Hello, Readers. We crafted this article based on a series of conversations with one another spanning June to September, 2020, right in the thick of one hot mess of a year. Our initial intent, to unravel and document the realities of leading teams through the disruptive change brought about due to COVID-19, evolved during that time due to the anti-racism uprisings around the country and in our own two cities. We were compelled to discuss the ways we, our libraries, and our institutions responded to global upheaval and how this progressed over a four-month period. We acknowledge the limitations of our individual perspectives and the ongoing work we must do.
Erin: Hi, David. Tell me a bit about your institution and your library system in general.
David: Sure. I work at Reed College, a small, private liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon. We have 1,400, mostly undergraduate, students. We have one large library and one satellite library for the performing arts. My department is called Collection Services, which is a combination of technical services and collection development. We have an Electronic Resources Librarian, a Systems Librarian, and three specialists who do cataloging, electronic resources support, and acquisitions and serials. Most of the people are physically located in the central “bullpen” behind the circulation desk of the library. But not everyone actually fits there, so there are some people in farther flung parts of the library. Erin, can you tell me about your library system?
Erin: University of Florida is a very large, public, Research 1 University in Gainesville, Florida. We have around 50,000 students and that includes undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral. We support pretty much every degree program and area of research that you could dream up, everything from dance to law to veterinary medicine. With the exception of Law, the library system is under the umbrella of the George A. Smathers Libraries, but we’re very spread out geographically across campus. We have seven physical branch libraries and also high-density offsite storage facilities. Within my realm of work, I manage the Electronic Resources Unit, which is one of three units in the Acquisitions and Collections Services Department. I lead a team of four staff specialists, three who are Electronic Resources Specialists and one of whom is a Metadata Specialist. We’re very close spatially. Our offices are either directly across from or directly next to each other. We’re all on the same floor of the lovely Smathers Library building, which is the oldest library building on campus. David, can you walk me through the logistics of your team’s transition from on-campus to remote work environments?
David: It was chaotic because the directions coming down from administration were changing frequently. We would get one set of directives and start planning and then, sometimes just hours later, be told that’s not what we’re doing. The electronic resources team and the Systems Librarian felt comfortable immediately going to remote work. It was more complicated for acquisitions, print serials, and cataloging. We were in the middle of a number of projects that had to do with our physical collection, so we couldn’t just close up shop. As the head of the department, I was the middleman hearing things from both ends. The decisions from the upper administration were not getting communicated clearly to people on the ground level and I had to do a lot of that translating myself. Once the campus started to close … that was like a snowball rolling downhill very quickly. I think a lot of schools went through this: there was this idea that maybe we’ll close for two weeks …
Erin: … I definitely thought the same thing!
David: The Sunday night before spring break, we started getting emails. For the students it was: you need to leave and not come back this academic year. For the library: you will be closing and going to remote work. It was all very sudden. As a department, we had to decide what was essential. For us that was ordering ebooks, scanning parts of print reserves that were not available as ebooks, and invoicing. Once the library was closed to patrons, the library staff who needed to come into the building didn’t have many concerns about the virus. The building was empty; no one’s touching the public spaces anymore. A few of us have been coming in one day a week, on any given day there are probably four people in the library during working hours.
Erin: Wow, thanks. I can relate to a lot of this.
David: So, same question for you. What happened on the ground in the transition to remote work?
Erin: I was in Austin, Texas at the ER&L Conference when I heard from some colleagues that we might start working remotely. I felt really disconnected that week. The week of March 17th we received a university-wide email from administrators pretty much saying we don’t know what’s going to happen, but if you can do your job remotely, we strongly encourage you to go home and start. We got that message before we heard anything about whether or not the libraries were going to close. And you know what’s interesting, David, is that I had the same thought that you expressed, which was “I’m probably going to be home for a couple weeks.” All I brought home was my laptop and a few notebooks thinking this was going to be very temporary. Then we got the message from our library administration saying we’re closing the libraries. Everyone except essential staff are going to be working from home. I was in a fortunate situation because I have a good home work environment already. I knew that my staff had some challenges with this. So, over the next couple of weeks, as we realized that this is not going to be temporary and we saw the COVID cases rising here in our county, staff were able to go on campus and take their entire desktop computer setups home. In my unit, we are only dealing with electronic resources. Our jobs can be done quite well remotely with little disruption to the service that we’re providing, but my colleagues in acquisitions and print serials had to think of a way to, you know, keep things going. We’re getting dozens of book shipments every day. What we landed on was having one staff member designated as essential. He came to campus, a few days a week, and helped with unboxing and scanning invoices so that we could then process them remotely. Now that we’re a couple of months out from that initial scattering, some of my colleagues have started going into their offices every now and then. It’s the same thing where you might not see another person the entire day so you can feel relatively safe about it. The first couple weeks when the library shut down our idea was to maintain a shared calendar of who was on campus when. But we realized nobody except this one staff member is going to be there at all.
