#closethelibraries

(The following essay was submitted as a final paper for my LIS 542: Library Preservation, Security and Risk Management course.)


Librarians and libraries are held to extremely high standards by patrons and staff who know their true and immense value. While libraries are often misunderstood and overlooked by those who choose to eschew them, every day libraries prove their worth as essential cornerstones of society. Many libraries have further surprised their communities and surpassed the expectations of even their most steadfast supporters by becoming tenacious strongholds during times of turmoil. While I wholeheartedly believe that libraries should do as much as they can for their communities in hard times, it has taken a pandemic for me to fully realize that we, too, have a limit. Libraries are sanctuaries for everyone in good times and bad, but there are times when staying open to the public is a health risk that can do more harm than good. It is therefore vital for both library staff and users that the right decisions are made when the risk is too high to remain open. During times of crisis, libraries must carefully determine what services can be provided while first and foremost protecting the mental and physical safety of their staff and patrons.

I decided to pursue a career in libraries around a decade ago, drawn to this profession because of my intense love of books and learning. It was not long after that I became familiar with specialized terms and movements like radical librarianship and “never-neutral”. I was inspired to fully realize that libraries are a vital community resource integral to fostering an informed and democratic society. Contrastingly, I also found myself becoming enraged time and time again when oblivious folk who clearly hadn’t stepped foot in a public library in years would make sweeping assumptions about what we do in libraries today. These (usually wealthy and privileged) people hand out ridiculous suggestions such as that Amazon should open local bookstores to “replace local libraries and save taxpayers lots of money, while enhancing the value of their stock” (Mourdoukotas, 2018). These sorts of offhand, dismissive remarks reveal the ignorance of the speaker, who seems to think a library is simply a building filled with books. Such notions fly in the face of what I’ve come to know about libraries: libraries are dedicated sanctuaries for action toward knowledge sharing, and library staff are stewards for their communities, working toward a common good. As Lankes puts it, “I have long contended that a room full of books is simply a closet but that an empty room with a librarian in it is a library… action is at the heart of what a library is” (2016).

Many anecdotes of library staff going above-and-beyond have made me feel proud of our profession and assured of the transformative power of libraries in their communities. The first time my eyes were opened in such a way was during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. After the devastation that Katrina wrought, many libraries that were able to stay open provided essential services for people in need, such as providing accurate information, assisting with forms, listening and supporting, volunteering, and donating (Wilson, 2010). Years later, at the Alberta Library Conference in 2018, I had the privilege of hearing firsthand from Scott Bonner, director of Ferguson Municipal Library, how his library responded during civil unrest after the shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. When schools were closed, businesses were boarded up, and the streets were clashing with militarized police and protestors, he made a judgement call: “It didn’t matter how bad it got that night, if it’s safe, then I will open the library and have a school for peace” (Bonner, 2016). His inspiring account of working with teachers and students during a dark time in Ferguson’s history further cemented in my mind the potential for librarians to really step up when things get dicey.            

However, I also discovered that librarians sometimes feel compelled to martyr themselves due to the deep values they feel subject to in their profession. This phenomenon, coined by Fobazi Ettarh as “vocational awe”, has real-life impacts on library staff:

In the face of grand missions of literacy and freedom, advocating for your full lunch break feels petty. And tasked with the responsibility of sustaining democracy and intellectual freedom, taking a mental health day feels shameful. Awe is easily weaponized against the worker, allowing anyone to deploy a vocational purity test in which the worker can be accused of not being devout or passionate enough to serve without complaint (2018).

Ettarh goes on to explain how the professional norms supported by vocational awe create class-barriers that restrict diversity in the profession while contributing to job-creep, under compensation, and burnout.

While these professional mores of vocational awe may be present during day-to-day library work, during a crisis they are doubly so. I remember working at my public library in Fort McMurray on May 3rd, 2016: it started out like any other day but quickly escalated into quiet panic as wildfire became visible out the library windows. Even as every one of our staff and patrons were distracted by the wall of flame and smoke visible across the river, and evacuation orders were being called for parts of our municipality, one well-meaning staff member wondered aloud if we should stay open as long as possible as a matter of duty to the community. Thankfully, management made a judgement call to close the library several hours before a city-wide evacuation was called, giving staff and patrons time to get where they needed to be and do what they could to prepare as best as possible before leaving their community for at least a month of sudden, mandatory evacuation. “Abandoning ship” is hard to do, but sometimes it really is the best decision for all.

Right now the world is in the midst of a serious global pandemic, and it has become clear that we must devote ourselves to “flattening the curve” to slow down the spread of the virus (Allain, 2020). As such, the best thing libraries can do right now for the health of patrons and staff is to close their doors for the time being:

Libraries have a chance to be community leaders right now by demonstrating appropriate behavior – staying home. The best way we can help our communities and ourselves is to encourage everyone to stay home. Everyone should act as if they are infected and work to reduce exposing others to infection. (Newman, 2020).

