Reflecting on library space through the lens of the pandemic

Before the pandemic turned our world upside down, I was working on some space-related projects at my library. A recent update to a small lounge area had a notable payoff. Collaboration with my colleague in the Learning Center was making slow but steady progress toward a renovation to expand and enhance our spaces and services in a Learning Commons model. The need for and value of this work were clear. The progress and outcomes were gratifying.

I’ve written a few times about some of this work and the opportunities and challenges of my lovely but tiny library space. The public health crisis has cast our space and these efforts to improve it, like pretty much everything, in new light. Obviously, slashed higher ed budgets and broader economic challenges suggest that there will be increased competition for limited resources to fund any space project, particularly a large and pricey one like our Learning Commons proposal. But the pandemic will affect higher education’s short-, medium- and long-term future in many arenas, not just fiscal; the impact on demand for and nature of library space is difficult to anticipate, reducing our ability to plan and advocate strategically.

In the short-term, space has featured prominently in the many meetings about the fall semester at my commuter campus and across my institution. Currently, my institution is planning for a mix of in-person, hybrid, and remote courses. At the core of our many space-related conversations has been the recognition that access to physical space matters even in this very virtual incarnation of higher ed, particularly for our most vulnerable students. On a practical level, we need to offer on-campus space (and resources) to students who don’t have access to reliable technology at home or whose home environments aren’t productive or safe. We also need to offer on-campus space for students to participate in Zoom classes sandwiched between in-person classes. Like many folks, we’re working out how to safely open and manage access to our space. 

Then, there are the more theoretical conversations about the sense of identity and community that physical (library) space fosters. We’ve cast our proposed Learning Commons, for example, as a welcoming learner-centered space where students can focus, study, collaborate, and access academic assistance. In our advocacy, we’ve cited the impact of the library’s and learning center’s physical constraints on students; they have had to vie for limited space or even leave campus, thereby missing out on opportunities to engage with services, programs, faculty and staff, and peers. We’ve argued that these missed opportunities reduce their ability to make connections on campus and build community. Library space helps our students dig in, connect, and belong. How can we attempt to recover or replace what we’re losing during this time? While perhaps not our most pressing concern given all the demands of planning for fall classes, it’s still an important one–for this coming semester and beyond. 

The medium- and long-term vision for our space projects, then, feels murky. Surely, expanding the physical library with more square footage would mean that we could accommodate more library users while complying with physical distancing guidelines. But it’s more than that. In our newly upended world, the assets and liabilities of all public space are thrown into sharp relief. The pandemic calls on us to reconsider how spaces are designed and how they’re used. How do we plan for library space projects in this time of uncertainty not just in higher ed but in our world? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Getting out of the funk

If I were in a movie, we would be at the part where the scene speeds up and you see me, moving through the weeks. My outfits change, and I move around my one-bedroom apartment, sitting and standing in all different places as I work and try to get my work done. Some days I use my second monitor and other days, I prop my laptop up on a shoebox to recreate the standing desk I deeply miss. In the middle of the montage, it cuts to me cutting my bangs, realizing they are cut at a slight angle, but they’re out of my face and I can go back to speeding around my apartment.

Like many people, these days I’m worn out. The pandemic continues, the racial injustices in our country continue to happen, and some days all I want is to be able to hug my friends again. My institution, like others around the county, grapples with how to “come back for the fall.” My library puts together a dozen committees to figure out how to reopen the libraries. We learn that ICE has new rules for our international students. We pass three million COVID-19 cases in the United States. 

For most of my (short) professional life, I’ve taken a lot of personal joy and satisfaction from my work. I like the work I do and I care about the undergraduates I work with and support. I try to build programs that are sustainable and ones that respond to community needs. I reflect regularly on my practice and learn from my colleagues and peers who I look up to. And I gain energy and excitement about being in a work environment where I can run into my friends and colleagues throughout the day. But recently, with everything I mentioned in the paragraph above, I’m not getting that same level of joy and satisfaction these days. My remote work looks different and what I do this fall, with and for students, will look different. The plan I have right now is most likely going to change, in a few weeks, in a month, and in a few months. This heightened uncertainty (far more visible and palpable these days) resulted in me feeling more irritable, negative, and frustrated, with a touch of hopelessness. My whole vibe of, “Hailley is jazzed about everything” was really lacking in the last few weeks. It hasn’t been great and it hasn’t been good for my work, personally or professionally. 

To combat this, I’ve realized that I’ve started to find ways to “get out of..”

