How are you doing? (part 2)

Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

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.)

Emily:

  • 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. 

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.