The vastly differing responses of libraries to the global covid-19 pandemic has become a fascinating and sobering example of public health risk vs. vocational awe in action. The hashtag #closethelibraries has accompanied countless pleas for governments and administrations of various levels to listen to the concerns of frontline workers who put themselves and their patrons at risk by working with items and spaces that come into contact with many people each day:

The decision by many city and county officials to keep libraries open during the start of the pandemic entailed particular risks to public library staff and patrons. The very ideals that public library professionals take pride in– welcoming service to all, the more the merrier- is exactly what exacerbates danger during an infectious disease crisis. Closure of schools and enjoinders to “work from home” during the pandemic meant more people displaced from other institutions would flock to public libraries that remained open, compounding the risk (LaPierre, 2020).

Some libraries have been doing a “soft close”, requiring staff to come in to work and offer services such as curbside pickup of items. However, current research suggests that covid-19 carriers may not show symptoms, and that the virus can be transferred on surfaces, such as books, keyboards, or DVD cases (Doremalen, Fauci, & Vaduganathan, 2020). The CDC revealed that covid-19 was found to be active on cruise ships for up to 17 days after they were evacuated (Moriarty et al, 2020).  Even if staff were to follow safety protocols perfectly, “There is no feasible way to sanitize library books, many libraries are running low on cleaning supplies, and personal protective equipment (PPE) should be spared for the use of medical professionals, immunocompromised individuals, nursing homes, and the like” (closethelibraries.org, 2020). Yet, as of April 7th, many libraries are still open to varying extents, even after library staff working such shifts have begun to develop “coronavirus-like symptoms” (Ross, 2020).

Which risks outweigh the others? If we close a library, we risk potentially upsetting some people, blocking access to some services and collections temporarily, cancelling anticipated events, and so on. Yet, if we don’t close a library, or even if we do a “soft close”, we risk infecting our staff and patrons, accelerating the escalation of a global pandemic, increasing the strain on limited hospital resources, and possibly even contributing to a chain of events that could cause loss of life. I know which risks I’m willing, and not willing, to take.

Thankfully, making a responsible decision to close a library during a global health pandemic or similar crisis need not be a cry of helplessness or defeat. On the contrary, we can use these situations to champion some of the excellent online resources and services that we provide, highlighting our flexibility and multifaceted strengths: “Libraries are essential. Now is our time to show how innovative and creative we can be from home” (Newman, 2020).  At the same time, we must also realize that it’s normal for everyone, including library staff, to be less productive during such anxious, stressful times:

For those with the privilege and ability to conduct their work from home, the coming weeks should be a time to focus on ourselves, our communities, and our loved ones. It should be a time to do nothing and produce little without the accompanying feeling of guilt or panic caused by a ping from a higher-up that you should be doing more as the rest of your world slowly cranks to a halt (Martin, 2020).

As one widely-shared text meme puts it more succinctly, “It’s okay to not be at your most productive during a [expletive] global pandemic (2020)”. Staff and patrons alike will face barriers to collection access, resources, and services, but a serious global pandemic is not “business as usual” and we shouldn’t pretend it is. Lives depend on this discretion.

To conclude, library workers must not succumb to the fallacy of elevating our profession toward saintly, self-sacrificing ends. Vocational awe would have us believe that closing the libraries, in any circumstance, shows weakness, misplaced priorities, and a lack of dedication to our profession — these sentiments are false. In closing our libraries during a global health pandemic, we are protecting the mental and physical health of our workers and library users, without which no library can thrive.  We can use these unprecedented times of physical isolation to promote the variety of online resources, databases, and services we provide, taking comfort in knowing that we will welcome our community back to enjoy our full range of services and programming with open arms as soon as it is safe to do so.

References

Allain, R. (2020, March 24). The Promising Math Behind ‘Flattening the Curve’. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/the-promising-math-behind-flattening-the-curve/

Bonner, S. (2016). Ferguson Voices: Scott Bonner. Retrieved from https://www.fergusonvoices.org/voices/scott-bonner#more-info

closethelibraries.org. (2020). Letter to State Librarians. Retrieved from https://docs.google.com/document/d/1WlSG2eyxJXUDI1sgvIPPgq4otAdWCQoKwCmVxhRA2Hk/edit?pli=1

Doremalen, N. van, Fauci, A. S., & Vaduganathan, M. (2020, March 17). Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1: NEJM. Retrieved from https://www.nejm.org/doi/10.1056/NEJMc2004973

Ettarh, F. (2018). Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves. Retrieved from http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2018/vocational-awe/

It’s Okay to Not… [Digital Image]. 2020. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/vicky_ig/status/1243608158163042309/photo/1

