One Library’s COVID Experience: A Snapshot of a Community College Library During a Pandemic

We just passed the one-year anniversary of when I and all the rest of the staff at the community college library where I work started working from home, and I thought it might be interesting to try to capture a little bit of what that’s been like from a staff perspective. (Also, on a more personal note, I enjoy reading about how other community colleges and types of libraries are handling this time, and want more of this documented somewhere, just because it’s been such a weird and [hopefully] unique experience.)

On Thursday, March 12, 2020, our college had its twice-annual Flex Day, or Professional Development Day. All classes are cancelled and all student services offices (library included) are closed to the public for the day. My coworkers in the access services (circulation) department and I carved out a few hours that morning for a staff training event for our student workers, which we were looking forward to holding in our library building while there weren’t any patrons in it. I brought bagels, we sent them on a scavenger hunt, we broke everyone up into breakout groups to learn how to use the new campus printing system, we went around the room and had everyone share their most and least favorite things about working at the library, and then I opened up the floor for questions.

One student worker raised her hand. “Is the library going to close?”

“As of right now, no,” I said, truthfully. “As far as I know, all in-person classes are happening tomorrow, and we’ll open up at our usual time and continue on like normal. If that changes, however, I’ll let you know.” They all nodded, and we moved on.

I wasn’t exactly wrong – we did open up at our usual time that Friday – but that was our last normal day. We got a mass email on March 13th that starting Monday, classes would go virtual and no students would be allowed on campus.

For a few weeks, though, staff kept coming in to work, even though our doors were locked. (We weren’t even wearing masks yet! It was a weird time.) I share an office with two other people, so, in the interest of this new social-distancing thing we kept hearing about, two of us volunteered to take laptops and go work in one of the (now empty) student study rooms. I remember being pleasantly surprised by how well and quickly the Wifi was working – with so few people on campus using it, it hardly dropped at all.

A week or two later, however, even that changed, and we were all sent to work from home. Our biggest undertaking during those first few weeks was making huge updates to our library’s webpage. Some sections we just removed wholesale (‘Computing in the Library,’ ‘Printing in the Library’); while others we changed to either send people to other locations (take-home laptops and hotspots could be picked up from the IT department, who along with our facilities staff were the only groups on campus not to be sent home), and most of them we simply directed back to ourselves. Do you have a reference question? We can still help with that – only now you’ll need to book a Zoom session with a librarian or use our online chat. Do you need an article through ILL? I can help you with that – maybe. (I wrote about some of the challenges – and successes! – of getting ILL requests to students while working from home here.) But where we were really stymied was how we would get books and materials into students’ hands – namely, the books were inside the building, and none of us were allowed in to go get them. And even if we were, how would we get them to the students?

My first day back in the building was May 11, 2020. Faculty, which for us in the library includes all the librarians, were still completely WFH (and, as I’m writing this in March 2021, still are), but classified staff (me and all the other library technicians, plus the administrative assistant) and managers (for us, that’s our dean) would come in-person one day a week, and WFH the other four. With a relatively small staff and three-story building, we were able to stagger ourselves so that no one would have to share an office at any point, which meant as long as we were in our office with the door closed, we could take our masks off. It also meant we could finally join in on this ‘curbside service’ thing we’d been reading about public libraries around the country jumping into. (It also meant we could empty the bookdrops for the first time in a month and a half, which, whew.)

We’ve gone through a couple of versions of ‘curbside’ since then. First, we tried holding open sessions – we posted on our website that someone would be waiting at the front door of the building in two-hour sessions, twice a day, for four days a week, and students could come anytime during those times and pick up their items. We put masking tape down on the entranceway floor, hoping they’d remember to space themselves out if a big rush of students all came at once.

In practice, though, it was more like an intermittent trickle, and we had long stretches where staff felt they were wasting time posted at the front door, unable to leave and get any other work done on the one day they were allowed to be in the building, but also not helping any students. So, we switched to making one-on-one appointments.

Just before COVID, we’d asked the IT department if we could have a generic access services email address, the way the librarians did for reference. Once we started using it to make pick-up appointments, monitoring that account became the bulk of my at-home work. On my day to be in the library, my co-worker checks the account and forwards me any requests for pick-ups that come in, and I do the same for her on her day to be in the building. On days both of us are WFH, we take it in alternating 4-hour shifts. (I’m proud that our most common follow-up comment is, ‘Thank you for getting back to me so quickly!’)

Just recently, however, our dean upgraded our Springshare subscription, and that same co-worker and I spent a frustrating few weeks on Zoom trying to set up templates in LibCal that would let students book these pick-up appointments on their own, without us as intermediaries. (It wasn’t LibCal itself that was necessarily frustrating, simply that it was one of those things that we could have finished in an hour in-person and instead took us three different Zoom meetings over three separate weeks. At one point, my power went out while I was screen sharing.) But, we’ve been up and running for a week now, and students seem comfortable with the system.

As of today, it looks like we may be open, at limited capacity, for summer session – but I’ve also heard fall, or right after spring break, as possibilities, and no one has a very clear answer yet. Limited hours? Almost definitely. Limited capacity? Probably. Continuing curbside service as a low-contact option? Maybe (personally I hope so). For now, though, we’ll just keep plugging away here at home, trying to serve students as best we can. Good luck to everyone else doing the same!

Photo by the author

As I said, I love hearing about other people’s experiences with WFH or ever-changing service models during this time, so if you have a story to share, please do so in the comments below!

Lauren is a student at the iSchool at San José State University and works in circulation and ILL at a community college library in Los Angeles. Her interests include resource sharing, student worker management, and emergency preparedness. She forgot to include ‘global pandemic’ on her list of disasters to be prepared for, but has since rectified the oversight.

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