Libraries in Quarantine – Musings on Shifts in the Professional Landscape

Before my area went under shelter in place orders back on March 17th, I had a library paraprofessional position and went to school full time, with plans for a summer internship fully in sight. Should the legal order lift on its second posted date of May 3rd, I will have the last few days of the position and the last few months of my master’s program to go before fully committing to the job market, internship plans largely foundered unless applications deadlines are intensively relaxed. I have seen recommendations for how people, both information professionals and otherwise, can strengthen their skill sets and generally improve themselves while locked down. I have also seen acknowledgement that a global pandemic is guaranteed to cause global trauma, and many people are likely struggling with incipient agoraphobia, anxiety, and other repeated stressors that have a high chance of becoming permanently ingrained in many by the time society returns to “normal.” In terms of the former, alongside the fact that my MLIS program was already completely online, I am fortunate to work in an academic library. The mandated freeing up of my in-person reference desk responsibilities means I have been able to embark on such resume-enhancing activities as building LibGuides and weeding university collections on a large scale. Regarding the latter, I am very much the homebody, and so much of my life was already structured around managing my own major depressive disorder that I have found myself advising others on rigorous schedules, creative projects, and indoor exercise routines for mitigating feelings of entrapment. So, in some ways, it feels to me that nothing has changed. The hard part is whenever I remember that, really, everything has.

What, then, does all this mean for libraries? As other HLS writers have said in previous posts, academic libraries seem to be coping far better than public libraries. Conducting Zoom consultations with students struggling with classes, setting up online LibGuides for everything from anti-racism guides to COVID-19 information, coordinating eBook materials for professors who can no longer rely on in-library textbook reserves to support their students, all that makes for a great deal of digital work that gives even I, a lowly Library Assistant, plenty to do. Public libraries have been putting out online programming and promoting their digital materials, but I have still heard tales of furloughs and general letting goes numbering in hundreds of employees in a single institution. The writing on the wall regarding the need for technology in information institutions has been there for some time, but much as the pandemic has demonstrated the reality that blue-collar workers are more vital than millionaires in the grand scope of things and guaranteed health care for all is a necessity for continued civilization, not a liberal paradise, countless libraries are reckoning with surviving almost entirely online. Things have gotten to the point that I will be overcoming my distaste for coding (being shoved headfirst into C++ as an introduction to computer science in undergraduate engineering will do that to you) and taking a course on information technology tools and applications for my final three units of my program. I will also be reconsidering my current stance of favoring public libraries over academic libraries as potential places of employment: our current reality is demanding nothing less.

In some ways, I am very glad that my odd program schedule is pushing my spring graduation forward to an unorthodox summer one. In others, I have my doubts that a few months of reprieve will significantly return the information profession’s job market to what it was when I first embarked on my MLIS program. Everyone everywhere is reconciling in some fashion with new priorities and increased restraints, and while I have been rather fortunate in being completely online in both work and school (in addition to both some more unorthodox adaptations), I am fiercely missing my book sales, movie theatres, and coffee shops. So, when it comes to counseling burgeoning information professionals on how they should be spending their life in quarantine, I have to say, do what you can, but do not assume you have your regular amounts of “can,” if any at all, available to you. If the thought of attending information science webinars makes you want to stay in bed for sixteen hours, it may be best to focus on activities more directly life-sustaining. Above all else, reaching out to others in any way permitted by this brave new world of ours is your best bet, whether your goal is self-care or professional upkeep. We are all in this together, and an increasing familiarity with virtual forms of communication is not the worst thing an information professional can develop.

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