Lankes, R. D. (2016). The new librarianship field guide. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

LaPierre, S. (2020). Resisting “Vocational Awe” During the Pandemic. Retrieved from http://publiclibrariesonline.org/2020/03/resisting-vocational-awe-during-the-pandemic/

Martin, N. (2020). Against Productivity in a Pandemic. Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/156929/work-home-productivity-coronavirus-pandemic

Moriarty LF, Plucinski MM, Marston BJ, et al. (2020) Public Health Responses to COVID-19 Outbreaks on Cruise Ships. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:347-352. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6912e3

Mourdoukoutas, P. (2018). Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/yalsa/sites/ala.org.yalsa/files/content/AmazonShouldReplaceLocalLibrariestoSaveTaxpayersMoney.pdf

Newman, B. (2020, March 27). Why Curbside Pick Up at Your Library Isn’t Safe. Retrieved from https://librarianbyday.net/2020/03/26/why-curbside-pick-up-at-your-library-isnt-safe/

Ross, N. (2020, April 6). Coronavirus: Flagler County library main branch resumes curbside services. Retrieved from https://www.news-journalonline.com/news/20200406/coronavirus-flagler-county-library-main-branch-resumes-curbside-services?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=Social&utm_campaign=ghf-daytona-main

Wilson, V. (2010). Public Libraries Can Play an Important Role in the Aftermath of a Natural Disaster. A Review of: Welsh, T. S. & Higgins, S. E. (2009). Public libraries post-Hurricane Katrina: A pilot study. Library Review, 58(9), 652-659. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice3, 59.

Do video games have a place in libraries? (Yup!)

Yesterday I came across this article about Hamilton Public Library, which is currently about to review their policy on video game lending. A board member brought up the question- should the library be in the business of lending video games? 

Every library is different, as a library should support the community it serves, and every community has its own needs and wants. As such, asking whether a library should be lending video games is a valid question, and comes down to does the community want video games?


 

I am not familiar with the specific demographics of Hamilton, but video games have become a huge part of mainstream culture, and I imagine that HPL’s patron base would reflect that. A quick look at the public library’s mission statement and values  shows that video games could indeed fit well with HPL’s mandate:

Freedom to discover (would your patrons enjoy discovering video games? Remember, video games can potentially be enjoyed by all ages)

Providing access to all expressions of knowledge and creativity (video games are definitely an expressive and creative format for immersive storytelling, and many games provide creative modes for designing and sharing)

Connecting with diverse communities (this includes patrons who are interested in video games- at my public library the video games attract patrons  to the library who otherwise may not frequent our doors)

Anticipating and responding to changing needs. (Are video games in demand/ high circ at Hamilton PL? What societal trends might show an increase in interest for video games in your community?)

Embracing a diversity of opinions and protecting the dignity of individuals. (Are video games important to some of  your patron base? In questioning the importance/validity of video games as a format, are you acting on a biased or preconceived notion of what video games are and can be?)

Ensuring that library services are vital and relevant. (Video games may not be relevant to all of your patrons, but certainly could be very important and valued resources for some of them)


 

My public library began lending video games a few years ago, and they have become one of our most circulated collections, with lots of checkouts and holds on new titles as soon as they become available.

I’m a library worker of nearly 8 years, current MLIS student, and geek who enjoys video games. I have a few more thoughts on video games and why they could definitely be an excellent part of a library’s collection:

  • Many libraries, especially public libraries, have a mission of providing entertainment as well as information. Video games are a format, not a genre, and they can provide entertainment, interaction, creativity (and yes, even information and education) to users.
  • Video games are misunderstood by many people. Some see video games as either mindless fluff or bloody violence and nothing in between. However, video games are a format for expression just as books and movies are. 
  • Teens love video games- teens are often a difficult demographic to attract to the library. Including video games in your collection, as well as gaming related programs and services, is a great way to ensure your library is relevant to this demographic.

 

More To Explore

http://www.beyondliteracy.com/gaming-as-a-literacy/

http://games.ala.org/games-in-libraries/

http://gaming.ala.org/resources/index.php?title=Games_and_Gaming_Resources

https://www.theguardian.com/games/2018/aug/13/video-games-are-political-heres-how-they-can-be-progressive

https://nowtoronto.com/lifestyle/class-action/are-video-games-literature/

http://www.techsoupforlibraries.org/planning-for-success/innovation/gaming-in-libraries

http://www.videogamelibrarian.com/

https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/blog/words-thought/video-games-developing-new-narrative-randy-joly

 

What makes an awesome librarian?

I wrote this personal essay for the final assignment of my LIS 501 class (Foundation of Library and Information Science). My professor based the assignment on the This I Believe essay project, and the intent is to explore what we currently believe about libraries and librarianship.

