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!)

Institutional and Departmental Diversity Statements

Your institution probably has a diversity or DEI (diversity, equity, & inclusion) statement. Take a minute and go read it, even if you’ve seen it before. Now check the diversity statements of a few other institutions; they’re pretty similar, aren’t they?

This is not a bad thing. The purpose of an institutional diversity statement is mostly symbolic: to publicly state support for DEIA initiatives and make members of marginalized groups know that the institution is paying attention and working to be better. The statements you just read probably accomplish these goals.

But they’re vague, aren’t they? That’s okay. If your institution is really on top of things, you might also find a diversity strategic plan (or maybe DEIA efforts are incorporated into the general strategic plan). If you take a look at one of those, you’ll see more specific – but still institution-wide – information about how the goals of the statement are meant to be achieved.

(Also, I know I’m making some broad generalizations. I’ve been working on a project which has involved reading a lot of diversity statements, so I know they aren’t all the same… Take a look at my own institution’s statement here; the bullet points have the specificity usually reserved for a diversity strategic plan.)

I say all this to get around to this point: While you and your library are beholden to the institutional diversity statement, that doesn’t mean it should be the only one you use for guidance. I am here to encourage you to create a library diversity statement, assuming you don’t already have one. (If you do: well done! Keep up the good work. Continue reading to see why you’re awesome.)

After reading so many institutional diversity statements that say pleasant but admittedly bland things about what the institution wants to be with regards to DEIA matters, I have decided that they don’t say much at all. It’s like if Dasani started putting “gluten-free!” on its labels… all the other brands of bottled water would have to do it too, so it wouldn’t seem like they had gluten in their bottled water. An institution needs a diversity statement to make it clear that they don’t support oppression and prejudice. (What a world we live in.)

I think the role of the departmental diversity statement, though, is more practical. It’s more like the diversity strategic plan, because it can get more specific. A library’s diversity statement can refer to the accessibility of library spaces, diversifying the collection of resources, and other library-specific concerns. Other departments would address different specifics: the library wouldn’t address the cultural diversification and dietary needs compliance of the menu in a cafeteria, but dining services would.

Additionally, a departmental diversity statement gets the people in that department more involved. The vast majority of people at an institution had nothing to do with the writing, editing, and approval of the institutional diversity statement. They feel less connected to it because it was made elsewhere, by others, and they probably first saw it in an email announcing its implementation. While I like our statement, I don’t feel involved in it. The library’s diversity statement feels closer to me. It feels like the difference between seeing your state and your city being mentioned on national news. I hear, “In Pennsylvania,” and I pay slightly more than average attention; I hear “In Hershey,” and my ears really perk up. That closer connection creates more buy-in from the individuals in the department.

In that same vein, a departmental diversity statement can take a different tone or voice than the institutional statement. Go back up and read the Penn State statement again, then read our libraries’ statement. The libraries’ statement has a stronger upstanding, more active tone. It is a call to action, while the institutional statement is a description of what the university would like to be: both important, compatible, but different approaches to the same goal. I see in the libraries’ statement a fist held high in the air, and in the university’s statement, open and welcoming arms.

If your library does not yet have a departmental diversity statement, I encourage you to advocate for one. You can make concrete the abstract intentions of your institution’s diversity statement, lend the library’s unique voice to the conversation, and put a “gluten-free!” sticker on the bottled water that is your library.

Virtual Holiday Parties

With the holidays starting, yet another surreal “I guess this is COVID” moment is upon us: we’re really going to go a whole December without office holiday parties? Did we ever think we would miss such a thing?

I have only worked in three libraries, but I have been fortunate enough to work in three libraries with amazing cooks and bakers. Missing out on a library potluck is a top ten COVID-year bummer for me. But we’ve gotten pretty good at this remote celebration thing, right? Here are some ideas for how to safely celebrate with your library staff (and maybe some of these will work for your family non-gatherings as well):

