I work at an institution with no mask mandate and no vaccine requirement. The emphasis is on personal responsibility, sphere of influence, and individual liberty. Our Access Services workers have kept our building open over the last year and a half while I and my other liaison services colleagues have been able to work from home, parent at home, teach virtual school to our children from home, etc. We returned to the library part-time this summer and full time now that the semester is in full swing.
The fall semester started on Monday. Masked and unmasked students enter the building in a surging mass looking for computers between classes, a place to sit and study, a break from the oppressive heat, or a working printer. I’m sitting in my office with my door closed fielding class requests from instructors who may or may not want a virtual option. Because of our institution’s politics it’s a weird dance of “we can offer…” and “what are your options?” We can’t come out and say “That’s way too many unmasked students in a classroom built for 30.”
I have virtual meetings with colleagues down the hall. We get together to go on masked walks–unmasked if the crowds are thin–and it’s odd but better than nothing. We are all in sneakers or birks and our comfiest workwear. Everyday brings a new administrative email about vaccine incentives, testing options, contact tracing, flow-charts for classroom instructors, temporary remote work guidelines, etc. We all feel at turns hopeful, fearful, gaslit, angry, and exhausted.
I don’t know what fall semester will look like in 2 weeks much less 2 months from now, and I mean that in terms of work, family, health, and general well-being. I don’t do well with broad uncertainty (hello, anxiety!) but it’s the way of life right now. I’ll take joy in a well-placed LEGO set, an iced coffee, or a day off work to go to an empty beach with my family. I will do what I need to do to do my job well and keep my family safe and healthy.
What is your fall semester looking like this year?
Writing, especially blog writing, has been tough in 2021. I keep looking at open and blank documents, trying to think of something new to say. Spoiler: that strategy hasn’t been working too well. And frankly, I, like many others, are tired. This past spring semester, I did what I needed to do but didn’t try to push the envelope. A lot of great work did come from this semester — a successful student showcase, many undergraduate research award winners, and a short story contest where I got to learn way more about circuses than I anticipated. I brought a similar energy into summer outreach and engagement and so far, that has been paying off. I feel like I have time to think, plan, and dream up new ideas.
However, there’s a different vibe to this summer. I don’t know about you all, but I’ve been to a few meetings where my colleagues have referred to the pandemic in the past tense. When I first heard the past tense, I waited to see if this was a slip. It wasn’t. I asked the group text if they were also seeing this use of past tense at their institutions. “Yes” was the response I got.
This pandemic is definitely not over; sure, we might be coming back to campus, but that doesn’t mean COVID has gone away. Although the United States has ample access to vaccines, we, as a county, will miss the 70% of adults having at least one shot by July 4. I know there is a desire to “return to normal” but to speak as if the pandemic is over feels like a disservice to what we all experienced the past year and a half. This attitude also completely misses the fact that vaccine access is not equitable across the world. That inequity does impact our university community members who are not located in the United States. The pandemic isn’t over, we are just in a new season of it. Hopefully, this is a chapter near the end of this story, but we aren’t sure yet.
It also feels like there is a different energy behind planning over this summer. Last year, we spent a lot of time waiting — what would our institutions decide? How would we do outreach? We invested more energy into summer online programming, planned for different scenarios, and pushed some events off until we had a clearer sense of the fall. This summer, we are moving full steam ahead for in-person activities. We want to open ALL the doors.
A part of me is ready to interact with people in real life and not over a screen. I’m ready to run into colleagues in the hallway on the way to a meeting and grab coffee with someone new to brainstorm new collaborations. And a part of me is nervous for what the fall will look like. In my research this past year on student engagement journeys, we’ve seen a spectrum of experiences. Experiences where students were lonely and joined clubs in order to find community. And we talked to students who ran some of those clubs and felt that they feel short of the engagement and interaction they could get when they were in-person. It feels that there will be a growing period where we all readjust. As we readjust, I hope we talk about it. Some parts of this transition will be difficult or challenging. To learn and grow together, we have to be able to communicate.
Despite my hesitancy at calling the pandemic over, in the last couple of weeks, I’ve felt change on the horizon. Maybe it’s the nicer summer weather or new leadership at my current institution that has me feeling a bit more hopeful. Whatever it is, I think I’m ready for the rest of this summer and what fall might bring us. We’ll see.
What about you? How are you feeling about this summer?