David: Do you want to talk about what the communication was like from university leadership?
Erin: Oh, sure. Communication from university leadership has been in the form of standard email announcements at least once a week. And we are fortunate that UF is affiliated with a world-class hospital system. We have faculty and researchers who are experts in epidemiology and public health. So we were also getting regular email updates from UF Health and the tone of those was factual, data-focused, and pretty impersonal. But, the communication coming out of our library leadership has been far more personal. In fact, our Dean of Libraries has been holding a weekly virtual town hall gathering for the whole library. She solicits questions ahead of time. Sometimes we have, like, 200 people on these calls. We never did this before the pandemic. It’s helped to bring us together. And these “town halls” are not always a big, happy love fest; a lot of times they’re tense and there’s some hot fire in the chat window. But I feel like it’s a space where we can be frank about the decisions being made at the top and how we feel about them. And our Dean is transparent about who’s making these decisions because not all the control lies with the library. We’re beholden to what’s coming down from the State and our Board of Governors. So, what has communication been like on your end?
David: The library was pretty much omitted from the main communications that were coming from the college leadership. Staff were also frustrated about a lack of library representation on campus-wide working groups like academics, student life, and facilities. At a small liberal arts college, the library plays a role in all of these domains. We’ve done one virtual staff meeting so far, where people submitted questions ahead of time. Most of the questions were about why we don’t have a seat at the table. You know, I don’t really know if there’s an answer to that. I think that at a smaller institution they always circle back to the same people who addressed the last problem.
Erin: I never thought of communication being more challenging at a smaller institution!
David: So, once your team moved to working remotely were there tasks that you thought couldn’t be done?
Erin: Yes, and the most significant of those was how we were going to maintain work for our student employees. Our students were required to go remote and leave campus at the same time that we were. They weren’t given the option to take their workstations home, and the programs that they need are server-based programs that live on computers in the library. So my initial thought was, okay, we’re going to have to only give them projects that they can do in a cloud-based remote environment, which was very daunting, because our entire ILS is not cloud-based. That was resolved pretty easily by our IT folks setting them up with remote desktop capabilities. That’s been working great. There have only been a couple of hiccups. Beyond that, the nature of the work that we do in e-resources, if I’m just talking operational work, can be done fairly easily. There hasn’t been much that we haven’t been able to figure out in the transition.
David: We’ve been with Alma for so long I forgot there would be schools that were on a server-based ILS. The question for us was, how do we manage the physical side of the collection? The biggest issue with not having student workers on site are the 8,000 books that came back at the end of the year that are still not shelved. So, now, when a request comes in for a book, it can take half an hour to find it. Also, in terms of the physical collection, our acquisitions person goes in once a week to do receiving and then our cataloging person will come by once a week after that to move those things through to the next step.
Erin: That’s interesting — the perspective from a much smaller institution where you can often equate a certain task or workflow to an individual. It allows you to get things done a bit more efficiently than in a large organization where multiple individuals have to be involved in a single workflow.
David: So, what are the main tools and technologies you’ve been using to help facilitate your team working remotely?
Erin: A few months before we went remote we transitioned to the new version of Microsoft Office 365. We were slowly transitioning our shared documents into the new SharePoint and exploring the use of the different kinds of apps. When we were working on campus, we didn’t use a shared instant messaging service. We’re all located so closely that this was done by hollering across the bookcase or chatting in the hallway. As soon as we went remote, we realized now is the time to embrace this. We’ve been using Teams most heavily. We have multiple Teams channels that we’re using for our workflows and projects and tasks. So, what we’re trying to do is replicate those over-the-bookshelf pop-up conversations by using Teams while making sure that we still use traditional email for things like major workflow decisions or vendor communication. I’m really enjoying it. The other thing we’re exploring is Planner, which is like Microsoft’s version of a project management board.
