Here we are friends. Things are still weird, wrong, scary, annoying, infuriating, comforting, isolating, easy, difficult, slow-paced, and overwhelming. I’m sitting at the IKEA desk I hastily bought before Texas shut down all non-essential business in April. It’s positioned at a window that overlooks two dumpsters and a parking garage, but the light is good and I can close the door to the room while my partner homeschools our son in the morning. We trade off in the afternoon and again in the evening. He’s a good partner, but I still find myself being the preferred parent these days, a source of endless hugs and reassurances that remind me of what it was like to parent a toddler.
This is my week to write a post for ACRLog and I’ve been struggling to come up with ideas that I think are worth writing about. I solicited advice from the ACRLog blogging team and colleagues on Twitter. Suggestions were all good and helpful, and ranged from topics like what an instruction program would look like in the fall to staying motivated over a socially-distant summer to misinterpretations of vocational awe to discussions of imposter syndrome and the reopening of libraries. The problem is that I can’t bring myself to write about any of these topics well. The library world doesn’t need another Libraries + COVID-19 think piece, certainly not from someone like me, who is still employed, safely working from home with an immunocompromised partner who is able to do the same.
What works for me while I work from home won’t work for you. I work around homeschooling an 8 year old, our family’s various therapy appointments, dog-walking, exercise, grocery runs, and making food my son won’t think is “the grossest thing ever.” My work is easy. I’m not making decisions about furloughs or layoffs. I’m not having to don homemade PPE to reopen my library or gather books for faculty researchers. I get to create online instructional materials and work on interesting projects. I’m always worried, but my worries aren’t your worries. I worry about my partner getting sick and his compromised immune system not being able to fight off the infection. I worry about my ASD son being so socially isolated and not being able to practice valuable social interaction. I worry about my parents and in-laws. I worry about being a family whose income relies solely on the success of academia, and one academic institution in particular. I worry about the most vulnerable people in the world right now.
So what is there to write and share? I can share that things that get me through a day. They probably won’t be helpful to most people who read them, but maybe if we all share what gets us through a day (maybe not today, or yesterday, but a day that was a good day) there’s something there for each of us.
Here’s where I reach the part of writing where a little part of me gives up and I just start listing things, or, what my friend Jo and I call the “F**k it. Here’s a list.” portion of my post. We’re all here. Still. Some in better shape than others. Let’s support each other. Organize. Reach out. Offer help. We all need it.
You probably, to some degree, miss the physical space of your library right around now. It’s been about eight weeks since you’ve seen each other, after all. Whether it’s a dual-monitor setup in your office or that weird stain on the carpet that you swear looks like an alligator from the right angle, there’s got to be something you miss about your library space.
I think physical library spaces and their many uses are fascinating, so knowing that so many libraries across the country are sitting empty and dark right now makes me a little sad. (To clarify: we should definitely be closed for safety, but empty libraries are still a sad thing to imagine.) Not all library spaces are going completely unused, though, and some are being used in new and unforeseen ways.
In the more traditional vein, some libraries are offering curbside service, which means there must be a skeleton crew inside the space, experiencing that “empty libraries are eerie” feeling we’ve all had when we forgot our phone on our desk and had to go back in after closing.
Another well-known use of library space is being continued in Seattle. They recognize that books and computers are not the only things people want from libraries, and reopened enough of their spaces to allow unsheltered people to use another highly popular library resource: the restrooms.
This American Libraries article discusses several ways libraries – and library staff – are being repurposed, like turning a library into a day shelter (with adequate space to allow necessary physical distancing) or deploying library employees to help out at shelters and helplines.
While most of these examples involve public libraries, academic libraries are also participating in popular pandemic-time activities, like 3D printing PPE in their maker-spaces.
But the most active use of library space right now is one I’m getting to witness firsthand at our own library. When I completed the NLM’s Disaster Health Information Specialist program earlier this year, I learned that libraries often serve as the Incident Command Center for disasters, because they have comfortable space (heat/air, restrooms, electricity, seating), internet access and phones, and “breakout” spaces like study rooms or meeting rooms. Our library is now serving in this capacity, and it is fascinating to see how that works, up close and in real time.
If your library space is not very lively right now without you, and you miss your plants and desk tchotchkes, try thinking of the funny things about returning to work, whenever that will happen for you: what outdated displays will still be up? The weather will have changed pretty drastically; what jacket or scarf did you forget you left in your office in March? And, now might not be the best time to remember… but did you leave leftovers in the break room fridge?
Support from friends has helped me keep my chin up in the face of cabin fever and low-key panic, and I’ve been casting about for the same support at work. So I asked fellow ACRLoggers to share how things are going where they work:
What’s the situation at your institution, at the time of writing?
Maura Smale: At my institution, the library and campus has been closed since mid-March, and with our Governor’s stay at home order currently scheduled through at least May 15th, and summer courses fully online, it’s not clear when we’ll go back to the physical library. Once closures were announced, my colleagues and I were able to get computers with remote desktop access distributed to all full-time library faculty and staff who need them to work remotely. I’m grateful that our library IT team was able to quickly set up laptops from our classroom with everything needed to enable folks to work from home, which has allowed us to continue to support the college community and move forward on many of the projects we had in progress before the pandemic.
