Time out! In defense of taking vacation

During a bit of downtime last week, I sat down with my calendar and penciled in a few long weekends and a full week of vacation this summer. 15 whole days! During most of 2020, it felt “pointless” to take a vacation if I couldn’t go anywhere new or visit anyone I loved. At most, I took a personal day here and there, and one family trip in August when Covid rates in my area were low.

So as the summer approaches, and many of us in academic libraries anticipate quieter days in the stacks or our home offices, let’s talk vacation. 

No-Vacation Nation

First, you’ve probably heard that in general, Americans don’t use most of their vacation. Our country doesn’t guarantee paid leave and paid holidays, and those who do have jobs with PTO leave a lot of days unused every year. Even if we do take time off, a lot of us struggle with guilt around using vacation time, or truly unplugging while we’re away.

For most of us, the summer is the quietest and easiest time to take vacation. And yet I still felt kinda funny requesting off, worrying how it would affect my colleagues’ workloads, whether it was even “worth it.” I thought I’d share the anxious objections that came up when I considered PTO, and how I addressed them:

It’s unfair to my coworkers

Do you feel like when you take a day off, you’re screwing over everyone else in your office? If the culture in your library is a microcosm of the “No-Vacation Nation,” it can make it really difficult to take guilt-free time off. But I’ve noticed that taking vacation is contagious (in a good way). When one employee (especially a manager!) ensures they use their leave each year, it affirms that it’s okay to take a break.

At my library, we work a hybrid of remote and in-person shifts on a rotation, which means there is a little extra coordinating to do if someone wants to take a week away. My fellow librarians have been great about communicating and covering for each other. Could you team up with a trusted coworker, and plan to cover for each other while the other person takes a needed break?

There’s too much work to do / If I leave, the whole place falls apart

Let me gently remind you that we work in libraries. The work is not life or death. I know you care very much about your work, your students, and your colleagues, and that care is a beautiful thing. In order to keep giving that authentic care, you’ve got to avoid burnout, and taking scheduled leave is one way to help with that. As Alex wrote recently, you gotta fix your own mask before you metaphorically help someone with their own. 

Also, girl. It is not a virtue to be so irreplaceable that you can’t leave the office for a few days. 

Working from home is restful enough

Do I even need to entertain this hesitation? If the tone of ACRLog’s blog posts this year is any indication, we’re all working longer and more stressful hours this year, and just because we’re doing it in sweatpants doesn’t mean it’s rest. 

I can’t go anywhere

If you can’t travel, which most of us can’t, how can we make a staycation actually restful? Here’s a few ideas:

  • Unplug: I intend to sign out of my email on my phone, and tell my partner about the intention for accountability.
  • Plan something: Get some pleasure reading, or devote a day to exploring an outdoor space you’ve never been before.
  • This article from the Chronicle had some other great ideas for restorative breaks at home. 

My family can’t take off with me

My spouse has very little PTO, and uses most of it for their creative career. I’ve had to accept that I could either only take time off when they can, or become comfortable taking more breaks on my own. In past years, I’ve used my solo vacation time to visit faraway friends, do long-haul craft projects with my mom, and spend the time on activities my partner isn’t interested in. These have been some of my most rejuvenating experiences in the last few years!

Do I deserve a vacation? (Spoiler: Yes!)

I recognize that I’m writing this from a place of privilege, as someone with a full time job and good PTO. If you’re in the same boat, remember that vacation time is part of the calculation of your compensation. As Renee Graham wrote directly to my anxieties (and for the Boston Globe, I guess): “Don’t leave your vacations on the table. You’ve worked for it, and it is owed to you. In these difficult and disorienting times, a vacation taken is not a vacation wasted.”

To be honest, I was nervous to ask off for the dates I did, and I was nervous to write this post. The academic culture of burnout and overwork as a signal of your virtuous commitment to education is really hard to push against. But please take breaks. Real ones, where you pretend your library doesn’t exist for 3, 4, or 5 whole days. Do it for your coworkers, so they feel inspired to take breaks too, do it for your students, who need models of healthy academic life, and do it for you.

Evaluating Evaluations During a Continuing Crisis

As we enter year two of this pandemic, I’m thinking about annual evaluations. At my university our annual evaluation schedule has library faculty writing our own annual reports and our appointments committee holding evaluation meetings in late Spring, and reappointment and tenure votes happen in the early Fall. And while schedules may differ at other colleges and universities, now that we’ve lived a full year with covid19 everyone has probably had an opportunity to go through the evaluation cycle at least once.