  • My department, by holding space for time with my friends at other institutions. LibParlor meetings continue to be a source of joy, to know we’re in similar boats at each of our institutions, but can still support one another, either through a nice little vent session or energetic celebrations of good things.
  • My library, by seeking out webinars, presentations, conversations, and other readings. Highlights include Shifting the Center: Transforming Academic Libraries through Generous Accountability by McKensie Mack, discovering #LISPedagogyChat, and the newest issue of Communications in Information Literacy (what an amazing list of authors included). It has been helping to think about big ideas as a way to move away from hyperfocusing on the local. 
  • State College. I’m writing this blog post tucked away in a cabin several hours away from State College. I feel grateful for the chance to do this, safely, and could feel myself relaxing as I got into my car and drove away on Wednesday afternoon.
  • My job, by creating space to talk to friends not in the library world, and making time in my day to do non-work things. It has been so nice to catch up with old friends, get the scoop on people I went to college with, and laugh at a whole host of things.
  • My head. This one can be tough, but I’m learning. Embroidery is good for that, and so is taking a long walk around my neighborhood, or going for a morning paddleboard (when I’m near a body of water). This is usually away from screens and the buzzing of notifications. 

Finally, I’ve started to be more intentional about grounding myself before starting something. I’ve seen grounding exercises more recently when I watched my friend prepare for a job talk and at the opening remarks for the Advancing Racial Equity and Inclusion in the Workplace Symposium. It’s a small act, but personally, has helped me focus on what I’m trying to accomplish and hone in on what needs to be done, ignoring the other distractions. 

I’m curious about what others are doing during this time. Have you found strategies or techniques that work for you? How are you stepping away or changing your librarianship during this time? What has been difficult and what has been bringing you joy? 

Clarinets and crafts: Observations from my apartment

Seven weeks ago, I wrote about week one of teleworking. A lot was changing then, and a lot has changed since. By this point, many of our semesters are wrapping up, we’ve taught at least once in this remote setting, and we’ve found new routines that govern our day-to-day. For me, I’ve led an online student showcase, judged research posters for a virtual undergraduate research exhibition, conducted four virtual interviews for my research project, and sat in on way too many Zoom calls. My eyes are much more likely to go cross-eyed these days and if I don’t need to be on camera, I’ll turn it off. Somedays I’m really jazzed on Zoom meetings, other days, I just don’t have the energy to engage. 

As I experienced seven weeks ago when writing my teleworking diary blog post, it’s hard to know what to say when you’re in a moment. My thoughts on that first week have changed the longer we stay in this holding pattern. I don’t have any big takeaways to share because we’re still in this experience. Instead, I want to talk about two types of experiences I’ve been having, both outside the immediate scope of librarianship, but both informing how I move forward with my own work, in an online environment, during this time. 

Clarinet & the research process

This is the fifth semester I’ve played in the Penn State Clarinet Choir. It’s a choir made up of clarinet undergraduate music education and music performance students, music minor students, one graduate student, and me, your resident librarian. I’ve played the clarinet for over a decade and when I started working a 9-5 librarian job, I emailed the clarinet instructor and asked if there was a way to play. The professor invited me to a rehearsal and ever since I’ve been a (relatively) faithful member of the group. As you might expect, the music folks scrambled in the move to remote, but I would say they know more about sound quality with Zoom than anyone else. The students in the clarinet choir still take lessons, performed for each other at two studio recitals, and are currently in the middle of recording their jury pieces.

In turning everything online, the clarinet choir got interesting. Since we can’t all play together, Tony, the professor, has been using this weekly time to discuss other elements of playing the clarinet. From how to run your own studio, to the qualities of a good reed, I’ve been learning a lot about an instrument I honestly only know a little about. But what I’ve loved the most about these weekly meetings, is seeing their research process.

Traditionally, when I show up to things beyond clarinet choir rehearsal, like a senior recital, my view of their research are the program notes I pick up and read several times throughout the concert. Sometimes there are sources, cited at the bottom, in a variety of citation styles. Those notes don’t really show me how this research influenced the student’s ability to play the pieces or what they thought about in approaching these works. We’ve now had two clarinet sessions where we dissect a classic piece in the clarinet repertoire. We talk about the historical context for the composer and piece, the urtext (original, authoritative intention from the composer) versus the other published editions, difficulties with the piece, how to teach others to play it, and important recordings that shape our understanding of the piece. It’s the research process I know well, just adjusted for the discipline I don’t know as well. In those meetings, I stay muted but in my head, I’m like this GIF.

via GIPHY

These online clarinet choir meetings are exposing me to the field of clarinet studies and I’m here for it. It’s nice to see these students, in their natural environments. They change their Zoom display names, wrap themselves up in blankets, eat dinner while we discuss Mozart, and have incredibly oversized posters of the clarinet (we love this).  