  • Games:
    • Many in-person games translate well to Zoom or other video chat platforms:
      • Pictionary (using the whiteboard feature)
      • Charades (no risk of accidental talking; just mute yourself!)
      • Trivia (use the hand-raising feature or chat to “buzz in”)
      • Scavenger hunt (pick items people are likely to have at home)
      • Themed hunt (for example, have people pull from their bookshelves at home the oldest book, longest book, book with a blue cover, etc., and compare your finds! Other themes might be the fridge, things within reach of where they sit when they work from home, or clothing.)
      • Online scavenger hunt (find pages/links/information instead of objects)
      • Name that tune (play instrumental versions over host’s mic)
      • Buzzword (each person gets a holiday-themed word; if you catch them saying it during the virtual get-together, they’re out!)
  • Contests:
    • Ugly sweater contest
    • Holiday costume contest (get elaborate, you don’t have to wear it in public!)
    • Gingerbread house contest (send out kits ahead of time)
  • Gift exchanges:
    • A virtual gift exchange (gift card codes, for example)
    • If everyone lives in the same area, arrange for them to pick up a gift from a local shop
  • Other activities:
    • Holiday playlist (share screen with audio sharing enabled)
    • Holiday photo booth (create your own props, interact Brady-Bunch style!)
    • Take an online class together, either live or a pre-recorded class
    • Recipe exchange: share what you would have brought to a regular potluck, or have a theme, like cookies

Keep these important considerations in mind when planning your celebration, some of which you should already consider when planning in-person, in-office celebrations, and some that are new this year:

  • Keep employees’ diversity in mind:
    • Know the dates of holidays you’re not familiar with; someone may be taking the day off to celebrate. Try to find a date everyone is available and that doesn’t conflict with other celebrations.
    • Be aware of holidays with food restrictions, like daytime fasting or abstaining from certain foods. It’s easier to not include food in a virtual celebration.
  • Keep employees’ privacy in mind:
    • While a tour of everyone’s holiday decorations sounds fun, not everyone will want to show you the inside of their home.
    • Remember to schedule your celebration during work hours, just as you would an in-office celebration.
    • Gift exchanges are nice, but some people may not be comfortable sharing their mailing address with colleagues.
    • If playing an online game together, choose one that doesn’t require the sharing of personal information to access it. Games that don’t have to be downloaded are preferable, too.
  • Keep employees’ needs in mind:
    • If you’re doing anything food-related, remember to consider allergies and dietary restrictions, as you would for an in-person potluck.
    • So many people are on their second, third, twentieth wind of Zoom fatigue. Don’t try to do all of these things; pick one or two and do them well.
    • Be considerate of everyone’s time: the party is over at the designated time.
    • December is a busy time for the whole family. Some employees may be caring for others who also are participating in holiday-related activities. Be understanding of those who can’t dedicate extra time and energy for activities like the suggested costume or gingerbread contests.

One last idea: Anecdotally speaking, I’ve heard several of my friends express that something they really miss about working in person together with their colleagues is the casual conversation time. Remotely, that’s something you have to carve out time for and decide to do, since you don’t bump into each other in hallways or stop at the desk or a doorway to chat. Maybe your staff would really just like to get together and have an hour of dedicated casual chat time?

Whatever you and your staff do, I hope you do it safely, comfortably, and happily, and that you get to do it in person for the 2021 holiday season.

Call for FYAL Bloggers

With the new academic year coming up soon (or perhaps, for some of you, already begun!), we’re looking to bring on a few new bloggers here at ACRLog. We’d like to thank our 2019-2020 FYAL bloggers Karina Hagelin and Yoonhee Lee for their terrific posts this past year in our First Year Academic Librarian Experience series. We’d also like to encourage new academic librarians — those who are just beginning in their first position at an academic library — to blog with us during their first year.

FYAL bloggers typically publish posts monthly during the academic year. If you’re interested in applying to be a FYAL blogger here at ACRLog, applications are due by Saturday, September 12. Send an email to aharrington@pennstatehealth.psu.edu that includes:

– a sample blog post

– a brief note describing your job and your interest in blogging at ACRLog

Proposals are evaluated by the ACRLog blog team. When selecting FYAL bloggers we consider:

  • Diversity of race/ethnicity/sexual orientation/ability
  • Voices from a range of academic institutions (for example, community colleges, research universities, etc.) and job responsibilities within academic libraries (for example, instruction, cataloging, scholarly communications, etc.)
  • Clear and compelling writing style
  • Connection between day-to-day work and bigger conversations around theory, practice, criticism, LIS education, and other issues

Please send any questions to aharrington@pennstatehealth.psu.edu. We’re looking forward to hearing from you!

