It’s The End Of The World as We Know It, and I’m Not Fine

This is a hard time of year even under better circumstances in Chicago. We are over winter, but winter isn’t over us. Spring is such a tease with a week of blue skies and sunshine, followed by one of sleet. These beautiful days give us a false sense of hope, leading to a harder betrayal when ice freezes to my windshield. During a more typical year, we are all in a poor mindset after having our hopes toyed with by the weather gods.

This is not a typical year, and we arrive into March already burned out and tired from the pandemic. Living in a constant state of fear has left the best of us shell shocked. Meanwhile the weather and the vaccine availability tease us that better days are ahead. Then reality comes crashing through the door–it isn’t really spring yet. and as of my writing we have 538,269 dead. How do you even begin to process a number like that? More vaccines are rolling out, but that doesn’t help if you can’t get an appointment.

Last semester, lots of the faculty made cold calls to students who had yet to enroll for spring 2021. I signed up to help, nervous, and expecting an earful. I was having flashbacks to my early days of fundraising when I was cursed at, told off, and once mistaken for a middle schooler. (Being mistaken for a 12-year-old when I had a master’s hurt far more than being called names.) The student reactions surprised me: they were happy to talk. They thanked me for calling. Most had good reasons for waiting to register and they had questions. And as a group…they were not okay.

I think these calls were part of the inspiration for my monthly student blog. Students needed a space where it was okay to not be okay, and they needed practical advice on college as a concept. The bulk of Prairie State College students are first generation, meaning that they don’t have a parent they can ask about the day-to-day of being a student. Everyone they could ask is connected to the school, and that could be uncomfortable if they already don’t feel like they belong. I wanted the blog to be a space where they were welcome to come as they are.

With the framing that it is okay not to be okay, I have created this month’s blog space for our students to write and reflect on their semester so far. I recognize that I’m writing about writing for the sake of writing. Cheap? Meta? You decide. My hope, though, is that this can help our students work through their feelings, their schoolwork, or whatever they need. I wanted it to be open ended so they could use it best. 

My hope is that writing can help us to be okay not being okay. I want us to be able to find hope in the writing itself, but if all it does is pass the time until the world opens up just a little more, then that’s still a win. After all, spring is here, and we don’t have to be alright. 

Preparing for (Other Kinds of) Disasters

This guest post is from Garrison Libby, a community college librarian.

When COVID-19 swept the world last year, librarians were forced to adapt their services on the fly. Over the past year, we’ve probably all become very good at disaster planning. However, it’s worth thinking about the disasters that you haven’t planned for, and to begin making preparations for them now.

My institution recently suffered a major technology interruption which led to an extended shutdown of nearly of the college’s online systems: email, online courses, library proxy servers, and nearly everything we need to function, especially during a pandemic. Of course, an outage of that scale paused classes, so access to library resources was the last thing on anyone’s mind. However, it still prompted us to have to consider alternatives as we waited to see what systems would come back online and in what order. There was no guarantee that we would have access to our proxy server when classes resumed, for example, as systems had to return online one by one.

Consider constructing a technology audit as part of your disaster and continuity planning. Review the technology you use, how it’s used, and evaluate potential impacts if you lose access to that technology for an extended period of time. Here are some potential questions to ask yourselves when conducting the audit and developing a technology continuity plan:

  • Do you have alternate contact methods (phone numbers, personal email addresses) for all your staff members? Does anyone maintain this information, and where is it stored?
    • It’s a good idea for managers to have contact information for their staff.
    • Consider maintaining a centralized contact list as well, but ensure that it is kept up to date and accessible.
    • Remember that this is personal information for staff, so do not use their personal contact information except in event of emergency.
  • In a technology outage, how will you communicate updates to your staff?
    • A single text chain with all staff could be unwieldy for libraries with many employees. Communication can be distributed from managers to direct reports, but ensure a clear and consistent message from the top so that staff aren’t getting different or conflicting messages.
  • What technology is locally hosted, and what technology is hosted elsewhere?
    • Inventory your technology and plan for potential outages. We are fortunate that our Springshare LibApps suite was hosted by Springshare, meaning we still had access to LibGuides, LibAnswers, and also LibChat as an emergency staff chat space if necessary.
    • Many of our systems were authenticated using the college login, making them inaccessible during the outage. Can alternative logins be set up? We had both institutional logins and system-specific logins for Springshare, ensuring continued access. The College Google Drive, however, was tied to institutional logins and became inaccessible.
  • What can be done low- or no-tech?
    • Review and update manual check-out procedures for library materials.
    • Can you do reference without access to the library catalog? Do your staff know where popular subject areas are located in the stacks?
  • What alternatives are available for your technology?
    • If your proxy servers go down, can patrons access electronic resources? We are fortunate to be part of a state library consortium, which provided an alternative login that our students could use to access several key databases so that basic research needs could be met.
    • Many libraries are firmly embedded in the Springshare ecosystem. In the event that there is an outage in those systems, do you have alternative options, or can you quickly create emergency alternatives?
    • Are your systems regularly backed up so that they can be restored in the event of data loss?
  • What continuity planning has your institution done?
    • Consult with your IT department and college administration to review their own technology continuity plan. Ensure that your plan aligns with theirs.
    • If your institution does not have a technology continuity plan, encourage them to adopt one.

Just asking these questions alone is not enough. Continuity planning also requires building a robust plan and then ensuring it is reviewed regularly and kept current. A plan you make today may not help if you need it in 5 years and have not adjusted for our constantly changing technology.

The second step is to ensure that the technology continuity plan is also backed up and accessible multiple ways. Consider the 3-2-1 backup plan: Have 3 backups of the plan and key documents available, two of which are stored locally on different mediums (i.e., one on hard drive, one on USB key), and one of which is available via the cloud (Google Drive, college storage, Dropbox, or other options). You will also want multiple staff members to have access to the plan, so that someone will be able to get it. But because such a plan should also have contact information for staff, be sure to keep it secure.

Ideally, a continuity plan is something that you will never actually have to use. However, when an emergency happens, it is good to have the plans ready so that you can shift gears and keep services running as smoothly as possible. Whether it’s a pandemic or a technology outage, you can take actions now to be ready. Because if nothing else, the last year has taught all of us to expect the unexpected and to be prepared for anything.

Strategies for Collaboration

While completing my master’s program, I was surprised by how frequently team projects were assigned. Collaboration was one of the most commonly used words at my institution, to the point that the manager for my graduate assistant position would excitedly (and sometimes sarcastically) refer to collaborative projects as “collabos.” It wasn’t until my final semester that I had an instructor, who explained her reasoning for assigning multiple group projects in a single course: as a librarian, she said, you will constantly be working with other people, and you need to make sure that you are prepared for that.

While, on a certain level I understood that I wouldn’t be working alone, I did not truly comprehend the degree to which this would be true. As a first year librarian at a small private college, I have spent my  time working closely with each and every librarian on a variety of projects. I also work closely with teaching faculty across my liaison areas, faculty and staff in Information Technology Services, university administrators, faculty, and staff on committees, graduate and undergraduate students, and other librarians outside of the university.

I am still learning and adapting with each new partnership and project, but I would like to share a few strategies that I have developed when collaborating with my colleagues.

Establishing Working Norms

A colleague from another institution introduced me to the concept of establishing working norms before embarking on a collaborative project. We took about half an hour, opened a google doc together, and had an open and honest conversation about our strategies and tendencies for project management. In this conversation we explored the best pathways for our future communication, the flexibility of our timeframes/deadlines, the best ways to schedule our meetings, our tendencies to work ahead or last minute, and our ability/willingness to work outside of traditional work hours. This conversation was somewhat challenging for me, because I frankly had never verbalized some of these norms. As we discussed, we recorded our preferences for future reference. Establishing these working norms has been extremely helpful over the course of our project. 

