By: Bob Nardini, Vice President, Library Services ProQuest Books
Several weeks ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article entitled “5 Facts about the Higher-Ed Work Force Right Now,” with data about furloughs and layoffs, employee vulnerability by age cohort, and availability of paid sick leave. And, a “proximity score” for different campus occupations, “a calculation of how physically close to others certain jobs require people to be.” This graph came from an organization producing all kinds of occupational facts, such as a broader set of data for proximity (the Chronicle providing a link) showing that “Fallers”— workers who cut down trees—were the most physically distant occupation measured, Choreographers the least. On campus, Engineering professors were more aloof than anyone else, Architecture professors least. Right in the middle of the graph were Librarians, slightly more proximate to others than English professors, slightly less proximate than Economics professors.
What to make of this? Nothing, probably, other than to wonder how the data was gathered in the first place, and further—even if accurate—why anyone thought this information might be useful. Fallers and choreographers, we might have been able to figure those out on our own. Maybe librarians and economics professors, too, if we’d bothered to try.
The graph does suggest one thing: now’s the time to be in the advice business. Today just about everyone is, it seems. Have a look at the website of any organization you can think of and you’ll probably find COVID-19 advice: American Bar Association, American Medical Association, American Institute of Architects, American College Health Association, American Industrial Hygiene Association, American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, National Restaurant Association, National Recreation & Parks Association, National Retail Federation, National Human Resources Association, Event Service Professional Association, and even the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.
No doubt there’s lots of good advice, from many associations. But who at a university or college, let alone a library, is supposed to sift through it? And these are just the U.S.-based groups, aside from everyplace else, not to mention the CDC, EPA, FDA, NIH, USDA, OSHA, WHO, ILO, OECD, UNESCO, all the other government and quasi-governmental bodies taking surveys, handing out guidelines, and recommending resources which, to a degree, probably point to one another. If you happen to play professional basketball, maybe all you need is the COVID-19 handbook prepared by the National Basketball Association, which hopes to restart play this month: no post-game showers at the arena; no sharing deodorant; cut back on fist bumps and high-fives; all in all, a 113-page rulebook. If you’re not a power forward but instead a librarian, however, where to begin? where to stop?
The Institute of Museum and Library Services has a resource page, you might start there. So does OCLC. So do the major library associations. So does the National Library of Medicine. So do consortia. So does ITHAKA. So do the companies who do business with libraries. For firms whose products and services enable libraries to protect staff and patrons by helping to keep everyone apart from one another, COVID-19 becomes the very definition of making the best of a bad situation, with goods like masks, aprons, gloves, disinfectant and sanitizers, face shields, service shields, dividers, barriers, buffers, ropes and tapes, portable sinks, book sterilizers, self-cleaning individualized toilet rooms, modular furniture, remote bookdrops, remote lockers, signage; and through software and app “solutions” for mobile searching, checkout, renewals, recommendations, scheduling.
One source of advice sure to be widely consulted is the COVID-19 Planning Guide and Self-Assessment for Higher Education, a 95-page “toolkit” produced by the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, and Tuscany Strategy Consulting. The Guide is a thorough list of points university planning committees will need to consider as they prepare for the next academic year; for example, that “Faculty, working with IT, should assess the technology resources that can enable high-quality teaching and learning.” Easier said than done, of course, but even the most obvious points need to be written down somewhere, and so the Guide obliges, in section 7.2.8. Not to overlook libraries, some points in the Guide are surprisingly specific, such as 7.7.13, “Options that facilitate remote staff work, such as allowing cataloging staff to take home boxes of books, should be considered.”
That’s not prescriptive, of course. Nothing is in the Guide, which points out, correctly, “That there is no one-size-fits-all approach or industry-wide best practice standards developed and proven for reopening of institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Further, the Guide “does not provide legal recommendations; nor does it attempt to impose, suggest or provide best practice guidance for a standard of care by which academic institutions should be judged.”
In other words, everyone sitting on that same mountain of advice is up there on their own. Which is how it must be. It’s difficult to prescribe anything within a university and near impossible across universities. So, the NBA can mandate “no showers”, but does anyone think every cataloger will work their books the same way, even if there were an industry czar telling them to? What libraries can hope for is to have a voice in the local planning going on around them. That’s been the case to varying degrees. Especially early in the pandemic, when universities were simply trying to figure out the nature and the scale of what they were facing, “We don’t know a thing” was more or less what I’d hear from many librarians. While by now that’s improved considerably, it hasn’t changed everywhere. “We’re not involved at all,” and “decisions have been taken out of my hands” are two more recent comments.
Sooner or later, though, everyone will have a set of guidelines attempting to define what it will mean to “reopen”. Many have been released already, if in preliminary form. The Washington Post picked up a story of plans at the University of Virginia to assign sinks in student living spaces on that campus. “How these rules will be enforced at U-Va. and elsewhere,” wondered the Post, “remains to be seen.” The story ran a couple of days after an “Opinion” piece in the New York Times carried the headline, “Expecting Students to Play It Safe if Colleges Reopen is a Fantasy”. This was written by Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University professor with an academic specialty of adolescent behavior whose research findings make him a likely skeptic of the plan to assign sinks. “It’s hard to think,” he wrote, “of an age during which risky behavior is more common and harder to deter than between 18 and 24,” with sinks probably among the least of Steinberg’s concerns.
Reopening scenarios range from the pragmatic, to the pessimistic, to the apocalyptic. Librarians by and large are pragmatic people. “There’s the planning documents,” one said to me, “and then there’s reality.” Or as another librarian remarked more pointedly, “Sometimes I think these documents are to protect the administration’s behind. We’re not going to be the PPE police.” Still, when the administration delivers a policy, like a requirement to encase public keyboards in Saran Wrap, rewrapping after each use, a librarian must listen. “I said no, we’re not doing that,” reported this librarian, once he’d listened. And the administration isn’t the only constituency who must be listened to. “I have some staff who say masks are useless, why bother,” said a second librarian, “but others who say they won’t come to work unless we’re wearing HAZMAT suits.” Maybe it’s all too easy to be hard on the campus officials devising these plans, necessarily complex in so many ways. This is, after all, deadly serious business.
I spoke to another librarian who that very day had received preliminary guidelines from university administration. “Definitely not definitive,” an administrator had said, proving that even in pandemic conditions it’s possible for an official to keep their sense of humor. Librarians know this, that whatever guidelines are handed down will definitely not be definitive: “You can’t micromanage students; you can’t micromanage human beings,” one librarian said. Librarians will improvise when they need to, innovate when they can, adjust when they have to. Things happen. “Chaos” is what one librarian expects in the fall. “Bedlam” is the word chosen by another. I know these two librarians will make the best of whatever situations arise, using whatever resources they have, as librarians always do. “Reopening will be a process,” one put it, “not an event.”