Working Like Normal?

Nelly Antoniadou on Unsplash

Man, am I struggling. 

It’s felt like a day of mistakes, exacerbated by the fact that I haven’t seen my boss or colleagues in person for weeks. I’m isolated, and suffering from a lack of structure and routine. Deadlines are sneaking up on me and I’m remembering meetings at the last second, tying up my hair in an attempt at professionalism while frantically opening Teams. This isn’t me. I’m normally very organized and an efficient worker. 

But what is normal? What should we be expecting of ourselves, of each other, as this miserable pandemic rounds its first anniversary? The chorus last March was “Have grace for yourselves and each other, this is a traumatic event and no one should be expected to carry on as normal.” And yet, students have research papers, so we have reference questions. Committees continue to meet, timesheets continue to be due. Liaisons gotta liaise. 

It reminds me of grief. Some workplaces grant bereavement leave, usually around 3 days to deal with funerals and other logistics. And then what? You’re back at work on Monday, and even if your coworkers give you some leeway for your emotional recovery, you’ve still got emails waiting for you. 

When you’re the grieving person, it seems so inappropriate to be carrying on as normal. After a great loss, you walk around in a fog and it’s hard to believe that the people around you are having great days. You feel like screaming, “My person is gone. How can I be expected to bag my groceries, let alone present at a faculty meeting?”

Even if you haven’t lost loved ones to Covid, we’ve all suffered great losses this year. Financial, emotional, social, professional. And our society (I’m inclined to blame capitalism, personally) leaves no room to stop and grieve these losses. As if 10 months of constant, universal loss is something we can get used to.

I can get used to the feeling of a mask on my face, to the sensation of teaching to a webcam. But I will not get used to the daily loss of thousands of citizens, nor will I become numb to frightening attacks on our democracy, like at the beginning of this month. Resilience may get us through this catastrophe, but who will we be after?

I don’t know about you all, but I still need grace. And I will be continuing to dispense it to my students and colleagues this year; no matter how long it’s been, this is not our new normal, and our hearts know it. This post has more questions than answers, but it’s my attempt to hold space for loss, even as a new semester swirls around us.

Similarities and Differences

I’ve spent all semester struggling with writer’s block here at ACRLog, feeling a lack of both focus and ideas. Which is not at all surprising (or unique to me) given the many crises unfolding simultaneously in the U.S. and the world right now. I think what I keep getting stuck on is the desire to write something useful, a piece with practical suggestions and ideas for how to make our experiences in our libraries and institutions this semester just a little bit better and easier, for us and our patrons. I sometimes feel like I should be writing more here about library leadership, shining light on my day to day tasks as a library director. But there have been so many terrific articles and blog posts and twitter threads about managing with compassion during this time of remote work and multiple crises. What could I possibly have to add to the conversation, surely everything has already been said?

At my college and university our physical libraries are still closed, and my colleagues and I are all working remotely. It strikes me that while so much of what I do in my day to day is different with our continuing remote work — from spending hours figuring out how to share and sign PDFs across each of my and my colleagues’ different home computer setups, to trying to figure out at least semi-reasonable lighting for my many zoom meetings — lots of what I do is the same as in the beforetimes. I still meet monthly with each library faculty and staff member I supervise, to catch up on their projects and see if there’s anything they need (and brief meetings are still okay). We still have a meeting for all library faculty and staff, and I still share as much information as I can about the budget, campus planning, and the promotion and tenure process. My tenure-track and promotion-seeking colleagues and I still try to hold coworking space for a few hours each month to support each other as we make some progress on our research, writing, and scholarly reading.

There are differences, though what’s feeling most different right now are mostly the details. I send a very brief update email to my colleagues each morning to let us all know if anyone’s scheduled out and to share other information when I have it. We’re now having our all library meeting every other week rather than once a month, just to make sure we all have a chance to share anything that’s coming up in our day to day (and if those meetings are brief that’s fine). Zoom fatigue is real, so it’s not ever a requirement for my colleagues to turn on cameras or to be participating in meetings on a computer — calling in is just fine, listening is just fine. I will admit that one detail I didn’t consider at the beginning of the semester when scheduling meetings is what it would feel like to me to have multiple back-to-back zooms. That is not a mistake I will make again next semester, for sure.

I appreciate all of our work in the library to support our patrons while remote. But it’s still hard, even 8+ months in. The college and university where I work decided several weeks ago that next semester will again be held overwhelmingly online, and like most of the other campuses our library will not be open to patrons next semester, nor will library faculty and staff be required to work onsite. I’m so grateful that we’ll be able to work safely off-campus next semester, though I miss working in person with everyone, so much.

I’m not sure that I’m leaving us with anything useful at the end of this post, despite my intentions. It’s easy for me to focus on the differences, the difficult differences in the ways we are all having to work together now. Though in writing this I’m reminded of how much is the same in our work, a reminder that’s helpful to me, and perhaps to you, too.

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.