Simplifying Scheduling

Finding a time to meet with a group of people who have varying schedules can be a nightmare. There are a number of ways to simplify scheduling, and I have found it helpful to establish what is best for all parties, as early on in the collaborative effort as possible. If you are working within an institution and everyone keeps an up-to-date calendar on a shared platform like Outlook or Google, it is much easier to schedule. When this is not an option, I rely heavily on websites like Doodle or When Is Good. None of these are perfect and the main drawback that I have encountered is that they all require team members to take time out of their busy schedules to record their availability. My least favorite, but sometimes the most effective, approach for quickly getting everyone’s input is through an email or text chain–or just good old fashion conversation. Then the problem becomes compiling that data and figuring out the best option.

Communication Methods

Similar to scheduling, people have a variety of preferences for communication. If you are working within an institution that has an official method for communication that is great, but it is still best to check and make sure that the institutional method works for the team members. While the official method for communication at my institution is email, and I prefer to use email, it is not best for everyone nor for every task. A quick conversation with team members to decide on primary and secondary forms of communication can go a long way in helping to select from the plethora of communication platforms we have available.

Flexibility

Finally, I have found it important to establish personal boundaries on flexibility. In what circumstances am I willing to be flexible on communication methods? When will I adjust my availability for meetings? When, if ever, is it okay to work during lunch or even after regular work hours? By establishing these boundaries for myself and holding to them, I am able to preserve my mental health and energy so that when it is time to work and collaborate I am able to be fully present and contribute.

A Student (Doesn’t) Walk into a Library During a Pandemic

I’ve restarted the library’s blog to create a space just for students. The idea was to help them navigate the college experience through the lens of the library. Naturally we feature heavily in the messaging. I already have a newsletter for faculty, which they seem? to read, but we didn’t have anything for students. The blog already existed, but hadn’t been used in a while. I’m not convinced this is the best platform, but will keep it until I come up with something better. In the meantime, it doesn’t matter how good the content is if the students don’t know it is there.

This brings me to my main challenge…
We continue to struggle to communicate with students as a library. I understand that this was a challenge in the past, but not at this scale. Our library and entire campus is remote. We aren’t even lending books this semester to keep all of us safe. The library is fully virtual, and I have enjoyed communicating this with my fellow faculty members, but getting the message to students has been an uphill battle.

Foot traffic to the library in “the before times” wasn’t an issue and I have heard that it could get downright crowded. This meant simpler forms of communication worked well- word of mouth, a chalkboard, flyers, and bulletin boards. A candy jar with small advertisements attached and bookmarks both worked well in previous positions. None of these methods work right now.

Our students don’t read their emails. Well…I guess I don’t know if that is based on data, or something we anecdotally suspect. I will continue to email them from time to time to cover all of my bases. Email may be the easiest, but I don’t think it is the most effective means of communication for them.

We do know that students aren’t liking our social media posts, but fellow faculty and staff members have. That’s not a problem exactly, but it does mean that we should use Facebook to communicate with our colleagues, not students. About a year ago we started an Instagram account, which has been fun for me as a new user (I learned long ago to cut myself off from more social media, but that’s a different discussion entirely), but we get the most responses from other libraries. Again, this isn’t a problem exactly, but we should use Instagram for that purposes and not assume that our messages will reach students. Twitter is the same way. I’m hesitant to open a TikTok account since as someone approaching middle age, the more I try to be cool, the more I resemble this. I also have privacy concerns about making videos in my own home.

Prairie State College uses D2L as our learning management system for remote classes. Since I am the liaison librarian for a few classes, I can see that students are active and engaged in that space. We have a link to the library and at our request, instructors can put our content there too. I think there is some potential, but the library isn’t a “class” that students have to access via a course shell to participate. It might take some creative thinking to see how we can easily deliver library messages that way.

I’ve also been meeting with departments one by one to share with them what the library can do for them and their students right now. They are always gracious and seem to welcome our services into their virtual classrooms. It is a roundabout way, but one I think has some potential to communicate with students.

I think that there won’t be one way that we better communicate with students right now. It will be several and I need to find the best combination of reaching out via their professors, over D2L, on our own website, via student leaders, and potentially over different (new) forms of social media. This isn’t a problem that I have to solve today or even all at once, but it is something that we can measure and track, which will give us immediate feedback about what works, and what doesn’t.

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.