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librev

We’re Here Because We’re Here

Protesters outside Hennepin County Library branches where staff were asked to do curbside delivery after being laid off and encouraged to reapply for jobs at temporary shelters. Photo credit: Brad Sigal

There’s been a trend of articles coming out in major publications that are all about how excited people are to get back to their libraries, how resilient libraries are, all kinds of happy-go-lucky “we’re doing just fine!” stuff. It’s all well and good except for the fact that these narratives do nothing to a) tell the truth about the miserable realities that library workers are actually experiencing, and b) incite any kind of action to be taken in our defense.

Let’s start with the American Library Association, who have seemingly been going out of their way to come across as tone-deaf in this moment. On May 1, amidst thousands of layoffs and furloughs of library workers happening all around the country, ALA President Wanda Brown wrote a piece congratulating the resilience and stick-to-it-iveness of “librarians and library workers” in American Libraries magazine. There was no mention of lost jobs, slashed budgets, unsafe working conditions, managers censoring and punishing employees for speaking up for themselves, or threats of placement in riskier positions–in other words, none of what has defined this crisis for many of our colleagues.

Next up, we have a piece in PBS News Hour. The reporter did reach out to me to talk about the less savory parts of the story, but the narrative here is very much about the extra miles library workers feel like they’re expected to go because there’s no other options for their patrons. There’s a celebration of curbside pickup and enhanced social media use–and a more understandable and laudable effort to make the internet more accessible–but not much in the way of questioning why it is that libraries are the only shred of social safety left for citizens, and not much exploration of how austerity/disaster politics are currently decimating our field. Same went for this April 22 piece about Australia’s libraries in The Guardian, which quotes a public official who said, “The longer we keep our library branches closed, the deeper and more entrenched that digital divide will become.” Blaming library closures for the digital divide is like blaming our immune systems for succumbing to the virus.

A few days ago, an opinion piece written by a retired library worker ran in The Washington Post, titled “Local libraries will look a lot different when they reopen.” The author does mention furloughs, but says “some jurisdictions” have decided to do them and links to one system (this despite the over 5,600 layoffs and furloughs estimated via data collected in a tracking document, a number that is likely much higher but difficult to accurately count because of ambiguous reporting and fear of retaliation). What’s remarkable about this piece is that the writer is focused on the changes public libraries will need to contend with as they reopen, but doesn’t mention how a skeleton staff and the health risks to employees will impact those changes (I guess this is where our “librarians and library workers” resilience comes in). There’s also theorizing about print collections being supplanted by electronic ones, but no discussion of how impossible that feat is likely to be.

I’m sure there are other examples out there; feel free to share them with me and I’ll swipe at them, too. 😉 But I want to turn this to what I actually see happening right now, which is this:

  • Libraries are reopening to the public in states that are rushing forward to “get back to normal.” Workers at these libraries are scared for their health and safety, not only because of the covid-19 transmission risk but also because patrons are unpredictable, may not comply with rules, and may become violent and unruly, as has already been seen at public places and restaurants that are trying to operate “normally.”
  • The impacts I’ve seen on people who’ve contacted me or are posting about their experiences on Twitter are anxiety, depression, anger, frustration, sleeplessness, feelings of helplessness, thinking of leaving the field, contemplating quitting even during a tanked economy for the sake of their own safety and sanity, low morale, fear for family members, feelings that nothing they do will be enough to prevent furloughs or layoffs, and general malaise and purposelessness. Folks who have not yet been directly impacted (including me) are feeling a collective survivor’s guilt, and/or a sensation that the other shoe is going to drop at any moment.
  • In many states, libraries or their towns are acting in opposition to stay-at-home orders. The local offenders I’ve heard of that are engaging in this are the public libraries in Dedham, Watertown, and Cambridge; in Massachusetts, we are awaiting updates and a reopening plan from Governor Charlie Baker. These places are jumping the gun, and it leads one to wonder what’s motivating this: Furloughs and layoffs in nearby towns? Political or public pressure? (Or, at least in the case of Dedham, an embarrassing history of mismanagement and corruption?) In any case, we need to ask why both municipal managers and leaders of our professional organizations seem to think that putting our colleagues at risk is the most politically expedient thing to do.
  • Library workers are concerned about using PPE and cleaning supplies when there are still nationwide shortages of these items that should be prioritized for essential workers and people in vulnerable populations, such as in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and residences where there are sick or immunocompromised household members. They are also concerned about encouraging their community members to leave home and run errands before a determination of whether or not it’s safe to do that.
  • During the beginning and height of the #closethelibraries campaign, which started when many academic and public libraries were continuing to either operate as usual, refusing to provide telework options, or operating with scaled-down in-person services, it quickly became clear that many workers were being punished or threatened by library or municipal/institutional leadership if they attempted to speak about their unsafe conditions and stand up for their personal safety. As I was working with journalists trying to cover the movement, it was challenging to find people who were comfortable speaking on the record about their experiences for fear of retaliation. Leaders were exploiting the uncertainty and scariness of the job market to control these library workers and thus control the narrative of what was going on. And what was going on was not good, and continues to be very bad.

I’m only scratching the surface with what’s going on here based on the stories people are sharing with me and on social media (mostly with fear of retaliation or anxiety about how helpless they feel) and things I’m coming across in my home state. But the flipside of all of these digital storytimes and boosted WiFi signals in the parking lot is library workers forced to do jobs they never signed up for, scolded for their attempts to fight for their well-being, and the reality of slashed budgets they’re staring down from now until…who knows? What guarantee do we have of bouncing back?

Long before our lives began to be redefined by this global pandemic, library workers had plenty to worry about, specifically with their proclivity for self-sacrifice, overwork, and low morale. Our leaders are cashing in on our instincts for martyrdom and hesitance to make a fuss about our own needs, and you know what? It’s time to say not anymore. Ignoring our very real plight and slapping happy stories on top of it isn’t going to save us.

It’s not an end-all, be-all, but to at least throw something out there that you can do, consider signing this petition demanding safe reopening conditions for library workers. And push back on these stories of unmitigated success and unqualified resilience. Anyone who wants libraries to survive this needs to fight hard for library workers to survive it, too.