I view trust in an educational context as both essential and fragile. It’s difficult to build and sustain and can be easily broken, but without it we don’t have the kind of connected needed in critical, engaged learning environments to foster transformative learning. One of my favorite definitions of trust comes from Judith V. Jordan, who describes it as “confidence in the relationship.” Seeking help and connection and expressing vulnerability is scary, and it’s what we all do as learners: share what we don’t know, ask for what we want to learn, and hope that we’ve connected enough with others (our peer learners, our teachers) for them to support us through the process. If there is no confidence in the relationship between learner and teacher or learner and learner, then there is no trust that this is an educational experience where everyone learns and grows as people.
A few weeks after this talk I received an unsolicited email from a sales representative at an academic-adjacent company touting a new software product that would help teachers track and record the “time [students] spent reading, working with sources, [and] taking notes” online, all in the name of good assessment. Shortly after receiving that email I learned about faculty who review hundreds of video recordings of students taking exams because the proctoring software flags them as potential cheaters for not looking at the screen. These are students who are working out complex problems on a sheet of paper at their desk. After that eye-opener, I then attended a pedagogical discussion that devolved into a lamentation over cheating (not the point of the discussion) and the inability for instructors to preserve the integrity of the test. And just last week I reviewed dozens of syllabi for a curriculum mapping project where the tone and language used automatically assumed students were going to cheat ortry to scam their course professor.
The trust that could/should have existed between learners and teachers or learners and learners has instead been placed in browser lockdown software and surveillance technology. Students are assumed to be scammers, professors have to protect their exams, and any energy that could be put towards meaningful learning is instead diverted to cheating prevention. I know this is not the norm in every class or with every professor at every campus. But it is a mindset that I find particularly insidious in higher education.
This mindset sees rampant cheating as the real problem, not the 300 person classes students have to take their first year at college. This mindset characterizes students as dishonest and unmotivated to learn, when really they might be juggling work, school, and family and struggling to buy books. This mindset assumes professors are just out to catch you when do something wrong, rather than help you get what you need to learn. It’s a mindset without trust or connection, one that is easily monetized by education-adjacent companies whose profits grow as learning suffers. The inertia of practices in higher education is strong, and I fear that we are hurtling towards more distrust in teaching and learning. But I find solace in the small moments of trust I have with learners and teachers, in the instances of grace that others extend to me and that I can reciprocate, and in the small spaces after class (that are all virtual these days) where students ask questions and we can just talk as people, connect, and trust.
Last April, some ACRLog team members reflected on how things were going in our respective libraries. At that time, we were in the very early days of the pandemic and had no idea what was ahead of us, or for how long. Now, over a year later, we’re all still navigating an uncertain and stressful landscape. We thought we’d pause to reflect again for an updated view of how things are going where we work.
What’s the situation at your institution, at the time of writing?
Alex Harrington: All our students are back, although instructors may be using more remote work than they used to. College of Medicine employees are encouraged to continue working from home if they can. There are temperature-checking iPads at the entrance, but nobody is posted there anymore to ensure that people use them. Our library hours were cut and I think they’re going to stay that way, but it wasn’t a drastic cut.
Emily Hampton Haynes: The campus is open to faculty, staff, and students only. As a community college with only a few main entrances, it’s easy to manage access to the campus through two designated screening areas. Most of our classes are fully online, and about 25% of classes meet on campus (prioritizing classes that have an in-person component, such as science labs, art studio, and nursing classes).
In the library specifically, we work a rotating shift schedule where only one person from each department is on-campus at the same time. For example, I’m on campus for 4-hour reference shifts Thursday evenings and Friday mornings, and the rest of the time I’m working remotely. In the last year, about 95% of the info lit classes I’ve taught have been online, synchronous instruction through Teams, with some tutorial videos and a handful of in-person classes. Teaching through a mask is no joke, I don’t envy those who have to do it every day!
Jen Jarson: We don’t have many students on campus at this point. Most classes are still happening online this semester. Some classes have in-person components that bring students to campus–a few classes that are regularly scheduled to be fully or partially in-person and some that occasionally require students to come in for exams or particular learning experiences. Our campus doesn’t have any residential facilities, so while students are welcome to come to campus to make use of spaces and resources, they are rarely just incidentally hanging around. As a result of all this, traffic in the library has been very low. Our library space is open, but on a reduced schedule because of COVID protocols related to staffing (although there isn’t demand for more hours given the very low on-campus traffic). Our information literacy instruction program is entirely online–and working quite well that way, thankfully. Same for reference/research consultation. Our institution is still requiring that we quarantine returned materials and we have restrictions in place regarding accessing/borrowing print materials due to our agreement with the HathiTrust to enable their Emergency Temporary Access Service. So collections-related services (like physical course reserves, a big deal for us) have taken the biggest hit, I think.
