by guest blogger Bob Nardini, Vice President, Library Services ProQuest Books
Those of us old enough to remember thought we’d seen how a city will beat an epidemic. That was Toronto, in 2003, where the American Library Association and Canadian Library Association held a joint annual conference. The two hadn’t done that since visiting Montreal together in 1960. Librarians in in the two countries looked forward to something different.
Until the SARS coronavirus turned up. Toronto reported its first case in February, and first death in March. The virus spread in the city’s hospitals. The World Health Organization issued a travel advisory. Conventions began to cancel. ALA/CLA was the city’s largest for the year, with as many as 25,000 visitors expected. The medical community got down to work. City officials pulled out the lobbying stops to save the conference. The virus was controlled, the travel advisory lifted. Then, after much deliberation, in early June ALA announced it would stay in. Still, people were nervous. Some exhibitors downsized their booths. A few pulled out, including the Library of Congress. At least one university in the U.S. required a liability waiver from librarians going to Toronto.
When the conference opened in late June attendance was down, but at 17,500, not a calamity. Nobody caught the virus. The exhibit aisles were less crowded, restaurant reservations a little easier to come by, some appointments you couldn’t get, on otherwise normal city sidewalks a few pedestrians wore masks. But a “One Convention, One Book” event featuring The Handmaid’s Tale and a Margaret Atwood reading was a big success. Another speaker, a congressman named Bernie Sanders, thanked the Vermont Library Association for educating him about reader implications of the USA Patriot Act. In the end, Toronto turned out pretty well.
Now all that seems so long ago. ALA, with less deliberation, cancelled this year’s annual conference in Chicago on March 24. By then libraries were closing. Cities had begun to shut down and their streets empty out. Work-from-home was already common. We were gaining vocabulary. “Novel coronavirus”, not long before, would have sounded like a SciFi book, “Zoombombing” like a new exercise program. “Social distancing” might have meant spending a little less time on Facebook.
For the past few weeks I’ve joined video calls with ProQuest customers as they shared their local COVID-19 experiences. I’ve seen our customers talk from their living room sofa. I’ve seen them in baseball caps. I’ve seen their hair still wet from the shower. I have seen their knick-knack shelves, their bookshelves, their free weights, the art on their walls. I’ve seen them shoo their cats away. These librarians have been funny, and they’ve been somber. They’ve been calm, and they’ve been passionate. They’ve talked fast, and they’ve talked deliberately. They’ve talked from notes, and from memory. What they’ve said has been inspiring, at times even moving. What they’ve had in common—and with practically everyone else today—is that they wanted, really wanted, to talk.
They talked about solving problems on the fly. They talked about triage: Which problems first? How to do space planning with no access to the building? How to communicate the library’s COVID-19 response while delivering the news, at the same time, about cancellation of a big deal? Some said faculty engagement was a big challenge; but also an opening for “guerilla librarianship,” as one librarian put it, to lead a professor to a resource leaving them unaware they’d been led. “Librarians have been more nimble than the faculty,” said another librarian, to make a similar point.
A few talked about print, mostly inaccessible now, but some libraries could have books mailed by an offsite storage vendor. What about disinfecting the books? “We don’t have any returns yet. We’ll deal with that later.” Offsite, suddenly and ironically, became “the most accessible part of our print collection,” one librarian said. Other libraries were arranging print pickups out back on the loading dock, “like a drug drop.” Print approval plans were stopped, many of them shifted wherever possible to ebook DDA. They talked about a spike in demand for streaming video.
They talked about textbooks. For some the virus hit at spring break, when students didn’t necessarily “bring their textbooks to the beach.” Maybe the library had an online substitute, maybe in the eBook collection, or maybe due to the many expanded access offers coming in daily from publishers and vendors. How to sort through these offers, implement them, keep track of them with an ever-changing “dog’s breakfast of a LibGuide?” What will happen when the new business terms expire? For now librarians were grateful for this sudden online bounty. “We have a new pharmacy school,” one reported. “They’re getting a lot of information from publishers relevant to COVID-19. I’m glad the pharmacists are busy. I hope they find a cure.” They talked about becoming a virtual library “overnight.”
Here’s the recipe for transforming a library overnight: Look at just about every procedure you’ve known for years and adjust, or suspend, or discard, or reinvent all of them. Do this with the help of your staff, who are all at home. What used to be a deskside conversation now might take a dozen emails, a phone meeting or two. Do staff all have computers in good working order and reliable home broadband? Maybe not. Figure it out anyway. “I mailed her stuff,” said one librarian who now relies on the U.S. Postal Service to send work to a staff member with no home internet at all. Is everyone’s job portable enough to do it at home? Probably not. So set up a job board, as at least one library has, where library managers post tasks for homeworkers to claim. Or, at a big ARL library with a big Special Collections department, send 25 staff members home with the manuscript processing normally in the hands of student workers.
But don’t forget, “productivity isn’t the point when you can’t be productive.” Certainly not, as one librarian said, “when the coroner pulls up next door,” putting everything into perspective in the strongest possible way. Library deans and managers won a lot of praise for getting this right. “There’s been a lot of caring for people. They know who’s taking care of a child, a parent, a neighbor.” Or, another dean: “You aren’t working from home. You’re at home trying to work.”
There’s no sense pretending anyone’s life is normal right now. You won’t recreate your library with a fearful staff. “We’re all exhausted,” one librarian said. “I’m proud of what we’ve done.” She spoke for many librarians in saying that. And she had every right to say it.