Last year there were lots of articles in higher education news outlets discussing the extraordinary circumstances of the abrupt shift to remote operations during the pandemic, and it seems like many (most?) institutions canceled student evaluations last Spring, as did my institution. While the college where I work extended due dates for faculty annual reports last year, they were still required, as were evaluation meetings and supervisor reports. This academic year our student evaluations of teaching are proceeding as usual, and all signs so far are that our annual reports and evaluations will be, too.

Librarians are faculty at my university and with the contractual requirements for evaluation dates and processes we’re not able to make changes at our local level in our library, so we’ll be going through the process the same way faculty in all departments are. But I still find myself wondering about the evaluation cycle this year. Should we be doing things the same way this year, when this year is still very much not the same as the pre-covid19 years? The uneven impact of pandemic on all aspects of academic life is well known by now, and especially for those already marginalized in higher education, including folx who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Abigail Goben and Nell Haynes are compiling a terrific bibliography of the effects of covid19 on women’s labor in particular, which has been especially concerning around time and resources for the research and scholarship often required for tenure and promotion. Just today there’s a new report from Ithaka S+R on the results of a survey that digs into the effects of the pandemic on women and caregivers, and the disparities in research and publishing are on stark display.

The faculty union at my university negotiated an optional tenure extension for those on the tenure track, and any faculty member can choose to extend their tenure clock by a year, to acknowledge the incredible disruptions of this past year. The process requires faculty to make that decision at the time that they come up for tenure, which to me has both strengths and weaknesses. It’s definitely true that for some untenured faculty, especially early career faculty, the pandemic might not end up having a big impact on their research and scholarship by the time they come up for tenure. Some may be working on research that can continue uninterrupted even with lockdowns and other restrictions, and others might have had to radically change or even cancel plans. Some may have newly available time and attention in their schedules to devote to their scholarship, without the need to commute, for example, while others have new responsibilities like homeschooling and other caregiving. Ithaka’s report highlights a similar decision at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst that’s implemented differently: the one-year tenure deferment is automatic, and faculty who don’t want it can opt out.

I was glad to see annual evaluations as a topic of discussion at a recent department chairs meeting at my college; though I had to miss that meeting, a colleague attended in my place and brought back lots of useful notes. There seemed to be general agreement that extra attention is needed this year to be compassionate, constructive, and supportive in our evaluations. One chair noted that the annual evaluation is always a snapshot of a faculty member’s career – with faculty responsibilities in teaching, scholarship, and service, every year will not necessarily look the same even in non-pandemic times. I’m keeping in mind Dr. Amanda Visconti’s tweet during the CALM Conference earlier this month that quotes overhearing someone say “the pandemic is a stretch goal,” and I hope everyone who’s in the position of evaluator this year keeps that in mind, too. And with so much still uncertain for next year, as the vaccine rollout accelerates, as states take different approaches to getting back to “normal,” I hope the evaluation process can continue to adapt as the pandemic does, and continue to center support and compassion.

It’s The End Of The World as We Know It, and I’m Not Fine

This is a hard time of year even under better circumstances in Chicago. We are over winter, but winter isn’t over us. Spring is such a tease with a week of blue skies and sunshine, followed by one of sleet. These beautiful days give us a false sense of hope, leading to a harder betrayal when ice freezes to my windshield. During a more typical year, we are all in a poor mindset after having our hopes toyed with by the weather gods.

This is not a typical year, and we arrive into March already burned out and tired from the pandemic. Living in a constant state of fear has left the best of us shell shocked. Meanwhile the weather and the vaccine availability tease us that better days are ahead. Then reality comes crashing through the door–it isn’t really spring yet. and as of my writing we have 538,269 dead. How do you even begin to process a number like that? More vaccines are rolling out, but that doesn’t help if you can’t get an appointment.

Last semester, lots of the faculty made cold calls to students who had yet to enroll for spring 2021. I signed up to help, nervous, and expecting an earful. I was having flashbacks to my early days of fundraising when I was cursed at, told off, and once mistaken for a middle schooler. (Being mistaken for a 12-year-old when I had a master’s hurt far more than being called names.) The student reactions surprised me: they were happy to talk. They thanked me for calling. Most had good reasons for waiting to register and they had questions. And as a group…they were not okay.

I think these calls were part of the inspiration for my monthly student blog. Students needed a space where it was okay to not be okay, and they needed practical advice on college as a concept. The bulk of Prairie State College students are first generation, meaning that they don’t have a parent they can ask about the day-to-day of being a student. Everyone they could ask is connected to the school, and that could be uncomfortable if they already don’t feel like they belong. I wanted the blog to be a space where they were welcome to come as they are.

