Precarious Labor, Student Workers, and Coronavirus

I’m taking a break from my series “To my fellow LIS Black, Indigenous, and People of Color” to talk about the impact coronavirus has had on the LIS field/students. I’m in Seattle, the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. I live near the Life Care Center of Kirkland, where the first U.S. death occurred and now where over 25 people have died. All Washington state K-12 schools have been cancelled for at least six weeks and the University of Washington, along with other higher education institutions, have moved online. Museums and public libraries have closed to the public, and buses and the streets of Seattle are empty. There’s no longer traffic at rush hour as many people now work from home. But what are the impacts on student library workers, grant-funded workers, or LIS students working on capstones, practicums, or internships?

I have two positions at the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections: as an accessioning assistant and as a moving images intern, funded through my ARL/SAA Mosaic Fellowship. While the library is closed to the public, staff can still work onsite. However, most of the department are now working from home. I’m one of the lucky student workers: I have projects I can work on remotely. I’m now encoding legacy finding aids, transcribing videos, and conducting research for grants and am still receiving a paycheck without stepping foot on campus.

But I know this isn’t true for everyone. I’ve talked with other LIS students who are incredibly worried. Some students in my MLIS program who are completing their capstones this year need to work onsite at their host site. However, many of the places where they do work like high schools, museums, and libraries are closed. If they can’t interact and work with the physical materials, then they can’t complete their capstone. Other students are worried about their internships or grant-funded positions, many of which require them to work onsite. I was able to turn my ARL/SAA Mosaic internship from physically handling film to grant research and video transcription for the time being without too much stress. Special Collections was warned a week or two in advance that we might close and have to telework, so we were able to start planning early. But I know other student interns and grant-funded workers don’t have this option of switching the type of work they do. They might lose their positions if they can’t come in and work. Another issue that some archivists and librarians are facing is having to use their PTO if they have to quarantine or hope other workers will donate their time to them. Part-time, hourly, and contract workers might not have adequate sick leave, either. Finally, even workers that can work from home might not be able to if they have to care for their children if schools close.

Cancelling university/college classes or moving them online but keeping the campus library open and stressing “business as usual” risks the safety and health of the staff who work in these libraries. Politicians calling for public libraries to stay open during this pandemic in hard-hit areas, but call for cuts to library funding every year is irresponsible, hypocritical, and devalues the labor of the library staff. Keep an eye on how institutions respond, especially if you are job hunting: this can give you an idea on how much these institutions value their staff and their labor.

Here are some resources, mainly archives-related:

“‘Archivists at home’ is a brainstorming/advocacy document by the Accessibility & Disability Section (Society of American Archivists) for archivists on what tasks they can accomplish from home to avoid the COVID-19 pandemic. Hopefully this document could be used as an advocacy tool for developing a more flexible concept of archival labor which also could be applicable on a regular basis for archivists with disabilities.”

Related to “Archivists at Home” is the COVID19 Relief Fund for Displaced Archives Workers. This link is to the Google drive with both information about the fund and meeting notes.

John Overholt, curator of Early Books & Manuscripts at Houghton Library, Harvard University, started a Twitter thread on suggestions for things to do while working from home without collections.

To see how other archives are reacting to the coronavirus pandemic, see this Google sheet on institutional responses collected by RBMS.

“In a Pandemic, Librarians Are Reporting to Work, Scared and Questioning Their Institutions” article from School Library Journal

Ithaka S+R also conducted a survey of academic library responses to COVID-19. See the list of live results of the survey responses here.

Cover photo by Thought Catalog


Kelli Yakabu is a MLIS student at the University of Washington focusing on archives. You can follow her on Twitter @kelliyakabu.

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