Managing Libraries During COVID-19: Interviews with Library Management

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Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash

The current COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges to all library staff, including library managers. To reflect these challenges, we interviewed library managers last week from around the state to see how they are handling the changes.

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What is the current status of your library?

Valerie Jensen, Chambers County: Our library system is currently closed to the public, but we are offering curbside service Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.  This will begin May 4 and go through May 15 when things will be reassessed by our county government. 

Allison Shimek, Fayette: The Fayette Public Library, Museum & Archives is currently closed to the public. We have offered curbside pickup of materials since March 19 and continue to do so. The library, museum and archives plans to reopen to the public on May 12 with limited services and hours.

Judith Bergeron, Smithville: Since March 20, our library has been closed to the public, but staff have continued to work a modified schedule, including work-from-home allowances, to accommodate social distancing. We have plans in place to begin a gradual reopening, starting with contactless curbside circulation and printing services; with computer access on an appointment only, emergency needs basis.

How has your management strategy changed during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Valerie Jensen, Chambers County: Not so much management, but playing mother hen. My focus has really been the well-being of the staff. Their physical well-being and mental well-being. I make it a point to contact all 25 employees at some point each week. Text, email – whatever mode of communication works best for them. Just to make sure they’re o.k. and if they have any questions. As far as working from home, we are a 3-system branch, and with 25 employees (some of whom are part-time). Part-timers aren’t being paid right now which isn’t good, but full timers are. So to justify that pay while home, we have set up lists of items for the full time staff to do daily. Webinars, trainings, database tutorials, classes we’ve signed up for, ILS maintenance, checking voicemails, emails, etc.  They send me a report each week of what they’ve worked on along with certificates. These will later be turned into court for their file. It’s our ‘official’ way of showing that we worked during this time when we could not be in the building. Part-time staff is not allowed to work from home. 

Allison Shimek, Fayette: While effective communication has always been important, I have found that it has been an incredible tool to ease anxiety, support staff, and validate complicated emotions. Admitting I do not have all the answers and including staff in developing policies that they feel comfortable with implementing has been important to morale. I believe this pandemic has made me a better active listener and taught me to communicate often, even when I do not have the answers.

Judith Bergeron, Smithville: Concern for the number of patrons and staff who fall in the COVID-19 at-risk group has us focusing less on our through-the-door numbers and more on what technology and virtual services can bring to our operations. It has been a learning process for several of us, and managing the stress that comes with forced adaptation has become one of our priorities. In addition, our ongoing policy reviews have shifted to include a public health component and some new technology components that were not as prominent before the pandemic.

Describe how your priorities have changed during the pandemic.

Valerie Jensen, Chambers County: Libraries are all about community and gathering. We can’t do that now. So we’re trying to do our jobs in an opposite direction. And it’s difficult at times. As we well know, not all people have internet, computers, handheld devices. So disseminating information to them is difficult. Our main goal/priority is to begin looking at the summer and the rest of the year. How will programs work? How will circulation work? How will public computer access work? How will our roles as librarians change? Instead of planning programs, we’ll have staff assigned to taking temperatures of the public, cleaning common spaces, and monitoring social distancing. So our priority is change. Something we’re used to in libraries, but not in this way.   

Allison Shimek, Fayette: Priorities shifted to developing projects that full and part time staff could accomplish while closed to the public and communicating them to the City and City Council. Soon after closure, there was some concern that I would have to reduce hours for part time employees so communicating what tasks were being accomplished by all staff was extremely important. Advocating for staff to continue to work and be paid their regular hours was a priority. Eventually more time was spent on research to make sure that staff was aware of current CDC guidelines. Safety education and making the library as safe as possible for staff to continue to work became a new priority.

Judith Bergeron, Smithville: As mentioned above, we have had to shift our priorities to create a more virtual presence for our library. Not only has this affected how we serve our readers, with increased easier access to e-collections, but also how we support our jobseekers and small businesses. We have always had a strong partnership with our local Chamber of Commerce, but we have been working with them even more in order to help provide some semblance of a safety net for our local business owners.

What are some duties you and your staff are responsible for during this time? What does your library’s day to day look like?