I’ve just completed the first semester of my Master of Library and Information Science. While I’m continually learning and changing, this is what I currently believe makes an awesome librarian.


 

When I first transferred from my bookstore job to the public library about eight years ago, I thought I was staying in the book business. I believed that my love of books and knowledge of their contents would be my greatest asset at the library. However, these were false assumptions of mine, based on a simplified, inaccurate, and outdated view of what libraries are. Libraries, I soon learned, are dedicated to far more than books. Libraries are not in the book business — they are vessels that professionals use to support and empower their communities, and books are but one powerful and conspicuous piece of that large and complex puzzle. Each library serves a unique community, and so each comes together a bit differently. Some libraries are small and specialized, full of niche items and specialized services, while others are colossal structures that serve masses of the public each day, offering broad services, programming, entertainment, diverse book and media collections, and access to technology. Some libraries offer quiet study spaces, while others are noisy and animated places full of collaboration and activity. Libraries can be all of these things and more, and everything in-between.

When the designs and missions of libraries vary so greatly, it’s understandable to question what makes a library a library, and more importantly what makes a library an awesome library. However, behind every awesome library is an awesome librarian (or librarians). The real question is, what makes an awesome librarian? While our title is often romanticized and praised amongst ourselves and our supporters, our profession is not immune to complacency and shallow thinking. We cannot ever rest on our laurels and must constantly and actively embody what we want to see in our profession. While I will proudly call myself a librarian, I don’t only want to be a librarian — I want to be a critical librarian. I believe that critical librarians are professionals who work passionately every day with and for their communities, providing indispensable services that support intellectual freedom, social justice, and critical information literacy.

To be a librarian is to be a professional. I reject the idea that the cookie-cutter version of a professional (a smartly dressed person with a polished look and businesslike manner) is the only model of professionalism; to me a professional is an individual who is authentic and dedicated to their profession. Librarians are trusted sources of information and resources because they have proven their dedication to their communities. Librarians may have a degree, diploma, or other accolades to acknowledge steps they have taken to learn and build library knowledge, skills, and values, but the most essential marker of an awesome librarian is what they do with their library and their community. As an educated professional, I acknowledge that I have privilege, power, and social responsibility that comes with my knowledge and position. I strive to be an approachable, ethical, and helpful steward of my community. I will dedicate myself to lifelong learning and continual skill-building that will support me in critical librarianship. I will think like a librarian, and that involves checking facts, citing sources, respecting privacy, fighting censorship, and being literate in the various forms of literacy.

Critical librarians have passion for what they do. Not only are they excited by the privilege to work alongside and for their communities, they are also forward-thinking, embracing with open arms all of the possibilities that might come with purposeful change and adaptation. In my goal of becoming a critical librarian, I will immerse myself in my curiosity. I will be always listening, searching, conversing, and learning. I will not be deterred by “that wouldn’t work here” or “well, we’ve always done it this way”- critical librarians know that the best way is the way that works best for all, whether that’s an old trick or a radical new idea. I am not perfect, but I must not be afraid of failure or embarrassment- rather, I will harness my passion and use it carefully, proactively, and concentratedly toward my goal of innovating and improving to better meet the needs of my community. When I take the time to truly listen to and wholly understand the needs of my community, I will ultimately support and empower my community by providing life-changing services inside and outside of my library.

Librarians are indispensable because they provide immense value and support to their communities, facilitating their communities in a wide variety of pursuits, problem solving, learning goals, life-enriching endeavors, and serendipitous discoveries. As a librarian I will constantly strive to provide these services in an inclusive and accessible environment that forms a sanctuary for everyone in my community. As a critical librarian, I will teach and empower my library members to be critical consumers of information themselves. I will not chase an illusion of neutrality, but I will think critically as I work for social good, supporting equity, democracy, social justice, and human rights. I will fight censorship, oppression, and marginalization through the services, resources, programs, and outreach I provide. I will empower my library members and support them in using their voices and being heard. I live in a time when so many people, especially marginalized communities, are relying on libraries, and librarians are providing more services and value than ever. At the same time, library budgets are being slashed and the very existence of libraries and librarians is being questioned by people who are ignorant to the realities of our immense worth. I believe that all librarians and their partners and friends must be loud and proactive in shouting the true value of libraries from the rooftops- I’ll be shouting with them through my words, my art, and most importantly, my actions.

I believe that a library’s worth is dependent upon the work of its librarian(s). A library can be big, beautiful, and stocked full of resources, but without a dedicated and passionate librarian it is just a building with some stuff in it. I know now that libraries are vital to a thriving and democratic community – not just as a place for books, but as a safe and inclusive space and a hub for learning, literacy, sharing, questioning, confirming, cooperating, experiencing, and creating. I will advocate for the truth of libraries as I work towards my goal of becoming the kind of critical librarian that builds awesome libraries with and for her community.