Maura Smale: Our campus is still mostly closed — there are two buildings that have some face to face classes, mostly in the allied health departments and a few other hands-on lab classes, with probably less than 10% of students coming to campus this semester. The library is within a complex of 4 connected buildings that aren’t open to students, and our space is still closed. We’re still providing all library services online, including 100% online instruction and reference, and haven’t yet started accepting returns of or circulating print materials; our textbook reserve collection, which has historically seen heavy use, isn’t available. Some library faculty and staff are coming in to work in our offices on a voluntary basis, mostly for the change of scenery (that’s definitely the case for me, and I’ve been working in my office one day/week).
Veronica Arellano Douglas: Our main library remains open, but with limited hours, while our subject libraries are open Monday-Friday only, again, with limited hours. My colleagues in Access Services are the people keeping the building open, while a few folks from other departments come in once or twice a week to work on tasks that can only be in the building. My department, Liaison Services, is still working from home. The university’s Spring semester classes just ended, making the campus seem even quieter than it already was earlier in the semester. Most classes were online this spring and that will continue to be the case for the summer session.
What do you anticipate the Fall will look like for your library?
Maura: As of this writing my university (the City University of New York) is aiming for 25% in-person instruction in the Fall, with each college making its own specific plans. I’m really hoping that CUNY will require all students who will be on campus in the Fall to be vaccinated (and honestly I’d prefer that requirement for employees, too), but there’s been no decision on that yet. For CUNY a big concern is public transportation — nearly all students and employees travel to our almost-entirely commuter colleges on subways and buses, and many folx are still understandably hesitant to return to mass transit. At my college it’s likely that the majority of face to face courses will remain in the two buildings that are currently hosting classes, and it’s not clear yet what parts of the buildings where our library is located will be accessible to students. In the library we are moving forward with plans to begin circulating print materials again (grab and go); instruction and reference will stay fully online in the Fall. It seems unlikely that we’ll be open for study space or computer use (there are other computer labs on campus that will be open), though our plans may change over the Summer as (hopefully) more of NYC is vaccinated.
Jen: At this point, my institution is planning to return to pre-pandemic levels of in-person instruction. (Of course, that’s dependent on the status of the pandemic at that point.) It’s unclear how social distancing guidelines will be revised, though. If the guidelines stay at 6 feet or are only partially reduced, we won’t be able to accommodate that many in-person classes given limited classroom sizes at my campus. Those decisions will impact how many students are on campus, but either way we’re expecting to expand our library hours back to normal, or near-normal. We anticipate that mandates to quarantine returned materials and other restrictions on collections will be lifted, so we’re excited at the prospect of restoring our physical course reserves service which so many of our students count on. We still have a lot to figure out–our information literacy instruction program, our space, our staffing schedule, and more–because so much of that hinges on what expectations the university sets about distancing and other COVID-related guidelines.
Veronica: Honestly, I have no clue. Right now we are very much in an information vacuum. Being a public institution means that so much of our administrative design making is based on state-mandates and given the governor’s propensity to open everything it seems likely we will be on campus in the fall barring no major changes in the medical situation (which is a huge unknown). We’re trying to plan space arrangements within the library and our classrooms and encourage faculty and librarians to continue to use online lessons and online synchronous instruction. In some ways my biggest fear is that we will just go back to work as it was pre-pandemic, having changed nothing about the ways in which we accommodate worker needs to create safe, healthy work environments. We’ll see, I guess.
What have we learned during the pandemic that may enrich our work practices as we transition toward a time when in-person, on-campus engagement is more common?