And, We’re Back! Re-Opening Our Library

As a medical school library, we already have students beginning a new academic year. Between nurse, PA, and MD programs, residents, and the non-stop functioning of a hospital we support, we knew we would be among the early returners… the guinea pigs, if you will.

Some upsides: The majority of our user base is already accustomed to wearing surgical masks for long periods of time, so I imagine we’re correcting mask protocol less often than we would have to elsewhere. (The fact that we have to do it at all may be unsettling, but I still think we’re luckier than most in this regard.) The students seem to have settled into alternative study routines (or perhaps they have as much news update email burnout as I do, and therefore haven’t heard that we’re open) and didn’t swarm us immediately at 8am on Monday. We have procedures in place for everything that has come up so far, and things are running smoothly (knock on wood).

I’ll give you some details of what’s working for us that may come in handy as you prepare your own reopening plans, or may just be of interest.

  • The open stacks are no longer open; we hung caution tape and signs directing users to the desk to request items, rather than retrieving them on their own.
  • We are quarantining all checked-out items for 72 hours, using some file drawers we weren’t using for other purposes. We picked five, labelled each for a day of the week, and added the day of the week they should be emptied. (The first drawer says “Monday – open Thursday,” the second says “Tuesday – open Friday,” and the rest are opened Monday since we aren’t open on the weekends yet.)
  • All returned items must go directly into the book drop (as opposed to being handed to the person at the desk) so it all goes into quarantine together. (If they are checked out, exceptions will be made for bone boxes and board games, which still go into quarantine, but are too fragile/multi-part for the book drop.)
  • Reserve textbooks, which have a 2-hour checkout, can be checked out, but they must go into the book drop and follow 72-hour quarantine procedure. We’re also reaching out to our liaison departments to tell instructors that if they want any readings from those books, they ought to check them out and sort that out. (We’re also providing copyright information to keep them from making mistakes.)
  • We are not checking out headphones (we don’t feel they can be properly sanitized).
  • All of the spaces of the library are available, but at half capacity. A week before reopening, we stacked chairs, turned around soft seating that can’t be properly sanitized, and separated the tables in study rooms so they’re in each corner instead of clustered in the middle.
  • We still let users borrow packs of dry erase markers, but we have bins for “new” and “used” (depending on your area, you may have seen the same concept applied to pens for signing receipts at restaurants) and they get quarantined and wiped down
  • We ordered a great deal of signage, to cover the following:
    • New hours
    • All guidelines, posted at each entrance
    • Mask reminders
    • No eating/drinking (not a usual policy, but as you can’t eat/drink with a mask worn properly, a new necessity)
    • Small room capacity, posted on each door
    • “Sanitation station” identifiers (where users can find spray bottles and paper towels to clean tables, chairs, computers, etc. before and after use)
    • Reminders to follow specific procedures in relevant areas, like “please put all items in the book drop” (as opposed to handing them to the person at the desk)
  • We created an “incident form” for internal use. Since our ability to move to the next reopening phase depends on the number of incidents we experience in the library, this allows us to track them. There are two types of incident: “learning,” which is a friendly reminder to follow a procedure that goes heeded, and “defiant,” which is the type of event where the friendly reminder is given but the behavior is not corrected.
  • Everyone who can continue to work from home, does. We have two staff members who cover the service desk, all reference hours are covered on Zoom and via email, and three people (me, the Access Services Librarian; the Associate Director; and the Director) come in regularly to manage the library and make sure the staff get breaks. Others may come in occasionally to do a single task that can’t be done from home, but they don’t keep regular schedules in the library.

None of this is complex, nor should it be. We have easy-to-understand, easy-to-follow rules for the space, we’ve limited services and resources as little as possible, and we cut the capacity in half simply by moving furniture and hanging signs.

We’ve been open one week now, and so far – although it isn’t closing time yet – we’ve only had eleven “incidents” to report, and they’ve all been the “learning” type.

If you’re preparing to open your library, I wish you the best of luck, compliant users, and comfortable masks. If you’re holding off for a while longer, I support that decision and hope your pets enjoy having you and home a little longer. (My cat has been more upset about me being gone for the day than any of our users have been about being reminded to wear a mask and stay at or under study room capacity.)