You may have noticed by now that your local library has opened its doors. After months of not seeing your favorite librarians, browsing the shelves, going to storytime, or using the computers, the library has finally reopened to the public. However, these libraries are not reopening as if nothing had happened. You may have noticed stickers on the floor indicating where to wait in line to check out your books, an excessive amount of hand sanitizer, and everyone wearing a mask.
What you have not noticed is how the libraries have reopened. You haven’t been in those meetings that last hours with no real conclusions or answers. You haven’t seen new budget lines being made for PPE. You haven’t felt the unrested fear of every librarian the night before their first shift with the public. Reopening a library is so much more than curbside pick-up service and plexiglass barriers.
There is a joke in the library world (and in other disciplines), “other duties as assigned.” Every library job has this line at the end of a laundry list of assigned duties. It’s a catch-all line that all librarians know as “there’s way more in this job that we cannot add because we don’t exactly know what those duties are.” Typically “other duties as assigned” are covering in another department, unclogging a toilet, calling the police or EMT, managing the entire library because you are short-staffed, and well, “other duties as assigned.” I think you get the picture.
However, no librarian before February 2020 thought this vague line in their job description would include all of the unwritten tasks of reopening during a pandemic. Yes, this pandemic is still happening. Don’t let re-opening libraries, schools, and Disney World fool you! As a wise gay man once said on Netflix, “Just because you Ameri-Can, doesn’t mean you Ameri-Should.”
I have been glued to Facebook since the pandemic started to keep track of everyone’s health and most importantly their jobs. You may be one of the millions that were furloughed or completely lost their job. With businesses and libraries reopening, I hope you have been re-employed. I also hope that your library gives two shits about your health and safety.
The Library Think Tank on Facebook has exploded with concerned and worried librarians who are currently facing reopening libraries and adding to the laundry list of “other duties as assigned”. The most frustrating “other duty as assigned” that has come to light is the Loundoun County, Virginia libraries and Cumberland County, North Carolina libraries.
Lounduon County has decided to make their two libraries childcare centers for county employees. Yes, you read that right. The Loundoun County librarians will be adding “child care” to their resumes. One librarian reached out on Reddit and Ask A Manager seeking advice (and confirmation that they were not crazy). Spoiler Alert: they are not!
Now, before you think Loundoun County and Cumberland County are in the right to provide free child care to county employees who are no longer working remotely and supervise online learning. Let me explain to you how incredibly irresponsible that is first. Librarians are not babysitters. Not even childrens or teen librarians are babysitters.
Do you know why libraries always require children under a certain age to be with an adult at all times? Do you know why a librarian cannot help your child with homework? Because it is a liability that library is not responsible for. While there should be free childcare for parents going back into the office, it needs to be in an appropriate place with the appropriate people.
So, while other libraries across the U.S. are being yelled at by patron’s too stubborn to put on a mask, the Loudoun County and Cumberland County librarians are now overseeing unattended children with zero support.
Reopening College Campuses
Many colleges are reopening in New York this week and next. And every day my library friends share how these SUNY colleges are quickly closing their doors after their one positive case skyrockets to many. You’ve seen the big colleges like Notre Dame and North Carolina close their doors after only days of being open. And those colleges are in states that didn’t really shut down. Imagine how terrified New York students, faculty, and staff are in a state and college system that took the pandemic very seriously.
Public libraries are not the only ones to implement curbside pick-up in their list of services. Most academic libraries have gone completely online and included curbside pick-up too and more. In my library’s case, we have been following the REALM Project to learn more about how long the virus stays on library items frequently borrowed. We learned that the virus stays on books for about three days. So, what to do with this information? We have long meetings and deliberate, of course.
Our staff meetings quickly became a brainstorming session on “how do we quarantine library items?” and “how do we rearrange the library to the minimum six feet?”. This was our “other duties as assigned”. My colleagues and I went from Masters of Information Science to Masters of Quarantine and Social Distancing.
Reopening Academic Libraries
We toyed with our cataloging system to create a “quarantine” shelf for books and we grabbed extra book trucks (which there never are any) to create temporary barriers to limit the space of usage. We sat in endless meetings with facilities and other departments figuring out who cleans what surfaces, how often, and when the hell are we getting plexiglass? Did you know there is a plexiglass shortage? Well, you would if you sat in on one of these meetings.
The real issue public and academic libraries are facing is how to be an open space during a pandemic. Libraries are the only spaces people are not expected to pay for a service. We realize that patrons rely on libraries for free wifi, using computers, and browsing books. So, how do we reopen these services without risking our patron’s health and our own? We have no idea and when we think we do, that plan usually changes.
Stay Home and Keep Everyone Safe
So I ask you as library patrons, students, and faculty, to give your library and librarian’s space. Please remember that libraries and librarians are not babysitters nor should they be. If you want free childcare provided by your county, then demand appropriate childcare provided by appropriate people and services. Not only are your librarians not trained, they are not liable.
And for academic library users, please keep in mind, our reopening plans and policies are going to change on a week to week basis because we are still getting new information about the virus and pandemic every day. We are trying to continue as many library services as possible with minimal risk to us and to you.
So, I am asking you one more time as a librarian and library user. Please stay home. Use our online services and curbside pick-up. Be an advocate for appropriate library services. Always wear a mask and wash your hands. Just because we our opening our doors, does not mean the pandemic is over.