On space and realities: Navigating late stage COVID

Precaution during the Spanish Influenza Epidemic would not permit anyone to ride on the street cars without wearing a mask, Seattle, Washington (ca.1918). Original from Library of Congress. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.
Precaution during the Spanish Influenza Epidemic would not permit anyone to ride on the street cars without wearing a mask, Seattle, Washington (ca.1918). Original from Library of Congress. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel. flickr photo by Free Public Domain Illustrations by rawpixel shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

I’ve been back in the office daily (more or less) since August. Until then I had been mostly working from home, only working on campus 1-2 days a week staggered with my assistant so that we never overlapped. We only got regular access to the building in late Spring 2021. Before that, we had to ask for permission any time we came to campus, which really limited us. I know that lots of people started going back to their worksites earlier in the Fall of 2020, and others still never really worked from home.

Some of the hardest things about those first weeks of the semester were negotiating the new paradigm with myself and others. I had to work through my own personal feelings and anxieties of being around other people, finding places to eat outside, making sure other people felt safe, and reminding folks to comply with campus COVID policies. Coming in regular contact with others was a reminder that the pandemic has not been the same for everybody, and that we all carry parts of it with us every day.

It’s hard to think about the fear and uncertainties we experienced in the Spring of 2020 at the early day of the pandemic, but in some moments those emotions rush back when I feel overwhelmed by the number of people in my library, or seeing folks flouting local mask rules. I frequently say to myself, “I have spent almost two years keeping my family safe, is it all going to fall apart now?” But those moments are less and less frequent as I rebuild my muscle memory of navigating the world around others.

For folks just easing back into going to the office, there’s understandable culture shock that likely comes with every wave of reopening. There’s also so much trauma we’re still collectively processing, but it’s important to recognize it hasn’t affected everybody equally. In the U.S., COVID has hit “communities with high populations of marginalized and minoritized populations that have historically been disinvested in” the hardest. It has been a privilege to work from home (even when struggling with care obligations), one that lots of workers never were afforded. So as people are now confronted with demands to “return to normal”, they are working through some of the same fears others have just accepted or have buried out of necessity.

We’ve all had some threads that are woven through our experiences of the pandemic. Some have devastating losses of loved ones, jobs, stability. Others have been adapting to new social bubbles, binging media, taking up new hobbies, or accepting chaos. Early on I wrote about the need to extend grace to one another as we get through this moment, and that’s still true. I also talked about the need to recognize that things are terrible and to stop pretending, which is also true. It’s not to say everything is doomed, but it’s negligent to ignore the brittle precarity of the world right now thanks to huge inequalities and the looming climate catastrophe.

I have attempted to approach every interaction I have with other folks from a place of grace and care, but sometimes it’s hard. We’re all fatigued. When somebody wants to go through their need for hygiene theater, I have to remind myself that this is how they’re coping even though its misplaced effort. Or when people try to lecture me on health and safety standards, making up government agency acronyms in an attempt to give authority to their understandable fears, I try to focus on how to help them feel safe now. It’s frustrating because every location is different, and there’s a practical (and frustrating) need to balance what should be with what’s happening. Should workplaces have thorough ventilation audits of all workspaces? Sure. Did they perform them? No. And maybe my acceptance that this is just how it’s going to be is contributing to the problem, but after spending much of the last year and a half trying to conceive of the return to campus under shifting situations and rules I am tired.

Then there are folks on the other side of the equation – who are exhausted of the pandemic and ready to move on. Some have a fatalist view that everybody will get COVID, so there isn’t the need to stop it. Others look at the numbers and have decided that the statistical risk is fine, and even if they or others get COVID it won’t be too bad. Then, of course, there are the folks who have bought into conspiracies and disinformation around COVID and vaccines. Whatever the motivation, the results are similar: lax (or no) masking, no regard for other actions to minimize spread, and a belief that they won’t be affected. I just try to give these folks space, but also project clear boundaries — They might think indoor masking is pointless now, but lots of people don’t and it’s policy at the moment. They might want to eat in places that don’t check vaccine status, and I won’t even patronize those places for take away. That seems to the the rhythm.

