“I’m baaaaack” – My experiences with going back to campus and back to the library during the COVID-19 pandemic

I have been back on campus and back in my office in my library since July 20th. That was my first day back on campus since I left work on March 17th. The academic library where I work remains closed to the public. In fact, there are currently only about 10 of us in the whole building who are actually cleared to be on campus right now; and classes are staying remote (where possible) until the end of the Winter 2021 semester at the moment. So, why am I back? Well, because I supervise a service that has been deemed essential to the function of the university and about 5% of that service is something that can only be done from on-campus, in the library, with access to the physical collection. I oversee my university’s course reserves service, production of printed coursepacks, and, as of this summer, copyright clearance of images for use in online learning. In order to provide course readings, we do sometimes still need to be able to scan chapters from physical books in order to digitize them.

Because 95% of what we do can still be done remotely thanks to the ever-growing shift to electronic items, we’re only back on campus on a very part-time basis right now. There are two of us on my team at the moment (there were three but one switched to a different unit in the library right around the time the pandemic hit); so what we’ve been doing is alternating weeks. One week I go in on Monday and Wednesday and the next week my associate does. We’re hoping to bring in some student help with scanning later on in September, though, so that will require me to be on campus more and my teammate less because I’m the student manager for our office; which means if my student is onsite I damn well sure would be, too. It’s not my leadership style at all to ask the people on my team to do something I’m not willing to do myself. Thankfully, that’s the attitude of my superiors in the library as well. My manager oversees all three teams that are currently allowed to be back on-site: my team, our ILL office, and the circulation/collections team who is running our book requesting service. Because of that, she’s on-site full-time again because at least one person from her teams is on site every day. The University Librarian has been doing the same: she’s back onsite full-time because we are, and I thank her and our AULs and my manager for stepping up like that. Luckily, we’re in an area that, for the time being at least, hasn’t been too hard hit by COVID-19.

So, what’s it like being back on-campus and back in the library? For me, it’s weirdly physically exhausting on the days that I have to go in and I’m still not really able to pinpoint exactly why. Our university has enacted a great contact tracing procedure, they’re making sure everything gets regularly disinfected and they’ve put good policies about social distancing into place. They even gave all those of us who’ve had to come back care packages that had cloth masks in them. Speaking of cloth masks, I’m lucky to have an enclosed workroom, because that means when I’m in my office I don’t have to wear my mask. But, whenever I leave my fish bowl (the walls of my work room are made of glass and we’re in the center of a busy floor), I do have to put my mask on and I don’t mind. That’s the rule: anyone in a common area has to wear a mask. It’s also eerily quiet in the building because there’s no one milling about and there’s no ambient noise; and the whole campus is like that, even more of a ghost town than it usually is in the summer.

What have the challenges been? The biggest one for me has been training. We’ve got someone from the circulation/collections team helping out on our service on a part-time basis because of how completely inundated we’ve been by the shift to remote learning. It’s been kind of hard to train her using a combination of virtual video chats, IMing, and the occasionally F2F socially distanced meeting on the days we’re both on campus. Training is definitely a skill set I have and am proud of, but training someone in the area of COVID-19 is definitely putting those skills to the test. The other thing that has been challenging and frustrating is all of the myriad IT issues I’ve had over the summer. First, it took a day for them to figure out how we could even access the systems we’d need from home. At multiple points over the summer I was left completely unable to do any work because of either internet issues at home, or issues with my on-campus machine that I access every day via remote desktop. Another thing I didn’t expect and count on? The vending machines of all things, they’re turned off and of course that makes perfect sense, but in the moment I was very confused.

Overall, though, it hasn’t been bad or hard to be back, we do what we do in order to help our faculty members to be better teachers and focus more on their classrooms, and to help students improve achievement through better access to their course materials. If achieving that means I have to go back to campus, then I’m going to do it while taking all necessary safety precautions. I’m just glad I wasn’t onsite the day of the flood on the same floor as our Archive…

I know how lucky I am to still be working at home more often than not. I have the privilege of working at a library that is not open to the public again yet. Not all of our colleagues have this: many libraries, especially public libraries are open for business not quite as usual, but patrons are allowed to be back in the building. For those of you in that boat, you have my empathy, and I hope your managers are taking this seriously and giving you all of the resources you need to continue working safely.

In the meantime, what I have to ask everyone else is, please take the guidelines and health advice seriously. Do your part so that those of us who do have to be back out in the world can be as safe as possible while we are. To my fellow library employees who are back in your buildings to provide services to your users that can only be provided from on-site, I am with you and we are all with you. You have our support, and love and gratitude, stay safe, take care of yourselves, and don’t feel guilty for standing up for yourselves.

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