Hi, hello, how is your pandemic quarantining life going? I know we are all baking and cooking and growing wee little spring onions and (in the case of me) baby romaine lettuces, taking physically distanced walks in our neighbourhoods when we can, building The Big Lasagna together (it was so delicious) and participating in Zoom cocktails with friends. But. But.
How are you actually doing?
Because honestly? I’m struggling.
And the thing is, I’m not struggling with the day-to-day. On that front, I am mostly ok. We are comfortable, we both have work, we all have food. I miss having Charles over, of course, Zoom family chats aren’t the same, but we are managing. We are, actually, in a very privileged position to be able to ride this out, and for that, I am extremely grateful. And if I don’t think too hard about it, if I don’t gaze too far into the future, it can feel like business as usual around here, it can feel almost normal. Even though everything is, of course, so far from normal.
But one of the things about me is that I often do think too hard about it, about everything. I can’t help it. And on the days that my brain just won’t stop thinking too hard, these are the days I struggle.
Because for me, the future seems incredibly bleak.
I’m specifically talking about the future of work as we know it and even more specifically the future of work as I know it in libraries where I have worked, it must be said though it pains me to admit, for over 25 years.
I’ve always worked in public services – you’ll always find me at the reference desk, answering questions, helping people find things, helping them make sense of subject headings and Boolean logic. In previous libraries where I worked, I had that role and others including teaching library skills to classes of students, teaching web searching classes in the community, and presenting at conferences. Always live, always in person, just the way I like it.
Currently, now that the library is closed not only to the public but to the staff too, we are doing what we can for our students and researchers and that means email reference, telephone reference, and the occasional Zoom reference call and it’s been fine, honestly. It works, and that’s the main thing. It’s not optimal but not much during pandemic times is.
This week my supervisor requested that we all start thinking about what reopening the library – the public services side of the library – would look like and as I read through the document and the different scenarios she had suggested, I couldn’t help but feel weighed down by the fact that once we reopen and for however long after that, public services could potentially be a mere shell of its former self. And that makes me really depressed.
Will we require plastic barriers to protect us from students and them from us, thereby limiting our personal interaction with them? Are we also going to limit the number of people in the library at any given time? If so, how? Should we disable the photocopiers and printers, since students always need so much assistance with them? What about the students who just need to talk? The ones who are struggling to find a safe space? Will we continue to only provide electronic reference services even when the library opens so that we can practise safe distancing from not only our students but among staff? What about the students who don’t have reliable internet or a computer? Will we ever be able to have staff retreats, lunches, and in-class learning sessions? Is the staff lounge off-limits now, the kettle, the microwave relics of the past?
And as I read through this list, a lot of the examples I used (perhaps with the exception of in-person information services) seem small and some of them seem like things that aren’t at the very core of what we do in the library – but that is my actual point. We ARE getting work done during this pandemic. We ARE helping students; we’re calling them or emailing them to take a look at their search to help them find their resources, all the things we usually do. But it’s the other stuff that makes what we do so, well, what we DO. And what we are.
I know a lot of us are rallying around the idea of mourning – mourning the things we aren’t able to do right now and that is so, so valid. We are mourning and grieving for the theatre tickets that we bought a year ago, the weddings and birthday parties that are cancelled or postponed; we are mourning the losses of extended family celebrations and the multiple plans we had and I’m definitely here for that, it’s so important. And perhaps mourning for a future that looks so much different is premature, but I can’t imagine how we go back to doing what we were doing before, all the while knowing what we know now, and having experienced this way of life for eight weeks and counting.
I’ve always been a bit of a pessimist (although I prefer the term ‘practical realist’) but I think about the changes that are going to have to be made and they aren’t small. They’re pretty significant and they will most definitely alter the face of my workplace and the way we function within it, perhaps the face and function libraries – all libraries – in general. And I am truly, truly not ready for that.