But the most frustrating thing now, other than the state’s inability to actually stop the spread and the selfish nature of so many, is the lack of empathy and grace of others. And in some ways, that reveals how they have (or haven’t) adapted throughout the pandemic.

Last Spring and Summer, I was really depressed. It seems kind of inconsequential because it seems par for the course of a pandemic. When I get depressed, I withdraw and burrow inside my dark feelings. Aside from people giving me concrete asks or making it clear they needed an actual response, I disappeared. And because it was a pandemic and I was isolated at home, it was easy to avoid interacting with people. People who were also living through a pandemic and focused on their own issues. So as some things became critical, I finally started to re-engage and acknowledge I dropped out due to depression. Lots of people were understanding and kind, sharing their own struggles. One of my friends (who I had let down) told me after I opened up about my depression that I should regard vulnerability as self care. That I being vulnerable with others can really help – and by-in-large it did! I didn’t have to avoid folks or pretend this was a really hard period for me.

But then there were the folks whose response was, “Yeah, but what am I supposed to do about it?” And again, I approached that moment with care and understood that was a manifestation of their own pressures and stressors of navigating a pandemic. So I swallowed my annoyance at their kind of callous response to my vulnerability, followed through on what they asked but also couldn’t forget that their version of humanity in that moment. I pulled away from folks like that, but not from depression but wariness from those who couldn’t extend grace towards me or others a year into a pandemic. And so when some of these individuals I still interact with clearly are struggling with this liminal moment of opening up and they ask for grace and understanding form others, it takes all of my strength to not give them the same glib treatment they gave to me.

It is that schism that has stuck with me as more people are returning to working in offices and away from home. The narrow focus of many on their individual, personal situation to the exclusion of others. That they are the first to consider ventilation, or masking, or hand sanitizer stations. Others recognize the larger structures – either they have been working through the pandemic and navigating the complexities of public health measures, or they have paid attention and recognize the amount of labor that has gone into all of these issues. It’s not too different than issues around class consciousness, but that’s another ramble.

Working through friction towards consensus

Anti Viet Nam Rally NYC 1969
Anti Viet Nam Rally NYC 1969 flickr photo by Winston J.Vargas shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

Today I attended a forum for SLA 2021 Board candidates to meet and talk to members. After years of involvement and talking about the association, I’m finally standing for the board. You can read my candidate statement here. The questions and discussions were interesting and I wish I could have talked to some of the other candidates to get a sense of their positions beyond the statements, but it’s hard with a compressed election cycle and so many candidates.

I focused a lot on the need to define “member driven” and build opportunities for member engagement and feedback into association governance – to democratize SLA in a way, building on lessons I’ve learned from union organizing. Which led to an interesting question – if elected how would I work with members of the current board that have a different perspective and point of view?

When the question was asked, it definitely had an edge to it with some implied antagonism between myself and current board members that I don’t think exists, but it does reflect current concerns within the SLA membership. Rather than taking it as a “gotcha” moment, or some kind of trap, I tried to answer it honestly: First it depends on how the election goes, to see who is on the board. Secondly, I would expect there to be disagreements but I imagine we’re all in it to help SLA succeed. So assuming good intentions, we’ll work through the friction for an inclusive path.

This reminded me that not everybody is comfortable with friction, though some folks are all too used to it in different contexts. Growing up kind of weird, my life has always had friction. I never fit in at school, with my family, community. (I also recognize this is all very mild friction, growing up a middle class white kid in the U.S.) I had to assume people wouldn’t agree with me, or understand my point right away. That my ideas and philosophies weren’t always orthodox, and that was OK. The friction taught me to find ways to connect with others, to find common ground, and that it takes work, listening and sharing. As I have gotten older, I’ve gotten more at ease with the constant friction being a bit different. I just assume others don’t understand my perspective, nor I theirs, and that I need to engage and learn.

And the SLA candidate event this morning reminded me that I am not quite like some of the other board candidates – though not very dissimilar either. We all want what we think is the best for SLA. We have different approaches, informed by our different sets of philosophies and values. On one hand I feel kind of sheepish when I talk about my passion for engaging members, borrowing from the framework I’ve learned as a union organizer, because it’s not been a model talked about in SLA during my time as a member. I feel self conscious when I question the impact of neoliberalism on special libraries and the information economy, but it’s also genuine. I don’t know if SLA members would elect somebody openly anti-capitalist, and I don’t expect SLA to become an anti-capitalist organization, but I also think there’s a lot of be gained to be earnest in raising those questions. It’s through the friction from asking these questions, to cut through platitudes, and hopefully get a more defined value statement for SLA members, that I hope the association will be member driven in a democratic sense. Building consensus is a process, not a decree.

