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What Have We Learned in 2020? Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love (ok… mildly accept) the “New Normal”

December 20, 2020

Raise your hand if you have ever felt personally victimized by the year 2020. If anything, I just wish that we could all get along (and physically get together to forget about COVID-19) like we used to in middle school (or prior to 2020). I wish that I could bake a cake (or go out to eat one in a diner) made out of rainbows and smiles and we’d always be happy. And COVID-free. But alas, if we need to share our feelings and have learned anything from the upside-down year that has been 2020, it is we must rise above feeling victimized to this “new normal” and be flexible to the impending changes in librarianship and information literacy instruction – provided we’re not kept here past four o’clock.

Who could have imagined that last year at this time, we were assisting students in-person with wrapping up their fall semester examinations, or providing instruction for a winter session course? We were face-to-face, within six feet of one another, rubbing our noses should we have had the sniffles or masking an unwanted cough in our sleeves without a second thought (or face covering). We laid our hands repetitively on countertop surfaces, keyboards, mice, and door handles that had most likely not been sanitized in ages. Our students studied diligently in our libraries, sprawled out at our tables with their snacks and beverages. Catching a contagious and potentially deadly virus was most likely the last thing on anyone’s mind.

And yet here we are, twelve months later. Our formatting for instruction and communication has changed to a completely remote environment. Zoom meetings have become the way to conduct information literacy sessions and to provide support for our students. Our dining room tables have been transformed into our workstations. (I am personally comfortable in my living room on the second floor of my parents’ house.) Who could have predicted that we’d be homebound for two and a half months? (My county, Lehigh, was one of the last counties in Pennsylvania to move out of the red phase.) Who could have foreseen wearing masks when out and about and limiting our social contact with one another? While you were wrapping your holiday presents last year at this time, did you ever think that something like this would happen on such a global scale? Could you fathom that how you worked as a librarian could change literally overnight?

I am an eternal optimist, a silver lining to every cloud kind of person. I believe that there are a lot of positive attributes which we can take from this crazy, unpredictable year. One of the most positive attributes to this pandemic is the rise and convenience of remote work. To be honest, I for one, have often been left exhausted from my short (but extremely chaotic) commute to my community college, so having the option to walk across the hallway from my bedroom to my living room to start my workday has been a blessing. Creating a Zen-like environment – complete with candles, calming chill music courtesy of Sirius XM, and at this time of year, the serene presence of my beautiful Christmas tree – has increased my productivity and eased my nerves while grading assignments and offering reference chat services to our students. While I do miss my co-workers, I do not miss the idol chattering or office politics, which has especially been heightened given this year’s presidential election. My co-workers and dean are never more than an email or a Zoom meeting away, and there is a convenience to that.

Naturally, there are some inconveniences to working remotely. Since I work on interlibrary loans, I do need to be in the office several days a week to handle requests for physical items. Everyone understands that shipping items at this time, given the pandemic and now especially with the holidays, is just plain crazy and no one expects a book or DVD to show up the very next day. We have all had to exercise more patience when it comes to physical requests. And I believe we can all agree that practicing patience has been detrimental during this pandemic; patience with staying inside our homes, patience with having to continuously wear face coverings, patience with waiting for a vaccine, and patience with our students as they navigate a whole new digital landscape – something which many never signed up for in the first place. And that has been another drawback: by default, we are social creatures. We were not meant to communicate solely through our screens and smart phones. We crave touch and face-to-face contact. We need to feed off of each other’s facial expressions (or at least the upper half of our facial expressions these days) and body language, both of which have not benefitted from the decree of social distancing. No doubt, this has been difficult on our students who need our support and who greatly benefit from having a librarian in physically proximity. Fortunately, screen-sharing has been a tremendous blessing during this time, as students can feel as though the librarian is really right there with them.

Another benefit which has arisen from the bowels of turmoil that has marked this year has been an increase in social justice awareness. Between the racial tension plaguing our country and the great digital divide which has prevented many citizens from jumping onto the remote bandwagon, this year has heightened the plight of underrepresented peoples. My hope is that this has resonated with our librarians in increasing the awareness of social and racial injustices. Over the course of the year, there have been numerous webinars concerning racism and political unrest within the world but especially within the United States. Librarians across the globe were quick to respond by holding remote workshops on racism and by increasing awareness through virtual and physical displays of literature and media either created by or concerning underrepresented populations.

While I am an eternal optimist, I do not believe that at the stroke of midnight come January 1, 2021, all of this will disappear and suddenly everything will go back to the way it used to be before COVID-19. There will be most likely be more shutdowns, a second or third or fourth wave of the pandemic bearing down upon us, more racial injustices, and more people who cannot access all that the digital world has to offer. It will take more than just the changing of a year to bring about health, prosperity, and reconciliation. Librarians are going to remain at the forefront of this rebuilding and reshaping, as being flexible and adapting to a constantly changing world is one of our strong points in our profession. We will remain the voices of reason, the champions of truth and accessibility for all, for centuries to come. And that is “fetch” that is definitely going to happen!

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