Angie Rathmel: There’s been very deliberate attention to this question at my campus, which aims to resume mostly in-person learning this Fall. My library colleagues noted how successfully we have collectively been able to provide our services, even with the majority of our workforce remote. I supervise a unit where remote and onsite work during the pandemic split out at about 85% – 15% respectively. This small but essential in-person staff presence forged unofficial leadership channels, required a more deliberate communication style, and created a distinctive experience of collective trust. All of these I think can enrich our practices as we are more increasingly together in person. One would think these successes, combined with the practical and technological efficiencies and productivity gains, would lead us to normalize remote work in ways we haven’t previously. But I’m discovering how counter that idea runs to the prevailing notion of “returning to normal”. I’m still trying to reconcile this disconnect, but feel strongly that enriching our work practices requires us to do more than overlay these lessons onto a former normal. The lesson that I feel we need to keep learning through practice is the awareness of how our decisions and actions impact others.If we were to practice more generous thinking as we try to answer this question, it might look less like “what did I learn?” and more like “what did I learn about your experience that was different than mine?” or “How did my experience shape yours and vice versa.” See also “how can we best support one another…”
Hailley Fargo: As a librarian who helps to host events and workshops outside the classroom, the pandemic really pushed me and my colleagues to think more intentionally/strategically about what events we could support in an online environment. We worked more closely with student clubs and offered smaller scale events like zine workshops. It allowed us to learn more about the student pandemic experience and host events where every participant was really jazzed and excited to be there. I hope we can take this lesson and bring it into a more hybrid and or in-person situation. It’s nice to be able to focus on meaningful outreach while also coming to a better understanding of our student community.
Veronica: I’ve learned how important childcare, eldercare, and other kinds of full-time caregiving (which includes K-12 school and caring for adults with special needs) is to all of the work that we do. Without it, our work is extremely difficult to impossible. My biggest hope is that we start to pay caregivers what they are worth. Secondary to that, I’d like to continue to see flexible scheduling for all employees who are caregivers and parents, who suffer from illness, who have disabilities, and who need the kind of flexibility we’ve had this year to do the kind of work that keeps our libraries running. I take a break from work everyday to pick up my son from school at 3pm because there is no after-school care in a pandemic. When we get home I fix him a snack, get him set up with something to do or watch, then I go back to work. This would never have happened pre-pandemic, but what will happen post-pandemic? Will I still be able to pick him up and continue my work at home everyday? 3 times a week? Once a week?
What practices do you want to keep when you return to campus? What do you want to leave behind?
Alex: I very much want to continue to work from home some of the time. The extra time in close proximity to my cat and the ability to get up and do a housework task in the middle of the day (so I don’t have to tackle it when I get home) has done wonders for my mental health. Certain work is easier to get done at home. Also, in March 2020, we implemented weekly check-in meetings on Monday mornings, to update the rest of our location’s library employees on important matters, and to make sure everyone is doing generally okay. I think we should keep them, because it connects us and makes sure nobody misses important information or deadlines, and gives us a chance to share the good and the bad.
I won’t mind leaving behind virtual-only instruction. Some workshops and orientations, I just do better in person. I like to walk around, gesture a lot (which gets cut off by my webcam), and see reactions to my jokes. (I fully support turning off your camera if you Just Can’t Right Now, but I also feed on laughter and need to be validated while I teach.)
Want to keep: The slower, contemplative pace for planning instruction. The creativity and problem-solving of making online learning materials. The awareness and respect for colleagues’ and students’ lives outside of the workplace.
Want to leave: The isolation from my coworkers, the confusion and hurt feelings from all-virtual communication, the two hour Teams meetings with no stretch breaks.
Jen: I agree with what my colleagues are noting here about compassion and flexibility. Additionally, I’m grateful for the new techniques that teaching online has given me an opportunity to explore. I recognize that I might be an outlier here! I’m as Zoomed out as anyone, of course. But the challenge of trying to engage students in the online classroom has actually helped me think about how to revitalize my in-person instruction, too. I definitely plan to sustain (and hopefully grow) some of the techniques I’ve been using.
Maura: We were a 100% onsite all the time workplace before the pandemic, and I’m hoping we can keep some flexibility in all of our work moving forward. This is likely to be complicated by the different classifications that library workers hold at my university: we have library faculty, what the university terms professional staff, IT staff, and civil service staff, represented by two different unions. While of course we haven’t been able to offer every library service remotely during the pandemic, everyone has had work to do and everyone’s contributed to keeping library resources and services available for our patrons. I’m committed to advocating for all library workers to have the flexibility to do some work from home in the future.