Thinking about libraries, data retention, privacy, and you.

Police Surveillance (LAPD)
Police Surveillance (LAPD) flickr photo by Popwerks shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

A while back one of my library’s regular users asked me about what data the library’s proxy server collected about their usage and how much information was retained by the university. They asked what should have been a fairly straight forward question and I was stymied. I looked to see if our campus had documented policies I could share with them, and couldn’t find much. I asked around – trying to figure out who would have such a policy, but not trying to create a mess – and couldn’t find any information. I kicked the question out to the collective wisdom of library workers and got no concrete information.

In the end this regular fell into a rhythm of asking me for PDFs of anything they needed to hand over information in order to access, or if they needed something and weren’t on the campus network. As a library worker who understood their concerns about privacy, I obliged. The concept of privacy is critical to the freedom of inquiry and intellectual curiosity, and central in the Library Bill of Rights. Here is a relevant section from ALA’s privacy interpretation of that document:

The right to privacy includes the right to open inquiry without having the subject of one’s interest examined or scrutinized by others, in person or online. Confidentiality exists when a library is in possession of personally identifiable information about its users and keeps that information private on their behalf.5 Article III of the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association states that confidentiality extends to “information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted,” including, but not limited to, reference questions and interviews, circulation records, digital transactions and queries, as well as records regarding the use of library resources, services, programs, or facilities. 

The privacy implications of the user data we retain from library proxies fits within the broader context which Kalliopi Mathios ascribed, “The Commodification of the Library Patron” – where we treat library users as customers, as if libraries were selling a product like coffee shops, online retailers, or media companies. It’s a logical outcome from the decades long trend of neoliberalism’s reshaping libraries. The question about data retention from proxies comes back into view with the publishers and NISO proposed RA21, oh I mean Seamless Access. It saw many raise concerns about the proposal’s privacy implications, such as ARL and Dorothea Salo. The piece “User Tracking on Academic Publisher Platforms” by Cody Hanson outlines many of the issues for library patron privacy as we rely on third parties who are driven by profit motives.

So that brings us to this week when Dorothea Salo published a dataset she obtained through a FOI request of her patron data from University of Wisconsin.

Her request led to the confirmation that the University of Wisconsin not only collects user data (which isn’t really a surprise), but also retains much of it (which is a really big deal). Here is where she describes more about her request for this information. I look forward to reading her further analysis on the matter. I doubt Wisconsin is the only library system that retains this much user data.

And let’s make it clear – this data set is bad. Remember 20 years back when libraries were the protectors of confidentiality and privacy in the face of the USA PATRIOT Act? Well that was then. I don’t think this kind of data retention happens out of any nefarious motives. There are probably some good intentions behind it, in trying to leverage this data to better serve users (just like Amazon and Google!), which could lead to student success! But of course, that feeds into learning analytics which are often in opposition to library ethics. The circulation data should not exist. I know it’s valuable for collection assessment but to the level of granularity tied to an individual? I guess all the talk around the PATRIOT Act was just bluster. The proxy data is something libraries need to look at their contracts with vendors for but again… if they’re going to retain that data we need to make it explicitly clear to library users.

So yeah… none of this is a surprise but it’s troubling as heck.

The Loneliness of a Special Dumpster Librarian.

I just want someone to love me !
I just want someone to love me ! flickr photo by CJS*64 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

I’ve been thinking a lot about my own existence as a special library worker in an academic setting lately. I’m on the peer-review committee for librarians at work, so I’ve been reading about all the impactful work my impressive colleagues have been doing. It’s humbling. It also brings into focus the many ways people can be librarians and how the size of a department or organization greatly impacts ones job duties. It also often reflects the drastic changes to library staffing we’ve seen in the last decade. When I was hired as a librarian, my organization had 4 full time librarians, 3 full time staff, and 10 student employees. Now it’s 1 librarian, 1 staff, and a handful of students (COVID not permitting). I went from only doing reference and instruction to doing everything – cataloging, processing, collection development, reference, research support, data management, community building, and knowledge management.

