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Post-Covid: What will our libraries look like?

January 8, 2021

A few months ago, I was asked what the library could have done to be more prepared for the COVID-19 crisis. I have to admit that, for at least a few days, I was stumped by the question. I mean, how does one prepare for a global pandemic? How does one prepare to be removed from the library (and the every day work we do) for five months? It’s a question that I’ve thought about a lot since it was initially asked of me, and I think it requires a little bit of re-framing to really answer it. Instead I find myself asking, what will our libraries really like post-COVID, and what do we need moving forward to be successful?

More communication 

The importance of clear communication has become even more obvious in these times. Managers have worked hard to communicate with their teams regardless of location, and have adopted various strategies. Some of these strategies include meeting with teams weekly or bi-weekly, sharing daily or weekly virtual education tips, or instituting virtual office hours via Zoom.  For me personally, Microsoft Teams has been a lifesaver when it comes to daily communication with various groups in our organization. The chat feature alone has streamlined processes and reduced the amount of daily emails received. Administrators at our libraries have worked hard to communicate with their organizations regularly. At Penn State, weekly Dean’s forums were instituted to inform employees about developments surrounding the crisis, and also provide a space to educate faculty and staff about ongoing opportunities and programs offered at the library. My hope is that we’ll continue to identify creative ways to communicate (and collaborate) more in the post-COVID library.

Flexibility in our work and in our daily lives 

One thing we’ve all learned throughout this crisis is that our work can be more flexible than we previously would have thought. True, there are positions in the library that require on-site work, but perhaps those positions and those people don’t (if we’re honest with ourselves) need to be on-site 40 hours a week. Hybrid positions, or devoted project time off-site, could work even in a post-COVID library world. We’ve also learned that we can accommodate our employees if they have personal circumstances, such as caring for family members, that may necessitate working altered hours. 

Some may never return 

It’s very likely that some units of our libraries or institutions may never return for on-site work. I have talked with many colleagues from different institutions that indicate that these discussions are already taking place. Space has always been a hot commodity in our libraries and beyond. This crisis has demonstrated to some that if the bulk of their work can be completed remotely, is there really a need for them to report to campus? 

Leveling of the playing field 

This may be a unique to Penn State situation (though I suspect not) but the COVID crisis has leveled the playing field when it comes to communication across our organization. Before, it was not unusual for a group of individuals to be gathered together in person at our University Park location, while participants from our commonwealth campus locations joined via zoom. Now, all participants join meetings on zoom. There’s a sense (at least from my perspective!) that more voices are participating in crucial conversations, and that all have an equal opportunity to speak and be heard. Post-COVID, I hope that we’ll consider asking participants to continue using zoom to encourage this model. 

Lean into the discomfort 

A few years ago I took part in a supervision training series at Penn State and one of the speakers talked about “leaning into the discomfort.” That phrase has reverberated in my mind since then, and it applies to just about every area of management (whether it’s management of others or management of self) and my personal life. There are so many times in our lives where we shrink from situations that make us uncomfortable. Nothing about our current situation can be described as comfortable, and yet we are still standing.  

The reality is that there are many unknowns when it comes to the future of our libraries and our institutions. I have learned to embrace the discomfort of the unknown and instead use it to propel positive change, collaboration, and creativity. There’s no question that in the future (whatever it looks like) we’ll continue to need communication, flexibility and grace to make things work. 

Further Reading:

Changed, Changed Utterly

How Coronavirus is Changing Public Libraries

Visions of Success: Academic Libraries in a Post COVID-19 World

Meg Massey is the Interim Head of Access Services at Penn State University Libraries. 

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 8, 2021 5:40 pm

    Beautifully said, Meg, and I agree with all of the lessons you mention. I, for one, definitely see that remote work and the flexibility it offers is the wave of the future. Naturally, there are a lot of aspects of librarianship that do require one to physically be on campus at least half of the time. I am the interlibrary loan librarian, so of course, I need to physically have access to our collection, but do I need to be there every single work day? Probably not. Unfortunately, at least in my institution, there is a resistance to remote work from the higher ups.

    I especially love your point about leveling the playing field. It’s true — when Zoom meetings are coordinated in the late afternoon, those who are evening librarians can participate with the morning crew who normally they might never really have the chance for much interaction.

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