Close the library

I trust that my peers directing libraries across the country and across the world are trying to do the right thing in an unprecedented time, with incomplete and ever-changing information and directives from above, and in a situation that we were largely not trained or educated for.  I offer the following notes in support of directors trying to make the right decision. These are rough and incomplete notes, so if this doesn’t address something you think is important, please feel free to address it yourself.

In the early morning hours of Friday, March 13, I made the decision to close the libraries, and suspend all in-person services, including any service that could not be done remotely. In retrospect, I wish I had made that decision earlier, and avoided putting my staff through the unthinkable anxiety of trying to plan for limited services and inequitable demands. I ultimately got support from above to close totally, and I was prepared to keep arguing until I got that support, and/or to close the libraries without that support and deal with the personal/professional fallout later. I am grateful that I did not have to do that, and I realize there’s all kinds of privilege at work in the willingness to do so.

Later, we can all share details of how we operationalized the planning and preparation for all this, but suffice it to say that the MIT Libraries’ staff were nothing short of amazing. For the last week and a half, they took care of each other and took care of business and operational planning with creativity, compassion, and urgency. Knowing they were doing all the things freed me up to work at the MIT-level.
Some local context that might be helpful is that the libraries are not considered Emergency Essential services at MIT, so for example, during snow closures we shut down. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the late Anne Wolpert, my predecessor, for making that so. With that context, I was able to make the argument that “None of us want to be in the position of insisting that staff who are not considered essential come to work anyway. If they are not in roles considered essential, they did not sign up for this.”
Some libraries are considered Essential services, but/and I hope leaders will see that what is Essential in some kinds of emergencies, may not be essential in a global pandemic where our best chances as a global community of mitigating the impact is to immediately practice social distancing.
There are many folks who laudably want to keep the libraries open for equity reasons to support those students who have no access to computers, wifi, or textbooks except for at their libraries. I get that, but making some students use shared spaces and resources while other students can safely participate in remote classes from well-equipped and safe homes is not equitable either. For schools that can, I hope they are getting laptops and wifi hotspots in the hands of every student who needs them, whether they are staying on campus or going elsewhere. For students who simply don’t have the resources to participate in remote education, give them all the exceptions. I encourage library directors to insist that our institutions not use the presence of libraries as a reason to hold all students accountable to the same standard of performance and participation. The inequities in higher education and in society will be on full display for the duration of this thing, and my personal and professional opinion (as a library director and a sociologist) is that using libraries to mask those inequities is bad for individuals, institutions, and society. Someone will write a paper on that someday, with references; but for now I encourage colleagues to advocate for process and policy solutions, not “libraries as bandaids” solutions.
Also, pay everyone anyway. And tell everyone that their job on Monday is to take care of themselves and their loved ones. This is a time for creative compassion.

13 Responses to “Close the library”

  1. 1 MVB March 16, 2020 at 6:46 pm

    -yes Library essentialness is for the decades and centuries -your own personal library is essential during Pandemic -not the public library


  2. 2 dubdub March 16, 2020 at 12:02 pm

    Academic library support staff here. Librarians are going to be allowed to work from home but support staff must still report. The people who have to staff service points, who get paid the lowest, who have the lowest level of job security, are being required to continue working face-to-face with patrons while our counterparts with tenure, who are paid better, who are considered more valuable, are allowed to work from home.

    I have never felt more worthless than I do right now. More expendable or more sad.


    • 3 Chris Bourg March 16, 2020 at 2:20 pm

      i am very sorry that is happening to you.


    • 4 Temple Servant March 16, 2020 at 3:13 pm

      Dubdub—-I am very sympathetic (shelver in a public library). It is pretty sucktastic to be on the bottom of the barrel. No sick leave, no vacation to use, no voice, no union. That is pretty crappy of the department too. I have been thinking about moral and employee trust a lot during the last two weeks, and the total lack of communication/ transparency which is killing it.
      I walked out, rather ineffectively in retrospect (should have done it sooner and reached out to all staff, and higher-ups even if I felt like a paranoid nutball). Last night the public library officially shut it’s door to the public, although I have been asked to come in for a few hours here and there sharing a modified work schedule to clean (?) and keep the book drops from overflowing, etc. Now the county has issued a shelter in place command, and shit is shutting down even more! Do what you need to do for yourself, and remember this when you get a chance to advocate for better policies or union options in the future.


      • 5 Temple Servant March 16, 2020 at 3:18 pm

        Oops, morale not moral.


      • 6 Temple Servant March 16, 2020 at 6:36 pm

        Update: Very happy that we are officially, after finally being contacted again by my manager, not to go in, and NOT to even stop and “save the books” from an overflowing book drop if we see that during a drive.
        That said, how does one on the lower end of the staffing spectrum stay in the loop enough to trust the higher ups to make reasonable decisions, as well as be patient while they do so? Waiting in an information vacuum is horrid. Is it reasonable to express concern and request to stay informed? One of the things I wish I was handed upon higher was a flow chart of who is who, and who to ask for what.


  3. 7 Temple Servant March 15, 2020 at 8:48 am

    Lowly shelver here. Hi! I appreciate your leadership and transparency here, thank you! Even though I am not on the East Coast anymore, and I am in a public library, I appreciate reading this. Being a shelver (not my life goal, although I love knowing where every single book is on the shelves) is powerless and so…restrained. I feel incredibly fustrated that I have no voice, no platform within the library to even discuss a plan, or know that a plan is being worked on. I dont feel like admin or directors are monsters for not shutting the library down, but I am also baffled and wonder…. why no action? Why no “phase 1” we are going to start with this (a week to get holds, in and out transactions only, turn the public computers off, etc) and we will be prepping to close if…?
    I walked Saturday. Politely, and with clear words. I can’t be party to an un-organised staying open, when social distancing and good hygiene are a must. Not out of fear. Out of respect for the community and staff, and the need to be a part of active community participation in preventing a huge spike. I am on the floor shelving. I see people coming in sick, or bringing their kids in sick. I do not trust the disbelievers in public health to think of the bigger picture right now and stay home. I do not know how my library’s directors and managers are thinking, so I am my own advocate. :/

    Liked by 1 person

  4. 9 jvinopal March 15, 2020 at 8:01 am

    I’ll put here what I just wrote on Twitter.
    I’m concerned that directors w/out authority to independently decide to close their libraries, like @mchris4duke, are being disparaged for not doing so & employees of those libs maintaining physical presence are being encouraged to think their library leadership are monsters. Whereas many of those library leaders struggling with still-open facilities are also working very hard with uni admin to limit as much as possible any onsite contact and risk. Please don’t inadvertently vilify your colleagues at other institutions just because we’re working with very different constraints than you.

    Liked by 1 person

  1. 1 Tales from Covid, part I – Andrew Preater Trackback on March 28, 2020 at 5:40 am
  2. 2 How to close a physical library and move online – Tell the VCs – Melon The Librarian Trackback on March 22, 2020 at 4:28 am
  3. 3 CAPAL-ACBES Statement on Academic Libraries and COVID-19 – Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians Trackback on March 17, 2020 at 7:09 am
  4. 4 Make peace with your record – Scarlet Fixes Things Trackback on March 16, 2020 at 12:02 pm

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