Jennifer Jarson: Currently, classes at all Penn State campuses are fully online and all library locations are physically closed and library faculty/staff have been working remotely since then. Much of our ongoing work has continued but with some adjustments. Like everyone, we’ve cancelled or postponed a number of programs and events, moved others online, and are working on new ideas about how to connect with our students and faculty in this new reality. University administration announced that all pre-tenure faculty will automatically have an extra year on the tenure clock (but can choose to stay on their original timeline if they wish). All librarians have faculty status at my institution and many are on the tenure track, so folks are evaluating the impact of the pandemic on their work and weighing their options.
Emily Hampton Haynes (That’s me): My community college campus has also been closed since mid-March, and my director worked hard to ensure that everyone on the library team would be able to work from home. We’ve been working out the kinks of Microsoft Teams meetings and entertaining different scenarios for how the summer and fall might look, based mostly on speculation and hope. I’ve seen a lot of photos of my coworkers’ pets!
What is your day-to-day look like on the job right now?
Jen: I’m trying to stick to regular work hours right now in an effort to maintain some boundaries and to keep work from taking over the whole day every day. I’m not caring for small children and thankfully no one in my household is ill right now, so I have the luxury of being able to set and manage only my own routine. My daily agenda, though, varies widely just as it always has. I’m the head of a small branch library in an enormous library system, so my job is part administrative, part teaching and learning/public services, and part whatever else needs doing. Of course, all this work is taking place from home. As part of a large organization distributed across the state, Zoom meetings and virtual work were already a regular part of my daily life so the transition to 100% remote work hasn’t felt as jarring for me as it likely has for others.
Emily: Like most academic libraries, we were about to launch into the busiest weeks of info lit instruction for the semester. Instead of spending the last month in the classroom, busy but vibrant, I’ve found myself with more unstructured time than I was expecting. Rather than live instruction, most faculty who had library visits scheduled chose to have us create tip sheets (which we make using LibGuides) and database demo videos. I hope these asynchronous teaching materials will be helpful to students, but I miss sharing the same space. I didn’t realize how much physical presence mattered to my teaching. As we consider a hybrid online/f2f fall semester, I want to find more ways to be personable, maybe with video-chat reference appointments or standing office hours.
How have you kept communication going with students, faculty, or other users?
Maura: Another major difference since the move to remote work has been the increase in communication between all of the library directors at my university. Our directors’ council typically meets monthly during the academic year, but in the rush to close the physical campuses we convened an ad hoc Zoom meeting on the Friday of that first week of closures. We’ve ended up keeping that time each week since for us to get together less formally, and it’s been useful to share information about common questions and concerns about our budgets, book orders, remote work for our part-time staff, and the status of the consortial library systems platform migration we’re in the midst of (!), among other topics. With COVID-19 so prevalent in New York City we’re all hearing about cases in our campus communities, too, and I’ve been grateful for the support we’re offering each other in this group.
Jen: Maintaining, or even growing, our relationships with our students, faculty, and staff feels just as important as ever, if not more so. We’ve done some general messaging to students via emails through our Student Affairs office and FAQs on our campus website, but connecting with students feels even more challenging as we don’t have much unmediated access to them right now. Faculty are our most direct route so we’ve tried to highlight to them the role they can play in helping students connect with us, particularly for research and reference consultations. We drafted a general message for students about how to get help and sent that out to faculty, hoping they might copy/paste it into an announcement in their courses on our LMS. We’re working on ways to shift some already scheduled student-centered programming/events online and also to create new online opportunities in collaboration with our Student Affairs colleagues. On a more general level, our campus advising department invited faculty/staff to help conduct wellness check phone calls to students in order to assess how they’re coping, connect them with campus resources and services, and generally offer support. Our library team is participating in this effort, as well.
What has surprised you most about library work during this crisis?
Maura: One thing that’s surprised me is the amount of (digital) paperwork required for us to all work remotely. The college required all workers — full-time and part-time — to complete a flexible work scheduling form that documents the work to be done while telecommuting, plus additional documentation to complete for those who took library laptops home with them. With 24 full-time and 27 part-time faculty and staff it took a few weeks for us to get the paperwork sorted. At work we all have the same basic computer setup, but at home we do not, and it’s been far more complicated than I expected to address the issues many of us have encountered in digitally signing PDFs requiring signatures from library workers as well as me (as library director).
Emily: I am reckoning with the diminished mental capacity I’ve had since I’ve started work from home. I’ve seen a few Twitter threads (like this one) that have been validating; underneath whatever we’re trying to make our brains do right now, we are going through collective trauma and processing a constant but invisible threat. I have research plans for this summer that I’m excited about, but I’m struggling to use this “newfound time” on them. This very post took me 2 weeks to write! I’m accustomed to being able to turn a product around quickly, be it teaching materials, a blog post, or an email, and am trying not to be disappointed in myself that tasks are taking me much longer than usual. Veronica’s post from a few weeks ago has been very encouraging to me. Her final sentence bears repeating: Our output may be messier, but it’s “the best work we can do during a global pandemic and that work is worth celebrating.”
