaces safe by ensuring that all health and safety precautions are followed. Librarians and other staff continue to take on additional duties and overcome creative challenges in what has been an incredibly difficult time for all of us. “[The staff] deserve a humungous party when all of this is behind us,” says Batista. 

We couldn’t agree more. 

Here’s where you can find out more about the services mentioned in this article: 

Request books using Pickup@Penn or Books By Mail 

Request book chapters or journal articles using digital delivery 

Reserve a study spot in Van Pelt-Dietrich using the Seat Reservation Service 

Chat with a librarian live or send them a question after hours 

Ask questions about Books By Mail, Pickup@Penn, Or Inter-library loan 

Email a subject specialist or set up an appointment to chat with one by video 

Request scans of special collections items 

Schedule a research consultation or a virtual classroom visit with a Kislak Center curator 

Looking for the most up-to-date information on all services available through the Penn Libraries? Check out our Phased Service Availability page.