(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.
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 Practice, 3, 59.