I hope you are all able to stay safe and healthy. Share your frustrations or triumphs with us in the comments, this is a space where we can lean on each other.
Most academic library employees across the country have been working from home for the better part of two weeks now, and will be doing so for an unknown amount of time this spring (and summer?) due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
What about our part-timers and student workers? In my library, I have two dozen part-time employees whose assigned job is exclusively working at the service desk when the rest of the staff has gone home for the evening/weekend. This is not work that can be done from home, or when the physical space of the library is not in use: checking in/out items, providing basic computer assistance to users, counting the cash drawer, etc. So what can they do?
I (like so many others) have been trying to think of work we can offer to these employees so we can justify paying them for tasks they can do from home. I realize that many of our institutions are taking a hard look at their budgets right now, and paying your part-timers and student workers for as many hours as you could before might not be feasible (or might not continue to be for the duration). But if you give them meaningful work to do now, they will look less expendable on paper.
A few days ago, our university libraries put out a call for student workers to start a project where they document their experiences during the pandemic/quarantine, in whatever medium they choose (print, video, art, etc.) and we can pay them for their contributions to the special collection these products will go into. (Take a moment to imagine the exhibit these will go into in a couple decades, perhaps alongside personal writings from the Spanish flu pandemic and the yellow fever outbreak! One second while I add a calendar reminder to check on that in, say, 2040?)
Because of the aforementioned potential budget changes, we can only offer so many hours per week to the student employees participating in this project, but I’ve been constantly vigilant for opportunities for my part-timers to work from home. A few ideas I’ve run across are:
Contributing to new LibGuides of free online resources and COVID-19 resources
Assisting with responding to reference emails or participating in reference chat services
Plan displays/exhibits for when we return (book lists, graphic design, etc.)
Required or optional institutional training (compliance, cybersecurity, etc.)
Create a written guide on the tasks they normally perform, for future training purposes
Curate a list of the aforementioned trainings/readings for others to use
Weeding projects (based on booklists, not physical item’s condition, of course)
Manually extending interlibrary loan periods
Not all of these will work for us, but some are possibilities. Some would require getting access for them to systems they couldn’t normally access; most would require some degree of specialized training, and all would have to follow specific hours guidelines to ensure that we aren’t paying out more hours than we are budgeted for. If you’re worried about giving your employees something they aren’t prepared for, consider: you’ve heard about last-year medical and nursing students being called on to assist in the medical side of this crisis; surely your part-timers and student workers can be called upon to do more specialized tasks than they were doing before.
What tasks are you having your part-timers complete during this time, if any? What resources can you provide for them while they are essentially suspended from work? What other considerations do you have to incorporate (for example, do they need a VPN to get this work done, or can you provide laptops to them)?
The author, Micah Oelze, models his strategy by choosing a central hashtag for lectures and discussions, and teaches students to apply Instagram vocabulary, like hashtags and @ signs, as note-taking symbols in the margins of readings. He says, “By borrowing language from social media, longstanding critical reading strategies can be taught in a way that feels intuitive for students of the millenial and Z generations.” I like how he repurposes the @ sign (used on Instagram to tag other users) to relate another author’s ideas to the text at hand, which supports the “Scholarship as Conversation” frame.
Oelze says this social media language is second-nature to many students, which is why the metaphor is so successful.
“When educators point out the overarching principle and label it with #, something powerful happens. As an automatic reflex, students recognize this is no longer actual text, but rather a concept, one that is distinctively searchable and can be applied to any number of relevant cases.”
In the classroom, I’ve compared subject headings to hashtags, particularly the hyperlinked subject headings in many of our databases. But I like that this article takes it a step farther, having students organize and “curate” class topics by choosing the hashtags themselves. This is no different than creating metadata or assigning subject headings, but without the scholarly name for it.
In order to comprehend new information they’re reading, students must be able to make connections that are text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world. Forming connections between the reading and oneself is one of the easiest to teach, and there are excellent prompts to get students thinking about how a text might apply to the world. But I see students struggle to master synthesizing sources with other texts and their own arguments in papers. Using hashtags to track overarching concepts is one great way to practice this text-to-text connection.
A student’s research process, the way they organize information, is an important component to their success. I’m interested in the literal ways that they go about a school project: Do you use Google docs, or citation managers like Noodlebib? Do you write your draft on paper first? Do you outline, or highlight as you read? I’ve found that the students that have some type of research process, a routine they consistently follow for each project, are more prepared for assignments and able to build on their skills over time.
In the one-shot classroom, I encourage students to consider their research process. “How I organize my research might not be the best way for you to do it. But it’s important for you to discover the way that works best for you.” When students take ownership over their process, confidence and efficiency emerge.
If hashtagging your way through a scholarly article helps you connect the concepts, that’s great. A single metaphor won’t resonate with every student, so I’m always looking for new ways to describe this important part of college success. This article got me thinking, and I recommend checking it out!
Are there ways you communicate scholarly concepts to students so that they’re less intimidating? What are some metaphors you’ve used to translate academic jargon into relatable language?