From Cyber Attacks to Pandemics: Reflections on Trying to Work During Times of Crisis

Since 2008, ACRLog’s “First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) Experience” series has annually featured 1-2 academic librarians in their first year on the job in an academic library. This new series, “Where Are They Now? Former FYALs Reflect,” features posts from past FYAL bloggers as they look back on their trajectories since their first year. This month, we welcome a post from Melissa DeWitt, Research and Instruction Librarian at Regis University.

My final post as an FYAL blogger was in July of 2019. I ended that post on a reflective note, and like the themes I reflected on. In particular, I still believe that relationships are the most important thing, which I hope comes through in this post. While I liked those themes, there were some things I didn’t realize during my first year – mainly that my work life and personal life are not separate. That’s not to say that I don’t take time to myself or find ways to decompress (I love my hobbies, and I definitely know how to chill!). What I mean is that I am not a person that carefully tucks work into bed when I leave for the day, nor can I separate the ways my personal life affects my work. All facets of my life intertwine with and influence one another. I suspect that this is true for most people. Stacey Abrams, in a podcast with David Tennant, describes work/life balance as a myth. Instead, she equates it to a game of Jenga. You carefully stack and pull pieces out whenever you need them, hoping it all won’t come tumbling down, but the crash is inevitable. You have to put the pieces back together and try balancing everything all over again.

The goal of this series is to reflect on our trajectories since the first year, and I’m not sure how to reflect on my trajectory without providing some context. The truth is that reflecting on my work experience since I last posted is upsetting. Sometimes reflection is cathartic, but sometimes it’s like ripping the scab off a wound you’ve been trying to ignore. This reflection is a combination of both.

On August 22, 2019, three days before the beginning of the semester, my workplace detected an external security breach. We learned later in the day that we had experienced a cyber attack, and would eventually learn that it was ransomware.

I could spend hours talking about what happened next, but there’s not enough space in this post. Here’s a brief overview. We did not have systems back up for months. We used personal devices to perform our work. All data on my work computer was lost or unrecoverable. The library did not have access to databases or any online content, and so we contacted vendors, one-by-one, to ask for alternate access, which we listed on a password-protected spreadsheet. The research desk became an IT desk, as we spent hours helping students print and navigate research without purchased resources. We spent months without any of the tools we needed to do our jobs (because if it was tech, we did not have it), and yet we were still expected to do our jobs. My main takeaway from this experience? It was awful.

I mentioned that work and personal life affect one another because this was especially true during the cyber attack. Work became a low point for me and many of my colleagues, which affected my mood at home. Several people left during this time, morale was garbage, and I woke up every morning with a deep sense of dread. We did absolutely everything to try and provide the same services, but that was part of the problem. We should have been able to take a break, to look at the situation and say, “this isn’t sustainable.” Instead, we pretended that we could do the same work without any of the resources that made our work possible. There were also professional repercussions: we had layoffs, incentivized retirements, hiring freezes across many departments, and mergers between colleges. It felt like it would never end. The worst part was that no one outside my workplace really got it, so it felt like we were isolated in our little bubble of misery. That’s not to say that people were not supportive. When I reflect back on this time period, the one bright spot were the people in my personal and professional life that created an amazing support network. I do not know what I would have done without my people. Despite that network, it’s hard to relay the despair, fatigue, anger and poor morale I felt. It consumed all aspects of my life, and that semester is now a huge blur.

My world isn’t solely professional. In 2019, I attended three funerals for grandparents. Life didn’t stop just because work was shit. There were amazing things too. I attended my sister’s wedding, and I got engaged. I planned a wedding during the cyber attack and in between funerals, and then I took a break from the chaos of my workplace to get married in early February 2020. The pandemic was not quite on our radar, and I remember my wedding as the last real gathering with all of my friends and family before everything went down. We were incredibly lucky, and it’s an event I’ll never forget because it’s this amazing, bright and shiny spot on an otherwise miserable year.

Then the pandemic hit, and we all had to deal with it. The only saving grace was that, after working through a cyber attack, pivoting library work for the pandemic felt easy because I had the tools necessary to do my work. Except, this time, the crisis was present in every facet of our lives, and people were (and still are) dying. I won’t spend much time reflecting on the pandemic because, reader, you know what it’s like. Reflection is a process of looking back, but the pandemic is still happening. I don’t know how this ends yet. Instead, I’ll tell you about bright spots amidst the chaos.

When I was first hired, I asked about the possibility of teaching a credit-bearing class because creating a course was one of my professional goals. That goal came to fruition in fall 2020. The class was difficult to teach due to pandemic-related reasons, but also incredibly rewarding. I suspected that teaching a course outside the traditional, one-shot library session would foster my growth as a teacher, and this turned out to be true. I learned so much about myself, my capabilities as a teacher, and about students. Students are the reason I wanted to become an academic librarian in the first place, and teaching a class solidified all the warm fuzzy feelings I have towards them. I will never forget ending our last class of the semester and students remaining in the Zoom room because they did not want to leave. I cried. They cried and wrote the sweetest things I’ve ever read in a chat. There’s something about taking care of one another during a difficult time that brings you together. I also would not have been able to navigate this class without my friend and colleague who was my mentor while teaching the class. She answered all of my frantic emails with grace, and I probably would have melted into a puddle without her.

I also co-wrote my first publication, which was a source of angst during my first year. The timing was not ideal, but it got done. This was, again, not possible without the support of my co-writers. Writing is already challenging, but writing during a pandemic is something else. It’s nice to work with folks who keep you accountable but also understand that we’re all human beings just doing our best. First year me would be very proud. In addition, you can catch me all year presenting at conferences, including two pop culture conferences. I’ll be presenting with some really cool people.

Furthermore, I look forward to the progression of my teaching skills and the evolution of my pedagogy. Continuing my teaching adventures, I will co-teach a master’s level research course in March, which I’m really excited about. I will also teach writing and composition to first year students again in the fall. Teaching and working with students brings me joy in my work, so that’s what I’m going to keep doing.

Final Reflections

It was hard not to feel anger bubble up as I wrote 30 versions of this post (some a little spicier than others). I’m curious to see what my professional life will look like when I no longer have to perform during a crisis. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that institutions will do what’s best for them, not for you. I like my job and my work, but it doesn’t need to be this difficult. We can’t keep doing more with less and expect that to work forever. The professional accomplishments I’m proud of are in spite of my workplace, not because of it. It’s possible I would have published sooner, or achieved more of my goals if I hadn’t worked in a place that was weathering multiple crises. I am trying to acknowledge that impact and recognize that I am not above external factors. At the same time, I do not need to simply roll with the punches. Since my first year, I’m a little louder, a little more jaded, and a lot angrier. I’m less afraid and more confident about what kind of impact I want to make in my work and at my institution. The time since I wrote my last post was jammed with low points, and at some point, I’d like to take a nap. In the meantime, I’ll celebrate my accomplishments, lean on the strength of my relationships, and see what I do next.

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