That’s a lot.

And to some people this sounds absolutely bonkers and a recipe for failure because they’re kind of Dumpster Jobs that include everything but kitchen sink. And the trend for large libraries, in large systems to make untenable jobs with huge mandates is definitely a thing we need to collectively push back against. But on the other hand, for some organizations and positions it’s just a fact of life. Christina Pikas just wrote about it in her post “Dumpster Jobs, Coordinator Positions, and Special Library Normal Operations” and rarely have I felt so validated as a library worker. I’ve spent my entire career in special libraries, and around special library workers who are responsible for everything information related in their organization. Juggling so many disparate tasks to keep library services functioning while also advocating for your position’s existence, and satisfying organizational needs (that often change with the winds) is exhausting but also unavoidable. One reason I still value being a member of the Special Libraries Association is the community of other library workers in similar situations – the ones who understand what I’m trying to balance! When I talk to other library workers from more traditional environments, it’s more surprising than not when they understand my role and that until we get the resources to hire more staff I have to be a little bit of everything to everybody. (Oh and I hope I will carve out the time to develop some new models and programs to get the funding to get that staff!) So of course I expect that response. I am used to tempering my expectations and kind of ignoring some of the critiques about jobs like mine because they’re not really saying anything new and aren’t going to help libraries like mine.

Which is all to say, being a library worker in a small library or department presents challenges that are hard for library workers in more traditional, larger organizations to recognize. And I’m used to it. And yet still sometimes the reminders sting.

Recognizing that everything is terrible.

Summit School student, 1935
Summit School student, 1935 flickr photo by Seattle Municipal Archives shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

This has been a long, traumatic year for everybody.

The pandemic, the reckoning for centuries of racial violence and oppression, the global economic collapse, neo-fascism, the unfolding climate collapse, and the building sense of isolation and despair. (Or maybe it’s just me.)

This week has been overwhelming with these compounding stressors here in the United States. Many families are still without childcare. Parents (mostly mothers) are trying to help their kids go to school remotely while also trying to work and hold the household together. That is if they are fortunate enough to still have a job. So many have lost their jobs or had hours reduced, but still have to pay rent or a mortgage. Business are going under. People are hungry. That’s aside from the the fact that COVID-19 is continuing to spread throughout communities, with thousands getting sick and dying every day. The level of tragedy is staggering.

So as the pressures we face continue to pile on us, it’s important to recognize how powerless we are as individuals. I feel fatigued from trying to carry on during a pandemic, where everything is uncertain. The grace and emotional labor I could carry in March is waning due to fatigue, but also the normalization of working through deeply traumatic times. I hate it. I hate knowing that my fear about my personal situation echo so many others.

This week I felt my own anxieties and worries come to a head — with news of the campus budget coming out, impending furloughs, discussions of our upcoming academic review cycle for librarians (how do you review somebody’s work during a prolonged global catastrophe?), not being able to see family for the holidays (a blessing and a curse) — and it hurts. But what hurts more is seeing the fears of anxieties of others — my friends, family, colleagues, union siblings, neighbors, basically all other humans — and feeling some of their pain. It’s overwhelming. We’re all collectively overwhelmed.

The thing that I sit with, other than everything really is terrible and we’re all freaking out to various degrees, is that there isn’t much we can do about it. I can listen and I can empathize, but I can’t fix anything. The people who can fix things won’t, and so we keep looking around and pointing the finger and hoping for something to change and it won’t. I’m not writing this to despair or say there’s no hope. I’m writing this to recognize and affirm that this is a dark and chaotic time, and that we all have understandable free floating trauma and pain that will be hard to remedy. I refuse to normalize this pain. To pretend business as usual will work. It hurts to say that because I love actionable solutions, but it’s good to remember that we’re all in this together and this is bad.

So I’m going to continue to feel the weight of this year on my shoulders and the hell continues to unfold, be thankful for my good fortunes, and try to help others. I just wish everybody else could remember to carry empathy and grace with them throughout their actions.