Crafts and Readings Via Zoom

I’ve always been a craft person. Homemade birthday cards, elaborate scrapbooks from that one summer between fifth and sixth grade, origami animals for a summer library display, and these days, zines and embroidery. Crafting has been a good way to keep my hands busy. Pre-pandemic, I crafted alone, or with a small group of gals. These days, technology comes into play. I took an online embroidery class from Spacecraft in Seattle, made a zine with Malaka Gharib, stitch with a friend in Cinncinati every Saturday afternoon, and bring friends together to make a zine every Tuesday. All of these moments showed me different ways of teaching and building community in online spaces. Especially for tackling new crafts, how do you help people who are not physically next to you? How do you build a sense of community in an hour-long Zoom call? What’s so comforting about doing the same thing as someone else and why do these virtual calls feel so different from the Zoom meetings that consume my Mondays through Fridays? These calls have become a foundation for these weeks in a way I wasn’t expecting. A small choice to set up a regular time to create has given me markers to help me through each week.

Beyond crafts, I’ve also been seeking out any literary reading events. I don’t know about you, but I’m struggling to get into books these days. Readings are the type of event that can kickstart me again, either into reading or just writing (which eventually leads to me wanting to read). I’ve now attended a couple of readings, each one using a different streaming platform. Some have been better than others, but that’s true, in-person or online. Again I’m struck by the ways people organize these events and how authors navigate talking to a screen, versus talking to a live, in-person audience. I’m curious if the format and organization of the event leads me to be more engaged or bored (and therefore, tempted to leave). Regardless of how much I enjoy it, it’s nice to have something on the calendar to simply attend, and not have to do any preparation before joining the call.

I assume I’ll publish another post in six to seven weeks. I can’t even imagine what things will be like, or what I’ll be writing about next. Just have to wait and see. What about you? What things have you noticed during the past two months? Anything that has surprised you?  

The Teleworking Diaries: Initial Thoughts from Working Remote

Last week, things didn’t seem so bad and I told myself I wasn’t going to write about the coronavirus for this month’s blog post. I told myself I would write about a project I’m working on or an element of librarianship I wanted to do a bit of a deep dive into. But this, this pandemic, is a “rapidly evolving situation” and now it would just feel strange if I didn’t talk about it. I’m using this post to mark time, to capture my early thoughts about working remotely, using Zoom, and growing a community while being contained in my apartment in Central Pennsylvania.  

So much has changed in just a week. Each day feels like we are waiting for another shoe to drop. My institution has moved entirely online for the spring semester, commencement is canceled, and my days often revolve around checking maps, watching press briefings, thinking about vocational awe as libraries debate about closing to the public, and listening to podcasts on the pandemic.

I’ve been teleworking for about a week. It seems that every day is a bit of a rollercoaster. A slow start to each morning followed by an increasingly accelerated series of meetings, decisions, chats, and emails. The ride returns to the starting line between 5-5:30 PM and I quickly pack up my remote office, in an effort to stop myself from picking at work until bed. I’ve started to go for a post-work walks in my neighborhood and can’t help but notice the large amount of lion lawn ornaments folks have. Transitions between activities, especially work and personal, seem more important these days. Time has a new meaning, with nowhere to go and no plans to make. 

As a student engagement librarian, my semester has bottomed out. Many of my events have either been canceled or are in the process of going fully online. This week I’ve created a lot of Zoom links, talked through remote possibilities for student work and events, and watched how the students I work with adapt to using remote methods. As someone who normally participates in a lot of online meetings, it never really occurred to me to change my display name or add a colorful background of a sunset. In some ways, it feels like I’m learning Zoom all over again. 

In attempting to find a new normal (if we even want to call it that), I noticed the tension between wanting to just up and move everything online, as if this is a choice we willingly made, and the need to slow down and accept what’s happening around us. While some things cannot simply be plucked from face-to-face and moved online, there are other things that seem better suited to this new environment. I imagine that whenever we return to our offices, there will be residual effects from this. For someone who considers herself a bit of a workhorse, a “stay late and get it done” sort of gal, this change to teleworking has pushed me. I’ve been trying to accept the idea that it’s okay to take a beat to regroup and refocus. I try to hold that same space for my colleagues and students. As I was reminded in a meeting today, this “normal” we feel this week could look drastically different next week. There’s so much uncertainty in the air.