David: In my department we’ve gone all-in on three technologies. The library already had Slack; but use grew as a replacement for hallway conversations and quick questions. In March, people would say hello at the start of the day in Slack. People don’t really do that every day checking in anymore. I think, as it became more normal to work remotely, they didn’t feel the need to do that. We do a weekly department meeting on Zoom and we spend 15 to maybe 45 minutes just chatting, kind of like around the water cooler. I think people want to do it because they’re not seeing everybody at other times. What you mentioned about using the project planner, we have started using Asana. Staff were in favor of adopting it because we were all experiencing the same problem of losing the thread on where things were on group projects.
Erin: David, one thing that you mentioned was how people like seeing each other on Zoom calls. Before you went remote, did you find yourself doing video calls in other scenarios, like with vendors?
David: You know, not nearly as much. And when I did, I almost always had the camera off.
Erin: Same here. I did a lot of Zoom and WebEx before we went remote, not only because in our roles we’re meeting with vendors all the time, but because UF is such a massive geographic animal. We would often already have a Zoom component to meetings for people who didn’t want to trek across campus. But I noticed that, almost without exception, people did not use their cameras for those. I never used my camera. I was so anti-camera; but that first day I made a commitment to just do it. You know, especially with leading a team. Now we’re so happy to see each other’s faces.
David: I think that it’s now normalized to have the kid or cat or dog interrupting. That’s not a cause of embarrassment. And usually other people react like, “oh, it’s so cute to see them.” Have you found other techniques to help your team stay more connected on that human, emotional level?
Erin: Yes, and you mentioned earlier how you felt like people did more of the check in and check out soon after going remotely; I feel that that applies to this situation as well. When we went remote, we were all confused about what this meant for our jobs and our ability to provide a service. But there was also a huge emotional toll on all of us, you know, suddenly we’re all at home and we don’t see each other. And there’s a pandemic and the world is on fire. We reached out to each other more frequently in that first month or so. We had Teams calls every day. “How’s your technology working? How are you feeling? How’s your energy level?” Those were the kinds of questions I was asking my team daily in that first month. That helped us feel connected in that crucial moment where we needed to feel connected. But I’ve noticed that as we’ve started to normalize this working from home situation we do that less frequently. The techniques and methods we’re using to stay connected have risen and fallen with our emotional need. In meetings we now share more about things that aren’t work-related — what’s something that you’ve been reading or podcasts you’ve been listening to or a TV show that you’re bingeing? It turns into more of a fun conversation. One of my colleagues has been posting a daily trivia question to Teams every day. And I’ve been trying to give virtual praise to my team. I feel like we’ve been doing a pretty good job of trying to stay connected, but that it really does ride a wave of what we need right now.
David: I think a wave is a good analogy. At first we had the same thing, it was a lot of checking in about technology. Are you actually able to do your work? Do you have child or parent care responsibilities? How is this affecting your work? And then things seemed to settle down. But then, once the police brutality and Black Lives Matter protests started, that was another kind of emotional need. And then as that receded a little bit, it’s the reopening concerns. With all these challenges, it has been about making sure people feel like they’re being heard. Making sure that they know that I’m advocating for them to higher administration. It’s not just one crisis we’re going through.
Erin: You’re so right that you feel like you’re getting into a comfort zone and then something else justifiably disrupts that comfort zone. On Teams we create channels that are meant to be safe spaces for our department. And so when George Floyd was murdered and several schools around the country had a day of reflection, instead of spending that day working, we reflected and educated ourselves on institutional racism. We were sharing frank and raw feelings. We shared podcasts and articles and we attended the same ALA presentations and then talked about it on Teams. That day and probably that following week there was a lot of activity and chatter there because we needed to feel connected. But I also see that lessening as the weeks go by and competing priorities creep into our brains. David, how would you characterize the vendor response to the COVID pandemic versus the vendor response to other global or national events of significance, such as anti-racism protests in the U.S.?
