I started my current job right before the pandemic started, so I have a faint, yet glittering, memory of what library life was like pre-pandemic. Strange as it is to say, the library has essentially returned to “normal” functioning. We’ve long since done away with quarantining book returns, enforcing capacity limits, or conducting contact tracing. Despite this return to “business as usual,” the pandemic has left indelible impacts on how our patrons behave and the services we provide. The following is a list of the broadest changes that I’ve observed in the last 2+ years that I believe will persist in the future.
How we use spaces
In my library we have about 15 rooms that were reserved for group study. In the “before” times, the rule was that they were only to be used by multiple people at once. They were not exclusive study rooms for individuals. Well, the rise of remote meetings made this policy completely untenable. In my academic library, single students reasonably need these spaces for private meetings, interviews, and remote classes. We quickly realized there was just not enough space for people who needed to Zoom. This year, the loudest complaint that I’ve heard from students is that there are too few private spaces on campus. We can’t build new rooms in the library, but we’ve had to question the function of other rooms. Are they best serving students in their current capacity or should they be converted to Zoom meeting rooms? The issue has been surprisingly contentious. All over the country, libraries are questioning whether space utilization should be evaluated based on what kind of activity goes on in them, rather than the type of user.
No surprise here, there is a rising expectation that services can and should be available online. We are getting a steady increase every year in requests for online books and streaming videos. While more access to digital content is a good thing, it’s proven logistically challenging and expensive. Publishers (for law casebooks, at any rate) charge extremely high fees for textbooks that can only be purchased in bundles, most of the books in which we don’t actually need. There are also A LOT of vendors for streaming movies, all of which have different terms and conditions in their licensing agreements. Plus, the number of times I’ve had to explain to faculty that, no, you can’t just upload movies from Netflix or Amazon onto their course websites is astoundingly high.
In addition to the digitization of our collection, our technology and reference departments are spending more time dispensing virtual services than ever before. Instead of physically coming into the library or even calling on the phone, tech specialists and librarians are answering emails, taking Zoom calls, and responding to chat requests. Even if students physically come into the library, they’re still making appointments and reservations online first as staff members move to a more “on-call” service model.
Turnover is high
There’s been massive turnover of people leaving their jobs for higher paying jobs both in and outside the field. Salaries are growing meagerly or not at all, and short-staffing is exacerbating burnout and pressure. In fact, with inflation and cost adjustments, I am making less money each year. I made more money as a teacher (a notoriously underpaid job) than I do in my library position. I’m not optimistic about the future either. At one of our all-staff meetings, when asked about raises, an administrator had the audacity to tell people if they wanted more pay, they should consider looking for a new position. It was…discouraging. I’m not the only one feeling the squeeze.
There was emphasis on DEI before 2020, but it’s definitely (and rightly) kicked up a notch over the last two years. There are more training sessions and programming on a staff level to teach us to be more inclusive. We’ve had pronoun and implicit bias workshops. I’ve noticed during hiring that the library has been more actively recruiting people from underrepresented groups. I hesitate to say that this has resulted in large-scale institutional change, but it is different from before.
In terms of our collection, I’ve seen a huge increase of books, etc. that cover topics around social justice. Recent titles added this past month include Power, Race, and Justice: The Restorative Dialogue We Will Not Have and White Men’s Law: The Roots of Systemic Racism. In fact, the sections of our library that hold a lot of these new titles have gotten so full, we need to complete a shifting project this summer to accommodate all the newcomers. This growth is amplified by professors who are adding traditionally underrepresented topics to their syllabi.
When the pandemic started, we all knew it was going to change things, but by how much? As I achingly realized that it wouldn’t just be a few weeks at home, that it was one of those forever earth-altering events, I tried to predict what its lasting implications would be. In hindsight its ramifications align perfectly with what history dictated, but I still find myself impressed by how mundane and extraordinary the effects are. With concerns as silly as “where can I take this Zoom call?” to ones as important as “how do I overcome prejudice and bias?”, it’s clear that the “end” of the pandemic has created more questions than it answered.
Melissa Grasso lives in Boston and began at Simmons University last fall. She works as a library assistant where she specializes in course reserves, copy cataloging, and social media management. You can find her on Twitter @grassbro or LinkedIn.