An International Library Student’s Perspective on Remote Work During the COVID-19 Pandemic

While attending the University of Iowa’s School of Information Science, I have also served as a student cataloger in the UI Main Library’s cataloging department. Like most metadata and cataloging librarians in the United States, I have undergone a significant transition from onsite work to remote cataloging since this past March. The process was uneasy and challenging for me; so I wanted to briefly share the experiences I had while transitioning from onsite to remote work and the lessons I took from them.

Prior to this transition in mid-March, my primary job duty in my institution’s cataloging department was to assist my supervisor with processing a significant number of books authored and published by individuals and institutions in South Asian countries. Before the transition, my workflow consisted of checking the bibliographic information of the physical copies of those books and then creating their cataloging information electronically. However, the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly interrupted my routine and thrust me to move to the cloud-based platform Ex Libris Esploro for cataloging.

However, the transition to cataloging collections remotely was not an easy task for me. Initially, I felt frustrated by using the online cataloging platform because I had not had any experience in using the software before mid-March. However, thanks to my supervisors’ patience and kindness, I was encouraged to take practice in cataloging on the new platform; and, eventually, I became adept at cataloging remotely in an efficient manner. In fact, the first week after transitioning to remote work was one of the hardest times of my career at the library. I felt upset about adapting to the new system; and, without any savvy in acquiring the skill of cataloging remotely, I was stuck in frustration and disappointment of my awkwardness in learning how to catalog on the Ex Libris Esploro.

Thus, in reflecting on the transition from cataloging in the traditional onsite work environment to cataloging remotely as a result of the pandemic, I encourage my peers to take a look at its bright side. As an international student of Chinese origin, my home language and culture enable me to view this transition from a different perspective that has been focused on within history. For example, as President John F. Kennedy noted in a 1959 speech, “in the Chinese language, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity.”

In other words, as we figure out how to resolve a crisis appropriately, we could transform it from a threat to a new opportunity for change; which I feel defines the transitional period we have experienced during the pandemic. 

For example, in the face of the pandemic’s disastrous ramifications worldwide, I had to work at home and adjust to the “new normal” of working offsite and communicating with my supervisors and colleagues virtually. Thus, this crisis may provide an opportunity for me to improve my ability to work from home. In turn, one day when we return to the office and work onsite again, “work from home” may become an integral part of the new workflow of cataloging and metadata librarians. Hence, in spite of the frustration we might currently encounter when beginning to work remotely, we can still embrace the change; which may be one of the most significant lessons I have taken away during the transition in the past few months.

Shu Wan is a current LIS graduate student in the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Iowa. While working on a community-based oral history project focused on collecting Chinese and Chinese American residents’ testimonies of their encounters with her local community during the pandemic, she expects to raise local people’s awareness of the deteriorated Asian-targeted racial justices in American society.

Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

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