What this week has shown me is that even in this uncertainty, we have community. I feel a new sense of community and an intention to build. This intention comes in a variety of ways, from the group texts, the Gchats, the Marco Polo videos, and the virtual happy hours. When you’re not with people all the time, there’s a stronger need to (virtually) congregate. It has been reassuring for me to log into a Zoom room and see a friendly face. Even if we spend the first 15 minutes sharing all the information we’ve read and heard on COVID-19, it feels nice to share and know that we’re trying to get through this together. And if this pandemic lasts for weeks on end, our community is the thing that’s going to get us through.

In wrapping up this week, I’ve figured out my own ways of coping and marking time. I’ve started a daily picture of me at work and another thread on things that give me joy. I would be curious to hear how you all are getting through and ways you’ve found to build your community — at your institution or with friends and family, near and far. 
So I’ll end this post with my new sign off, a play on the Call Your Girlfriend signoff — see you in another Zoom room!

7 Tips for Starting Small and Coping with Overwhelm

I’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately: botched anesthesia during a surgery left me traumatized and everything became too much almost overnight. I’m sure many of you can relate to these feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, and burnout. Kaetrena Davis Kendrick has created so much amazing work librarians experiencing low morale, documenting and validating our journeys as we navigate these difficult feelings and the daily experiences that trigger them. LGBTQ+ librarians, librarians of color, disabled librarians, and those of us who live at the intersections, are especially at risk. As a white, (gender)queer, disabled, femme librarian, I feel this burden intensely, triggered by the recent medical trauma I endured. I decided to be proactive, vulnerable, and brave by talking to my supervisor about taking medical leave and working half-days. I’m grateful that my supervisor is incredibly supportive and has been there the whole way with me.

All this is to say that I’ve been thinking about how to manage the overwhelm by creating strategies that will allow me to survive this so I can once again thrive. I’ve found the key to managing my feelings of “this is too much” is starting small – and practicing radical acceptance and self-love along the way. Today, I want to share seven of those strategies with you.

01. Just start

Just start – and start small! I set a timer for five minutes and get to work. If I feel like I can handle it, I reset the timer and keep going.

02. Brain dumps and mind maps

Do a quick brain dump – or invest in creating a mind map – to manage large tasks and projects. When I do a brain dump, I draw a container and just write down – or as I call it, word vomit – whatever comes to mind, no filters. Mind maps can be a great way to organize a brain dump.

03. The Pomodoro Technique

I use the Pomodoro Technique to manage my time well. First, you choose a task to focus on and set a timer to 25 minutes. Then, you work on the task until your timer goes off and  PUT A CHECK OR STICKER OR WHATEVER YOU WANT ON A SHEET OF PAPER WHICH IS SO REWARDING! Next, you take a short break (5 minutes or so!) and finally for every 4 checks / stickers / whatevers you accumulate, you take a longer break. I use the Forest app on my phone which plants a tree for every 25 minute session you finish (bonus: the tree dies if you use your phone which eliminates one distraction!).

04. Set SMART goals

SMART goals are: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time bound. This system has really helped me set achievable goals and meet my deadlines with precision!

Art by @beckiebeans

05. Time-blocking

Time-blocking is a time management method that divides your day into blocks of time where each block is dedicated to accomplishing a specific task or group of tasks (called task batching) and ONLY those specific tasks I like to color-code my time blocks since I’m a visual learner.

06. Reminders and alarms

Setting up reminders and alarms on my calendar and phone to remind me it’s time to change tasks, go somewhere, meet someone, take my meds, take a break, hydrate, etc., are a lifesaver. Take that lunch break!

07. Affirmations

Utilize the power of affirmations. Remember, you’re doing the best you can and that’s more than good enough. Even if you’re in a situation that’s difficult, challenging, or just flat-out sucks, remember that you can grow, expand, and transform from those experiences. I know I have.

Finally, remember that there’s help available – and please utilize it because you deserve it. 

How do you cope with feeling overwhelmed?

Karina Hagelin is an artist, community organizer, and Outreach and Instruction Librarian and Diversity Fellow at Cornell University Library. You can find them tweeting about critical librarianship and cats under @karinahagelin or more about their work at KarinaKilljoy.com. They can be reached at karina.hagelin@cornell.edu.