Valerie Jensen, Chambers County: Like I mentioned above. Each full-time staff has a list of things to choose from to work on daily. As far as the director – I do what my staff is doing, and of course try to keep the day to day going. I have to pay invoices, I send media releases, I stay in contact with our Emergency Operations Center for updates, I check the buildings while they are empty to make sure things are safe. And just getting things ready for curbside has required a lot of our time. I’ve done database cleanup, my Assistant County Librarian is such a great support dealing with ILS issues, making sure due dates stay blocked, fines suspended, etc. We’ve also attended a couple of the webinars sponsored by TSLAC with Mark Smith and the regional meeting to hear what other libraries are doing during this time. Our day to day never looks the same, and we like it that way. 

Alison Shimek, Fayette: Staff answer questions, provide reference services, and reader advisories over the phone. Curbside pickup has kept us very busy. Weeding and inventory are ongoing projects staff are working on. The library recently purchased a Cricut and design tablets that staff have been learning how to use and practicing for future programs. Staff have also been watching live and recorded webinars on a variety of topics.

Judith Bergeron, Smithville: One upside of continuing to work in a closed library has been the opportunity to get caught up on numerous reporting, training, and collection development/maintenance tasks that always seem to be put on a back burner when we are heavily focused on programming and patron services. Each staff member has specific projects on which they are working: some are purchasing materials (print and electronic) or cataloging materials; updating series labels on our print collection; cleaning up our patron records (e.g., purging inactive users) and our catalog records (e.g., consolidating vendor descriptions); or planning on programs (both virtual and in-person).

We have also been working to ensure risk reduction for our staff and patrons, for when we reopen to the public: cleaning, obtaining protective and disinfecting materials (sneeze guards, gloves, hand sanitizer, etc.). This will be a benefit if we see a resurgence in COVID-19 cases and have to backtrack through our reopening phases, but it will also come in handy for cold & flu season, and/or when a patron who is “too sick” to go to school or work shows up at our door.

What are you the most proud of when it comes to your library and staff?

Valerie Jensen, Chambers County: My group has such a passion for helping people not only in the library, but for the community outside our walls. We’ve had quite a few obstacles we’ve dealt with as a staff. From Hurricane Katrina refugees staying in our county shelters, being the county where the strong side of Ike hit us, and recently being in the direct path of Imelda in Winnie where one of our branches is located, and now COVID-19.  We’ve dealt with disaster, devastation, and flooding. And we always come out resilient. The staff is the testament to that. Our library system was assigned to assist at shelters if the situation arises.  So in times of disaster we work the local shelters where we’re able to get out and help people.  Now with COVID, we’re unable to physically help people but we’re adapting and the staff has been so innovative and creative reaching people inside their homes. They’ve called patrons to check on them, of course done as much virtual storytimes as we can, emailed patrons, engaged in social media…just whatever we can do.  But one thing that makes me proud with all this is how much the staff misses work. From the beginning everyone was most concerned about their co-workers.  We’ve done so many Zoom meetings just to see each other, which is great. We’re planning summer reading so we’re ready to go when we get to open.  So knowing how much they’re missing their work tells me they truly love their jobs. And you can’t beat that feeling. 

Allison Shimek, Fayette: I am most proud of staff’s positivity and desire to continue to serve our community the best they can amidst a lot of ambiguity. A letter to the editor was recently published in our local newspaper by a patron describing how staff have been able to brighten her day despite our closure. Even though we are not able to assist people in person, staff are still able to offer curbside pickup and simply be someone to talk with for those who may be feeling lonely and isolated.  

Judith Bergeron, Smithville: Flexibility and adaptability. Some of our staff have done a fantastic job of learning new things such as teaching classes, attending meetings, and offering programs through things like Zoom or Facebook Live. Others have had to get creative with what jobs could be done from home, especially if they live where there is limited bandwidth, or how they can work on some parts of a project remotely, then come into the library to apply the physical materials aspect of the task. Overall, I am grateful to work with such dedicated folks and I believe they will all be ready when it is time to reopen our doors and welcome the public back!

Are you managing a library? What challenges have you faced?

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