How are you doing? (redux)

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Photo by Ziba Maghrebi on Unsplash

We’re coming to the end of another year of grappling with pandemic-related changes across higher education, and the ACRLog blog team thought this might be a good time to check in on how things are going for all of us in our libraries, as we’ve done around this time for the past two years.

What’s the situation at your institution at the time of writing?

(Alex) As the College of Medicine’s library, we are attached to medical facilities and have the same masking requirements in place, visitors are still not permitted into academic spaces, and library employees are all still hybrid or entirely remote. The rest of our university, though, seems fairly back to normal; they don’t have the restrictions we do, but they do allow remote work on a case-by-case basis.

(Maura) Our campus and library fully reopened last Fall, and with the increase in in-person instruction at the college for the Spring we’re definitely seeing more students in the library than we did last semester. Still, it’s quieter than it was in the past, perhaps not surprising as about 50% of classes are still online this semester (we struggled a lot with crowding and noise pre-pandemic so this change is not entirely unwelcome). The university (and the college) lifted the mask requirement a little more than a month ago, though many folx are still masking on campus, both students and employees.

(Emily) We fully reopened last Fall as well, and in early March (coinciding with the CDC’s updated guidance), our school dropped the mask requirement, although as Maura said, many on our campus are still wearing masks indoors. Having more students on campus has meant more business for library services, both at the desk and over chat and email. I chalk it up to students becoming aware of our virtual communication options during the pandemic, and some finding that they prefer that mode even when face-to-face is available.

(Angie) My campus resumed in person classes last fall with a vaccine and mask mandate in place for a brief period. The summer prior, the Libraries began transitioning remote faculty and staff back to hybrid work that was at least 60% onsite. In the Spring semester mask mandates continued in all indoor campus spaces as Omicron was peaking. Then in March they became optional in non-classroom settings, and later that month became optional in classrooms. My impression of the physical spaces is they still seem sparsely populated by normal comparisons,  and request volume in technical services is still only 30-50% of pre-pandemic levels. We have had a lot of employee turnover and are in the middle of 3 of 5 faculty searches. This has definitely affected morale, especially since many, if not all, were already experiencing significant burnout before taking on additional duties these vacancies may have left to them. 

Do you anticipate changes in your library or campus situation in the Fall semester?

(Alex) We were recently asked how many days per week each person would like to work in-person after Labor Day, so the plans are being made for changes, but they aren’t finalized yet. It’s hard to say what other changes may come at that time.

(Angie) It’s hard to imagine *not* anticipating changes, right? But I hope the drive for normalcy will hold some sway in keeping major changes to a minimum. Orienting some new faculty and staff will bring positive, new change. In my area of the library we’re also seeing an urgency to support new orientation for all students – not just new ones. With the university experience of the past few years being so irregular, many haven’t had the chance to experience the usual things libraries offer students, like our spaces, the help desk, or ILL. Talking with my leadership, I’ve learned there is actually a campus-level priority to ramp up outreach as a matter of mental health as much as academic success. I love this acknowledgement of my favorite philosophical problem (not knowing what you don’t know) and the stakes and responsibility involved in helping solve it.

(Maura) We do anticipate that there will be more students on campus in the Fall, with an estimated 80% of classes scheduled fully in person or hybrid next semester (though that can certainly change as students continue to register throughout the summer). We’re starting a strategic planning process here in the Library that we aim to complete by the end of the Fall semester, so in many ways we’re not anticipating changes as much in the short term as we are thinking about changes we’d like to make in the next 3-5 years.

What pandemic-related challenges are you still facing in your library work?

(Maura) Librarians and staff are required to work at least 70% in person this semester, which has made scheduling somewhat complex, especially for service desk shifts. We’re managing it, though it took a few weeks to settle into our new routines. It’s not clear what the requirement for on-campus work will be for fall, but we’re keeping an eye on that. It’s also been somewhat challenging this year to reach students who started at the college last year and to raise their awareness of library services and resources. While that group did have information literacy instruction in their English Composition I course, as all students do, since those courses were fully online last year they didn’t have the opportunity to come to the physical library. We’re continuing to do outreach to all students and hopefully have reached at least some of that cohort with in-person instruction in their Comp 2 class this year. 

(Emily) The library staff where I work are all facing burnout and morale-related challenges, caused by negotiating telework and on-desk scheduling, feeling unrecognized by campus administration, and a protracted expectation to “keep the trains running” over the last 2 years. In light of this, our library director has instructed us to treat this summer as a period of recovery, urging us to take vacation time and avoid piling on extra projects like a usual summer. I’m hoping that this recovery period, combined with a reconsideration of some of our processes, will be enough to improve our overall morale.

(Angie) Hybrid schedules have turned out to be really challenging, both for those onsite who rely on others’ consistent onsite availability and for those who feel their work could continue to be done entirely remote. Selfish example: it has been much more difficult to grab coffee with my work bestie on a whim! The freedom we have been given to set the type of hybrid schedule is certainly nice, but it has proven practically at odds with rebuilding the kind of serendipitous connection for which it was intended. The variety of schedules means fewer people in the office at the same time for serendipity, or even intentional connection, to take place. The supportive technology onsite for hybrid meeting rooms is necessary but still kind of awkward – I think we prefer seeing each other in individual Zoom boxes rather than a combination of seeing individual’s boxes with another box of people distantly meeting in another room. I’m observing (guilty of) remote attendance at meetings happening from an individual desk in the same room! And maybe that’s OK. Maybe that is what we learned is necessary to preserve from remote work after all. I do worry that people’s pandemic-related burnout has been exacerbated, rather than eased (yet) by a logistical “return to normal.” The motions may be mostly normal, but people’s lived experiences have not returned to normal, and this makes it very difficult to authentically connect at large –  as a team, as an organization. Wherever our library has created those very intentional opportunities to connect, even in a hybrid way – award ceremonies, holiday parties, all staff meetings – this has seemed to help the most. It’s curious, right? That intentionality should be the necessary ingredient for serendipity.  

What positive changes have you seen this year in the ways your library supports the mission of the institution?

(Alex) We don’t hesitate to make changes that we think will benefit our users. I wouldn’t say we were “afraid” to make change before, but I think we’ve grown accustomed to pivoting (ugh that word) at the drop of a hat, so saying things like “let’s change this policy, it isn’t fitting students’ use of our resources” or “should our hours be this way, or can we adjust them to work better for us?” has become easier.

(Maura) We’ve also seen what Alex highlights — my colleagues and I are definitely more amenable to making changes in library services to align them more closely with what students and other library patrons seem to need, even if it’s different from what we’ve done before, or a change in the middle of the semester. We’ve adjusted printing limits to better accommodate students who are coming to campus less often, and shifted our study room policy to allow single-student use for taking online classes. We’ll be thinking about how students and faculty use the library now as we head into our strategic planning process, too, and will hopefully hold some focus groups in the Fall to help us learn more.

(Angie) At both our Library and University levels, there has been intentional effort by the administration to address salaries and diverse hiring in meaningful ways. We have had three different tiers of staff already getting across the board increases based on market studies. In my experience it is the hiring process that provides the most intentional and practical avenue for scaling awareness and development of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Given that we are doing so much hiring, and that those serving on search committees are experiencing that process, these are both positive changes to increasing DEIB awareness and (hopefully!) growth into other areas.

We’d love to hear how things are going in your library, please drop us a line in the comments.

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at New York City College of Technology, City University of New York.

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