I do look forward to seeing my colleagues in person again, and to having meetings where we’re all in the same room. I’ve tried to be very mindful about communication this year, not calling a meeting when an email will suffice, and not sending too many emails if I can help it. But communication has still been a huge challenge, especially considering all of my colleagues’ different commitments, with some folx more Zoom-bound than others. Once we all have a more regular presence in the physical library I hope that communication will get easier.
Hailley: I want to keep the boundaries I have been able to create between my work and my personal life (including hobbies!). I don’t know why the pandemic has aided so much in creating that separation but I hope to maintain it as we return to in-person work. Similar to Emily, I’m excited to leave behind the solo work; I’m so excited to run into colleagues in the library and have those spur of the moment chats that can result in a new idea or collaboration.
Veronica: I want to continue to offer virtual options for student consultations and classes. I think it meets a need we’ve always had as a large urban university where so many students and instructors commute long distances. It takes into account everyone’s personal needs and life situations.
How can we best support one another as we prepare for and navigate this transition back to campuses?
Alex: Flexibility in all possible ways. It is very important to remember that everyone is going to recover and transition in their own way, in their own order, and at their own pace. Communication, too, will continue to be key. This includes: asking others about their comfort level with certain procedures, letting people know where you are in the transition process, and expressing your needs and boundaries while hearing others’.
Angie: I keep thinking about how the pandemic has reinforced a practice for how our individual actions and responsibilities primarily protect and support others more than ourselves — my mask protects you and your mask protects me. Keeping this “other” focus in our communications, in our decision-making reflections, and in our individual actions is the best way I see to collectively support one another and collectively prepare to transition back to campus (or in any change, maybe).
As a sort of “other” when it came to in-person-work, introverts gained a level of ease and privilege in remote-work. Those who have been working in person throughout the pandemic (both introverts and extroverts) are now that “other” as the majority transition back. If we don’t provide opportunities to surface the nuanced needs of each“other” in all kinds of circumstances, we won’t know how to support or fully benefit from our learning. Creating space for both those shared and distinctive experiences could be a particularly healing act we all need right now.
Emily: “Grace” is going to be my refrain as we transition back to campus. We don’t know what Fall will look like at our community college yet — although administration wants us 100% in person, their decision will be based on numbers and recommendations from the county health department. So as of now a lot feels still up in the air. And that’s why having grace for one another is such an important guiding principle for me. What this could look like in practice:
Flexibility around arrival time – We’ve all gotten used to our 30 second commute, and transitioning back is going to be an adjustment. I’d like to see redundancy in scheduling for the first hour of the day, so that opening the library is not on the shoulders of just one person.
Social support for using vacation leave – I discussed this in my last post, but with the return of students and our old routines, PTO will be an essential form of self-care. I want my coworkers to know that I’m willing to cover for them if they need a break at the desk or a full day off, even when the semester gets busy.
Give each other the benefit of the doubt – I could see friction arising around sharing work space again as we return to campus. But let’s give folks the benefit of the doubt when they inconvenience us, or when a comment lands weird in an email or note left on the reference desk. I intend to not take things personally, to ask for clarification when I’m confused or hurt, and let the little things go when I can.
Patience with students – Sure, there are things that bug me about student behaviors in the library: students that wait til the last minute and stress me out with their urgency, ask me to do their homework for them, or make appointments and don’t show up. I want to extend them grace too, and remember that this will be a big adjustment for them as much as it is for me, after a year of profound trauma and chronic stress.
Maura: I am +1 on everything that my fellow ACRLoggers have said: flexibility, patience, compassion, and just overall emphasizing care in all of our interactions — with each other, with students and others on campus — is what I’m keeping top of mind as we start getting back into the physical library. I’m so proud of the work we’ve all done, we’ve all supported each other through this very difficult year, keeping safety at the forefront. And while I know there are many challenges ahead, I think we’re in the best place we could be to address them. I’m also going to continue to encourage my colleagues (and myself!) to use our vacation days — even if we’re not going to be traveling during the summer, I hope we can all take some time to rest.
Veronica: I think that we need to understand that not everyone is going to acclimate to post-pandemic life in the same way. Be kind and understanding to your colleagues, or as Emily put it, show them a measure of grace. Some folks might not be comfortable sitting in a small meeting room, others might not want to go to lunch as often, and still others may want to hug everyone they meet. Faculty and students will need time to adjust to in person relationships again and our virtual connections may start to suffer a bit. We will just need to remind ourselves that everyone is adjusting in their own way.
How are you doing? How are things going at your library? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
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.
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.
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.