Don't Leave Workers Out of the Library Narrative | Opinion

There’s been a trend in articles coming out in major publications about how excited people are to get back to their libraries and how resilient libraries are. While they pay important attention to the needs libraries are still striving to meet in their communities, these narratives do nothing to expose the miserable realities that library workers are experiencing, or incite any kind of action to be taken in their defense.

Callan Bignoli standing inside in front of potted plants with vertical sign readingThere’s been a trend in articles coming out in major publications about how excited people are to get back to their libraries and how resilient libraries are—something EveryLibrary's Patrick Sweeney called “happy-go-lucky library stories” at the recent #LIBREV conference. While they pay important attention to the needs libraries are still striving to meet in their communities, these narratives do nothing to expose the miserable realities that library workers are experiencing, or incite any kind of action to be taken in their defense.

Let’s start with American Libraries. On May 1, amidst thousands of layoffs and furloughs of library workers happening all around the country, the magazine published a piece by American Library Association (ALA) President Wanda Brown congratulating the resilience and stick-to-it-iveness of “librarians and library workers.” There was no mention of lost jobs, uncertain budgets, unsafe working conditions, managers censoring and punishing employees for speaking up for themselves, or threats of placement in riskier positions—in other words, none of what has defined this crisis for many of our colleagues.

Next, we have PBS NewsHour. The reporter did write about the less savory parts of the story, but the narrative here is very much about the extra miles library workers feel like they’re expected to go because there are no other options for their patrons. There’s a celebration of curbside pickup and enhanced social media use—and a laudable effort to make the internet more accessible—but not much in the way of questioning why it is that libraries are the only shred of social safety left for citizens, and not much exploration of how disaster politics and austerity are currently decimating our field.

The same went for this April 21 piece about Australia’s libraries in The Guardian, which quotes a public official who said, “The longer we keep our library branches closed, the deeper and more entrenched that digital divide will become.” Blaming library closures for the digital divide, a problematic term itself, is like blaming our immune systems for succumbing to the virus.

On May 8, an opinion piece written by a retired library worker ran in the Washington Post, titled “Local libraries will look a lot different when they reopen.” The author does mention furloughs, but says “some jurisdictions” have decided to do them and links to one system (despite the over 5,600 layoffs and furloughs estimated via data collected in a tracking document, a number that is likely much higher but difficult to accurately count because of ambiguous reporting and fear of retaliation). What’s remarkable about this piece is that the writer is focused on the changes public libraries will need to contend with as they reopen, but doesn’t mention how a skeleton staff and the health risks to employees will impact those changes. There’s also theorizing about print collections being supplanted by electronic ones, but no discussion of how impossible that feat is likely to be.

Then we come to a May 12 article in The Atlantic called “The Post-pandemic Future of Libraries.” Search the text for the words “furlough” or “layoff” and you come up short, even though it seems we're hearing about more and more of these every day. While many of the ramped-up digital services and community partnerships are creative and praiseworthy, the wellness checks and phone calls to patrons bring up valid concerns about privacy and job creep. Again, the reporter does not ask why libraries are the institution of last recourse for internet access, social work, and educational resources.

Last but not least, former ALA president Sari Feldman penned a piece called “Librarians, America is Counting on You” that appeared in Publishers Weekly on May 15. She prefaces this by mentioning her recent retirement and spends a few paragraphs talking about library school in the ’80s. Feldman then turns to pitting digital services against in-person ones, and she says, “All the energy in the library world cannot be about translating library programs to the web, building digital collections, and ensuring adequate book sterilization to kill the virus.” Why shouldn't all of our energy go to keeping our colleagues and communities safe? And why are people who are no longer working making declarations about how we should direct our energy in the first place?

One of the directors interviewed concludes the Atlantic piece with “I've never been prouder to be a librarian.” I do not mean this as a personal criticism of her, but I couldn't disagree more with that sentiment, having seen the following:

• Libraries are reopening to the public in states that are rushing forward to “get back to normal.” Workers at these libraries are scared for their health and safety, not only because of the COVID-19 transmission risk but also because patrons are unpredictable, may not comply with rules, and may become violent and unruly when asked to, as has already been seen at public places and restaurants.

• The impacts I’ve seen on people who’ve contacted me or are posting about their experiences on Twitter are anxiety, depression, anger, frustration, sleeplessness, feelings of helplessness, contemplating quitting even during a tanked economy, low morale, fear for family members, feelings that nothing they do will be enough to prevent furloughs or layoffs, and general malaise and purposelessness. Folks who have not yet been directly impacted, including me, are feeling a collective survivors’ guilt on the good days and a sensation that the other shoe is going to drop at any moment on the bad ones.

• In many states, some libraries or their towns are acting in opposition to stay-at-home orders. There are a handful of these in my home state of Massachusetts, where we've been hit hard by the virus and are still awaiting updates and a clear reopening plan from Governor Charlie Baker. Even systems as big as Chicago Public Library considered jumping the gun (targeting a June 1 reopening before walking back the date, but with employees still coming back on site this Wednesday to prep). It leads one to wonder what’s motivating this: Furloughs and layoffs in nearby towns? Political or public pressure? In any case, we need to ask why both municipal managers and leaders of our professional organizations seem to think that putting our colleagues at risk is the most politically expedient thing to do.

• Library workers remain concerned about using PPE [personal protective equipment] and cleaning supplies when there are still nationwide shortages of these items that should be prioritized for essential workers and people in vulnerable populations, such as in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and residences where there are sick or immunocompromised household members. They are also concerned about encouraging community members to leave home and run errands before a determination of whether or not it’s safe to do that.

• During the beginning and height of the #closethelibraries campaign, which started when many academic and public libraries were continuing to either operate as usual, refusing to provide telework options, or operating with scaled-down in-person services, it quickly became clear that many workers were being punished or threatened by library or municipal/institutional leadership if they attempted to speak about their unsafe conditions and stand up for their personal safety. As I was working with journalists trying to cover the movement, it was challenging to find people who were comfortable speaking on the record about their experiences for fear of retaliation. Leaders were exploiting the uncertainty and scariness of the job market to control these library workers and thus control the narrative of what was going on. And what was going on was not good, and continues to be very bad. As libraries begin to open back up, the job market has only gotten scarier, and we can expect the chilling effect to be correspondingly more severe.

I’m only scratching the surface of what’s going on, based on the stories people are sharing with me and on social media—mostly with fear of retaliation or anxiety about how helpless they feel—and things I’m coming across locally. The flipside of all of these feel-good pieces on digital story time, backyard summer reading, and boosted Wi-Fi signals in the parking lot is library workers forced to do jobs they never signed up for, scolded for their attempts to fight for their well-being, and the reality of slashed budgets they’re staring down from now until…well, no one really knows. Long before our lives began to be redefined by this global pandemic, library workers had plenty to worry about in their proclivity for self-sacrifice, overwork, and low morale. Our leaders are cashing in on our instincts for martyrdom and hesitance to make a fuss about our own needs. It’s time to say “not anymore.” Ignoring our very real plight and slapping “happy-go-lucky library stories” on top of it isn’t going to save us.

It’s not an end-all, be-all, but to at least throw something out there that you can do, consider signing this petition demanding safe reopening conditions for library workers. Push back on these stories of unmitigated success and unqualified resilience. Anyone who wants libraries to survive this needs to fight hard for library workers to survive it, too.

This article was edited and expanded from a blog post originally published under the title “We're Here Because We're Here.


Callan Bignoli is the director of the library at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts. With support from many others, she has been organizing resources to help with advocacy and safe reopening efforts at libraryworkers.net

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