No virus can keep USC scholars from their books

Staff scan centuries-old gilded pages and send them to eager faculty and students from behind closed doors at USC Libraries.

May 29, 2020 Debbie Goffa

One of USC’s art history instructors needed some pages scanned from Opera & Opus architectonicum, a rare book housed at USC’s Architecture and Fine Arts Library. Her research depended on it.

Yet she was working from home, and doors to USC’s libraries were closed because of COVID-19.

Enter Gabe Vincent, who heads the Interlibrary Loan and Document Delivery department, headquartered at Leavey Library. He took on the unusual challenge.

The dual works — containing etchings and drawings by the great Italian architect Francesco Borromini — were originally published in the early 18th century: Opera in 1720 and Opus in 1725. USC’s copy was published in 1964.

USC Heroes logo #TrojansTogether

Vincent had the work brought over to Leavey — and immediately discovered an obstacle. The volume measures 16 inches wide by 23 inches tall.

“The item was far too large for our scanners and copiers,” Vincent said. So, he improvised.

He took the book to a conference room, turned on the lights in an otherwise unlit library and pulled out his iPhone. From there, he photographed the relevant pages, converted the photos to PDFs and sent a link to the instructor.

Until USC Libraries open, these heroes deliver books

“We’re used to the frantic calls, how they need our help,” Vincent said of the requests that typically flood USC Libraries before every finals week. “That’s what we do. That’s why we’re here, especially in these uncertain times.”

Vincent and his staff are among USC’s unsung heroes in the time of coronavirus, as most of USC works and studies remotely.

From March 16 through May 1, the Interlibrary Loan and Document Delivery team fielded well over 3,000 requests.

Thirty percent of those involved delivering physical books from USC collections to remote users. Over that time, staff packed and shipped out 191 books. That’s nearly seven times as many as they mailed all of last spring. Most books stay within California, Vincent said, but “we’ve sent books as far west as Hawaii, as far east as Washington, D.C., as far north as Vancouver, Washington, and as far south as Miami.”

Not many universities are doing what we’re doing right now.

Gabe Vincent

USC scholars also often request texts from partner institutions such as UCLA, the University of Arizona and the University of Oregon.

But the pandemic froze these book loans. If an e-book version of one of these needed texts is available, USC purchases it. The department bought 82 in that time span, through May 1.

The number of electronic book and document deliveries soared as USC moved its academic community online.

Digital tools come to scholars’ rescue

Most requests to the department involve document delivery — scanning documents or book chapters. Before the pandemic, library staff performed document delivery only for faculty and graduate students.

USC scholars working away from the university were eligible for both document delivery and delivery of physical books. But now everyone is eligible for both, including undergraduates, since so many students remain off campus. Graduate students continue to be the among heaviest users.

“In the first couple of weeks, the phone was pretty silent, and then all of a sudden it kept ringing,” Vincent said. “I remember one graduate student was really happy to hear a human voice and asked if I was answering the phone from home.

“I told her, ‘No, I’m on site. I’m actually here.’ She was so relieved and kept thanking me.”

Vincent said his team is far from alone. Nearly a dozen library staff members across USC’s campuses are supporting the department’s efforts. And they’ll do all they can until USC libraries open once again.

Said Vincent: “Not many universities are doing what we’re doing right now.”