David: One type of response was just at a surface level. Like, “look how great we are as a vendor”, which they just applied to whatever the national conversation was that week. That’s not helpful for me. And then there is another type of response, “we know there’s something going on right now and we want to use our corpus to be helpful in some way.” JSTOR gave out an anti-racism reading list. With COVID it was the same type of responses. Some of the vendors and publishers acknowledged that this is unprecedented, took down paywalls, and had seamless access: you don’t even need to do anything and your patrons will be able to use everything for the spring semester and it’ll just go away on June 30. And then other ones were like, “we’ll do it, but only after you have to ask for permission.” Those responses were not as helpful.
Erin: Yes, the generosity of opening up all this research didn’t unfold in the same way across institutions. It was almost like being given a gift that you want to stop being given at a certain point. I was pleasantly surprised at the flood of offers for expanded access to content that coincided exactly with when our libraries closed. I felt like we could make an impact on our user community and their ability to learn and research and teach remotely. We could do something small in the midst of an uncontrollable situation where we felt very ineffective. We immediately created a LibGuide with links to all the expanded access offers with their expiration dates. Now, what we realized quickly was that this list was getting out of control because we were getting new offers every day. The marketing and communication were so spotty. Best case scenario, like you illustrated, is to receive just one message: tell us what you’re offering, how do we access it, when does it end. But some of them were not as simple. We had well-meaning offers for resources like JSTOR, but only some of the content is open and they don’t have a direct access portal for that open content. Trying to manage linking and user expectations was a challenge. I sound a bit whiny about this because we were given expanded access to content and our vendors have been very understanding that this doesn’t mean that we’re going to buy any of this content.
David: I wish that some organizations had stepped in, like SPARC, NASIG, or NISO. It was too much to ask of the librarians and I understand it was too much to ask for the publishers to coordinate; but a bigger organization should have been able to straighten out all the messaging. It was a lot of duplicative effort, figuring it out each time.
Erin: You’re right, and I think it was another missed opportunity for our publisher and vendor partners to fail to create the same kind of momentum and urgency around expanded collections or bronze open access collections for anti-racism and institutional racism studies. You mentioned JSTOR. Project MUSE released a suggested reading list too. But I had a call with a major vendor partner very soon after George Floyd’s murder and asked if they planned on creating some sort of accessible collection of resources and they hadn’t thought about that. I don’t care about their motivation, I just want to see some kind of commitment around the fact that this is also an important national moment.
David: It may have come out of the fact that STEM publishers already had a history of making their research available during previous pandemics. It was new for the social sciences and humanities publishers to step in and make resources available. So they did not make the conceptual leap that they should also be doing this around anti-racism. Speaking of vendors, how has the relationship with vendors been going now that it is totally remote? What do you think about in the future if there were no more site visits? Would anything of value be lost?
Erin: It already wasn’t unusual to have a Zoom or a web component for a vendor meeting because of the large geographic footprint of UF. But in my role in particular where I do get used to that face to face interaction, honestly, it made me more likely to tell vendors that we didn’t need a meeting. Whereas if I had been approached about a site visit, I would have been more likely to say, sure, come to campus. I’m not sure if that’s because I have a perception that I’m not going to get as much value out of the web call or if it’s because I’m still telling myself that we’re in a weird temporary holding pattern. Unfortunately, I do see some value being lost. Part of that is because I do have a background as a vendor representative and I’ve been on both sides of this desk, and there is no substitute for developing a sustainable, valuable relationship with a human in person. And so I do think that there will be some value lost at first for those of us who are used to face to face. It’s those little things like getting to know about someone’s family or pets or where they live; it’s chatting on the way to the parking lot or in the elevator. These things accumulate into something that goes beyond a buyer and seller relationship and I fear that that value might be lost until we get to a point where it’s just the norm. What do you think based on your experiences at Reed?