With the framing that it is okay not to be okay, I have created this month’s blog space for our students to write and reflect on their semester so far. I recognize that I’m writing about writing for the sake of writing. Cheap? Meta? You decide. My hope, though, is that this can help our students work through their feelings, their schoolwork, or whatever they need. I wanted it to be open ended so they could use it best. 

My hope is that writing can help us to be okay not being okay. I want us to be able to find hope in the writing itself, but if all it does is pass the time until the world opens up just a little more, then that’s still a win. After all, spring is here, and we don’t have to be alright. 

You Can Only Lend a Helping Hand if Your Hands Aren’t Full

Self-care is so important. I think we’ve all learned that in one way or another over the past year. We’ve also learned that there are a lot of different types of self-care: responsibilities to ourselves (eat right, get exercise, sleep the right amount), doing fun things (eat your favorite food without thinking about calories for once, splurge on the thing you’ve been eyeing for a while), and recognizing and respecting your limits (take a mental health day, avoid energy vampires, learn when to say no).

I want to look at a related scenario: recognizing when you’re actually in a good place right now, and finding ways to help the people who aren’t.

If you aren’t in a good place right now, put on your own mask before helping others with theirs. (The metaphor isn’t great during COVID… don’t touch others’ actual masks.) If you aren’t in a situation where you can add to your plate, this post is not about you. Come back to this when you’re ready. Stop reading, put on a lo-fi playlist, and have some hot chocolate.

If you look around right now and think, “I’m feeling pretty good right now: I’m not overwhelmed by my workload, responsibilities, or emotions,” that’s great! You’re in a position to offer to help out your colleagues who don’t currently feel that way. Don’t forget, though: these feelings come and go. Next week you might find that your workload is piled high again. In a couple days, you could take stock and realize, “This is too much for me right now.” And that is totally fine. You have moved into the previous paragraph, and should join them until you’re ready to come back. (I hear they have hot chocolate. Maybe they’ll share.)

Before you start looking for opportunities to help others, I want you to promise to do the following:

  • Protect your own boundaries. People who volunteer for everything, I’m looking at you. (And at a mirror, because… been there, done that.) If you try to help with everything, you’ll quickly overdo it and wind up needing more help than you can give. That is not the goal here.
  • Protect your energy. Along those same lines, don’t pick up tasks that drain you. If there’s someone you find it emotionally taxing, don’t volunteer to work closely with them.
  • Protect others. Make it clear that you aren’t making offers on behalf of the library, your colleagues, your supervisor, your direct reports, or your successor whenever you leave your position. Protect future-you as well: make offers specific to avoid getting stuck with an ongoing responsibility you weren’t planning on.

Now that I know you’re going to continue to take care of yourself, here is some guidance for offering to help your coworkers out of a tough time:

  • Don’t babysit or nag them. You are not taking it upon yourself to decide what they can and cannot handle. If they decline your offer, it is declined. This doesn’t mean you can never offer again, but don’t bug them constantly… that is adding to their plate, not removing from it.
  • Know their preferences about offers. Some people like their schedule or to-do list to stay as it was when they came in that morning, or when it was set weeks ago. Others welcome the opportunity to make last-minute changes. Know who falls into which category and time your offers appropriately.
  • Know their preferences about tasks. The same concept applies to the tasks and schedules you’re offering to help with. I think of Friday afternoon reference shifts as unappealing. As the person who makes the reference schedule, if I took that shift from someone to help ease their burdens, but they think of that shift as protected time to work on something else while reference traffic is slow, I’ve caused a negative effect where I thought I was causing a positive one. (Even worse if I gave that shift to someone who dislikes it… Now I’ve made things worse for two people!)
  • Be specific. This falls under “protect your own boundaries” too: Make an exact offer so the parameters are known. “I can help you plan that workshop when you’re ready,” could come back to bite you if “when you’re ready” happens to coincide with a time when you suddenly get busy with other tasks. “I can meet with you this Thursday afternoon to plan that workshop,” makes it clear that the offer does not necessarily stand for other days or weeks, or even this Thursday morning.
  • Make it about you (a little). This is confusing advice, so let me clarify. A person who might say no to, “Do you want to take a break? I can go for a walk with you if you like,” might say yes to, “Would you like to go for a walk with me? I need a break.” (This is another time to know their preferences though, because some people might say yes in an attempt to help you, even though they are swamped.)
  • Spread out the pain. If you’re in a position where you make schedules or assign tasks, try to share the load across as many people as possible. Don’t always schedule the same person for the busiest shift (unless they prefer it for some reason). If there’s a difficult or annoying ongoing task to be done, rotate the responsibility for it in an equitable way.

