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Being “back”: Reflecting on the return to in-person work

October 11, 2021

I had the privilege to spend most of the pandemic working remotely — something I know was not afforded to all of my LIS colleagues. At my institution, for more than a year, the majority of classes were online, and therefore, I had to adapt to teaching on Zoom, like many others. But now, that era has ended for me, and I’m in the middle of my first semester “back,” as many on my campus are saying, in the physical library, office, and classroom.

In some ways, it’s felt like when I started my first job — prior to July, it’s the longest stretch I’ve been “out” of the classroom since I became a professional librarian in 2014. In other ways, it’s seemed like nothing changed, and we never left — aside from the masking.

Students seem happy to be back, and I am too, though there are small things I miss, like being able to drop a link in chat so that I can quickly get everyone to the same starting point or resource. But when I remember the challenges of group activities and other active learning exercises in a remote environment, I’m glad to be a the front of the classroom.

I’ve also returned to an in-person reference desk shift. I did a lot of virtual reference before the pandemic, so that was not a big change for me. I was apprehensive about starting back on the desk, but students have been eager for in-person help and respectful of COVID safety guidelines. A few weeks ago, I accidentally scheduled myself for a chat reference AND in-person reference shift during the same hour. I ended up chatting with a student who was upstairs in my library and struggling to find books in the children’s section (boy, those tiny labels are hard for even the experts among us to read!). While I was happy to help her online, I knew this problem was going to be best solved by being in person. I convinced her to wait until my desk shift ended, and we searched for the books together on the third floor. Interactions like this make me glad I’m back, though I’m still wary sometimes of the health risks that we can’t mitigate.

I’ve spoken with others about things we will “keep” in our toolkits from the pandemic experience. At my library, we were already doing many things virtually because of Penn State’s World Campus and our model of one library, geographically dispersed. This made us better suited to pivot than others might have been, though it was still a huge adjustment. One of my “keeps” is Zoom reference — it can make it easier for students to accommodate hectic schedules and screen sharing makes it much easier to demonstrate than trying to work over someone’s shoulder. But it certainly can’t and shouldn’t replace in-person reference when needed.

We’ve also been running a virtual book club (we’re headed to week three of four!) which has been a great success so far. Virtual programming allows us to bring together from many different campuses which we obviously could not do in person. I want to keep virtual and hybrid programs going where I can, because I want to increase access for our students and resource share for our librarians and libraries.

So, how is your fall going? In August, I felt hopeful but skeptical that this would go well. I’m more optimistic now, though I am still being a realist as we head into the colder months. But no matter what, I know we can make it work!

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