David: There are some vendors who I really appreciate getting the time to connect with because there’s a lot of value added. The best vendor reps are the ones who have been in a few different places and can bring in multiple library perspectives. For me, those types of really useful relationships have all started face to face. I think it’s harder to get to that point with people remotely. Showing me how to use your product and what’s new in the portfolio — that works fine remotely. But, with the recent staff turnover in my library, some of those vendors had more institutional knowledge of what was going on than anyone in the library. Once we’ve established a relationship, we can move it online. And then we’ll find time in the phone calls for the little asides and things like that. But it’s hard to imagine building it from scratch.
Erin: That’s a really good point. You and I are able to have this frank discussion and I understand your facial cues or your body language because we already know each other and we’ve worked together before. Now, if remote work becomes the norm, do you anticipate we’ll be leading teams who might not be located in the same place geographically?
David: Yes, this is something that I think about a lot: COVID has permanently changed the remote work norms. I can’t imagine after this that most white-collar jobs are going to require you to come in five days a week. I would say of the teams in the library, mine transitioned the best, but we had nine months working together in person.
Erin: That’s a good point. My guess is that we’re on the cusp of a cultural change about how we view working on campus in an office and the idea that it’s tied to accountability. The idea that, if you’re not in an office on campus working eight to five or whatever, that we don’t know what you’re doing. You might be at home watching soap operas. I think the last four to five months have shown that that’s absolutely not happening because we’re still getting everything done. I think that will allow us to think more broadly about who we hire and where they live. That sounds like a potentially attractive prospect. But, if I’m in a leadership position, I will not be as effective if I don’t get that face time with my team. And so I feel like I could do the “job” part of my job remotely, but I couldn’t really do the leadership part. Maybe I’m stuck in that mindset.
David: I don’t think you’re incorrect, there are so many soft skills in leading a team. I think bringing on a new team leader or a new team member would be hard, but actually stepping into a team leader position remotely … I would need training on how to do that. And I don’t think a lot of places could give that training very well today. Now, in as much of a nutshell as you can, what are your libraries’ reopening plans (as of September 1st)?
Erin: Our libraries officially reopened Friday, August 28th, and yesterday was our first day of classes for the semester. UF is conducting around 35% of classes in person or with a hybrid model and the rest are online only. What that means for our library branches on campus is that we’re operating at a reduced occupancy level. We only have one public entrance for each library branch. We’re checking IDs and limiting to UF affiliates only, which isn’t the norm; we’re usually open to the public. We have a gate count going and we have a nifty live occupancy dashboard that is kind of addictive. It’ll show how many people are in each building and what percentage of occupancy that building is currently at. Everyone is required to wear a mask and we have a security person at every public entrance to the library paired with a library staff member. We’ve made changes like we’re not doing print course reserves. We’re limiting or closing access to the stacks. We re-configured spaces to promote social distancing, we removed a lot of tables, chairs, and computers. No Group Study rooms. And the only food we’re allowing is bottled water. Even Starbucks isn’t allowed. How about you at Reed?
David: Sounds pretty similar in a lot of ways. Our main library opened yesterday. We have a count of people entering the building. But, it’s a pretty big space. So we set apart all the seating with a 35-square-foot space around people. And then we counted those seats and that’s how we determined the maximum occupancy. We don’t have a dashboard and I was on chat reference yesterday and had two questions in two hours about capacity. The students have heard about the capacity limit and want to know before they come in. Our stacks are open because there’s no real way to close them in our configuration. For reserves, we moved to a 24-hour loan plus 72 hours of quarantine, so it’s a 4-day reserve cycle.
Erin: Today, obviously you’re at home right now, I’m at home right now. Some of our public-facing library employees have gone back into the office, but they go on a rotation to maintain social distancing. My E-Resource Unit has been told that we can stay at home as long as permitted. And so I might go in, you know, once a week seeing how the semester goes. But we’re still very much at home.
David: We’re similar in that public-facing positions are all coming in, but they’ve extended their workdays. They do three shifts now and they’re staggered. Reference and instruction people are basically staying home. In our department, people in electronic resources and systems are staying home and the acquisitions and cataloging staff and I come in about halftime. On any given day there’s probably one to two of us in the department space. One thing I didn’t mention about us not being open to the public is that our whole campus is closed to the public. We actually need to wear our name badges somewhere visible so that Community Safety Officers don’t stop us. Which is a big cultural change, obviously.
Erin: Thanks, David. This has been enlightening!