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Toothpaste, Meet Tube

March 19, 2021

Years ago at a conference, a librarian was talking about changing library hours in their presentation. The basic idea of what they said was, “Once you’ve extended services, it’s difficult to pull them back. It’s like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube.”

This idea has come to mind often during the past year. Libraries everywhere have adapted or re-imagined their services for social distancing in creative ways. And our circumstances will continue to change as we anticipate moving closer to a pre-pandemic routine in the next academic year.

We’ve heard lots of success stories, like those featured in this ACRL webinar “Let’s Keep Doing This!” But what is sustainable moving forward? How will we navigate patron expectations and the status of library budgets? What restrictions will remain with more humans on campus? How can we support students adjusting to in-person campus life, especially those who finished high school and started college virtually?

That’s just the tip of the uncertainty iceberg. Although nothing is ever certain — some of the issues I just mentioned are not new — that does not make this (gestures everywhere) easier to deal with.

Personally and professionally, we’ve all been impacted by the events of the past year. We’ve had to change our routines, adjust our expectations — basically, try to corral the toothpaste into something remotely functional. Add in the emotions that are a jarring part of humanity in crisis, and we’re facing effects that will last well into the future.

The American Psychological Association addresses the stress of uncertainty and ways to help mitigate it — yes, the ubiquitous “self care” suggestion is mentioned, but their list also includes seeking support, creating small elements of structure, limiting news exposure and reducing worst-case scenario thinking.

That being said, worst-case scenario thinking is a hard habit to break. The energy to frame problems as opportunities is, well, a lot. In the library world, we are accustomed to advocating for our patrons and our work. We want to provide the best service possible, and sometimes that means planning for the worst. When the container of possibility shrinks, it’s time to innovate – but the stress and discomfort of uncertainty is very real, and an important consideration for us and our patrons.

So other than try to take care of ourselves, what can we do? There may be a pull toward extreme positivity (“hey, at least it’s not….!”) or being consumed by all the negative what-ifs. I hope to try to steer my own thinking to a middle ground and seek or provide support when needed. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, they say. We just need to get there.

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