A lot of those depend on knowing things about other people that they may not share readily. Personally, I’m always going on about how much I love to make a PowerPoint or take notes during a meeting, so people ask me to do those things and I’m happy to. Others aren’t as obnoxious as I am about their favorite work tasks, so if you don’t know… ask! Communication is always better than assumptions.

Don’t forget to ask when you are the one who needs a hand. If you’re the person who offers when others need help, you’re more likely to get a positive response when you need it. (Which is not the only reason you should do it, but a nice perk!)

Preparing for (Other Kinds of) Disasters

This guest post is from Garrison Libby, a community college librarian.

When COVID-19 swept the world last year, librarians were forced to adapt their services on the fly. Over the past year, we’ve probably all become very good at disaster planning. However, it’s worth thinking about the disasters that you haven’t planned for, and to begin making preparations for them now.

My institution recently suffered a major technology interruption which led to an extended shutdown of nearly of the college’s online systems: email, online courses, library proxy servers, and nearly everything we need to function, especially during a pandemic. Of course, an outage of that scale paused classes, so access to library resources was the last thing on anyone’s mind. However, it still prompted us to have to consider alternatives as we waited to see what systems would come back online and in what order. There was no guarantee that we would have access to our proxy server when classes resumed, for example, as systems had to return online one by one.

Consider constructing a technology audit as part of your disaster and continuity planning. Review the technology you use, how it’s used, and evaluate potential impacts if you lose access to that technology for an extended period of time. Here are some potential questions to ask yourselves when conducting the audit and developing a technology continuity plan:

  • Do you have alternate contact methods (phone numbers, personal email addresses) for all your staff members? Does anyone maintain this information, and where is it stored?
    • It’s a good idea for managers to have contact information for their staff.
    • Consider maintaining a centralized contact list as well, but ensure that it is kept up to date and accessible.
    • Remember that this is personal information for staff, so do not use their personal contact information except in event of emergency.
  • In a technology outage, how will you communicate updates to your staff?
    • A single text chain with all staff could be unwieldy for libraries with many employees. Communication can be distributed from managers to direct reports, but ensure a clear and consistent message from the top so that staff aren’t getting different or conflicting messages.
  • What technology is locally hosted, and what technology is hosted elsewhere?
    • Inventory your technology and plan for potential outages. We are fortunate that our Springshare LibApps suite was hosted by Springshare, meaning we still had access to LibGuides, LibAnswers, and also LibChat as an emergency staff chat space if necessary.
    • Many of our systems were authenticated using the college login, making them inaccessible during the outage. Can alternative logins be set up? We had both institutional logins and system-specific logins for Springshare, ensuring continued access. The College Google Drive, however, was tied to institutional logins and became inaccessible.
  • What can be done low- or no-tech?
    • Review and update manual check-out procedures for library materials.
    • Can you do reference without access to the library catalog? Do your staff know where popular subject areas are located in the stacks?
  • What alternatives are available for your technology?
    • If your proxy servers go down, can patrons access electronic resources? We are fortunate to be part of a state library consortium, which provided an alternative login that our students could use to access several key databases so that basic research needs could be met.
    • Many libraries are firmly embedded in the Springshare ecosystem. In the event that there is an outage in those systems, do you have alternative options, or can you quickly create emergency alternatives?
    • Are your systems regularly backed up so that they can be restored in the event of data loss?
  • What continuity planning has your institution done?
    • Consult with your IT department and college administration to review their own technology continuity plan. Ensure that your plan aligns with theirs.
    • If your institution does not have a technology continuity plan, encourage them to adopt one.

Just asking these questions alone is not enough. Continuity planning also requires building a robust plan and then ensuring it is reviewed regularly and kept current. A plan you make today may not help if you need it in 5 years and have not adjusted for our constantly changing technology.

The second step is to ensure that the technology continuity plan is also backed up and accessible multiple ways. Consider the 3-2-1 backup plan: Have 3 backups of the plan and key documents available, two of which are stored locally on different mediums (i.e., one on hard drive, one on USB key), and one of which is available via the cloud (Google Drive, college storage, Dropbox, or other options). You will also want multiple staff members to have access to the plan, so that someone will be able to get it. But because such a plan should also have contact information for staff, be sure to keep it secure.

Ideally, a continuity plan is something that you will never actually have to use. However, when an emergency happens, it is good to have the plans ready so that you can shift gears and keep services running as smoothly as possible. Whether it’s a pandemic or a technology outage, you can take actions now to be ready. Because if nothing else, the last year has taught all of us to expect the unexpected and to be prepared for anything.