“None of us knows what might happen even the next minute, yet still we go forward. Because we trust. Because we have Faith.”
― Paulo Coelho, Brida
Before you read this any further, I want to warn you of two things. First, that I ask a lot of questions but have very few—make that zero—answers. Second, that this isn’t the most streamlined article. Honestly, during this pandemic, my thoughts haven’t been terribly streamlined either. Instead, I present to you a realistic representation of what my reflection process has been like lately.
On the few occasions that I’ve left my house during the past few months, it’s been hard to ignore the untrusting glances that flicker across everyone’s faces. Parents usher children away from their neighborhood friends. Shoppers at the grocery store peek down aisles to see if anyone else is standing in the way. Those wearing masks are eager to put distance between themselves and anyone outside of their household. Those not wearing masks exhibit distrust of government entities and those who are willing to follow them. Some of us may not even trust ourselves, catching ourselves walking a little too close to a cashier or neighbor during a friendly interaction, relying firmly on the lines or dots that have been spaced out for when we need to queue.
In many ways, distrust of “old” behaviors is wise. To keep one another safe, taking precautions and reminding ourselves that even asymptomatic individuals may be carrying the virus is vital. As library people, we encourage others to fact check sources rather than trusting that every article that crosses their social media is true. We should not be overly trusting. What we should be wary of, however, is the rapidity with which this distrust is becoming social distrust, further polarizing an already segmented society. Lack of trust causes numerous issues, from grocery hoarding to heightened anxiety. In fact, a March blog post from Scientific American asserts that “Trust is the Key to Fighting the Pandemic.”
How do we find a way to hold tight to trust while remaining cautious and aware? How will this delicate intersection of trust and precaution impact our libraries?
Numerous surveys have shown that public libraries are among the America’s most trusted institutions. Community members come to us for legal help and medical advice (not that we can provide either), sharing stories of some of the most private details of their lives. We are consulted when problems need solving, occasions need celebrating, hearts need lightening. Parents bring their children to us as they learn and grow. The public library is a safe space for so many, a gathering place, an important piece of social infrastructure.
Will trust in libraries decay? I anticipate, based on the number of reference questions I’ve unofficially answered in the past few months, that people will continue coming to us with questions, if just over the phone or online for a little while. I hope that the library continues to be seen as a reliable, caring institution.
I’m much more concerned about how the library as a community builder and social infrastructure will be impacted going forward. Libraries have increasingly been evolving into spaces where people from all backgrounds can exist together. According to a 2018 white paper from the Urban Libraries Council, “seventy-three percent of Americans say libraries contribute either a lot or somewhat to promoting a sense of community among different groups in their local area.” As social and political distrust increases, we need that more than ever. However, we should not rush into reopening for this purpose.
A sense of community is closely tied with feelings of safety and trust. In my area, I don’t anticipate that many people will feel safe enough to hang out in our comfy chairs or gather in enclosed spaces for quite some time, nor will library staff members be comfortable and safe assisting people close up at the computers or desks. Opening too early could cause further social damage, like heightened judgement when our patrons experiencing homelessness return to our buildings as quickly as they are able, while those who have the luxury of sheltering somewhere else look disdainfully at them for breathing in a public space.
In order to continue our work as a community builder, we need to do as much as possible to maintain trust between users, trust in the physical space of the library, and trust from library staff members that they are not placing themselves in harms way by going to work. If we revert totally back to the way things were before it is safe to do so, we are breaking that trust. Instead, we must take our time, be fully transparent about the precautions we are taking, and continue finding innovative ways to meet the needs of everyone in our community while our physical operations gradually resume.
What are you reflecting on right now? I’d love to hear in the comments.
Kerri is an MSI LIS candidate at Drexel University Online. She tweets occasionally at @klmillik.