I’ve worked in frontline reader services at an independent research library since October 2007, serving the public both in person and remotely at the Massachusetts Historical Society (Boston, Massachusetts) for nearly thirteen years. On Tuesday, March 10th, 2020 we learned that at the close of business that day the library would close to the public until further notice due to the covid-19 (coronavirus) public health emergency in Boston. By noon on Wednesday, March 11th, all staff had retrieved necessary equipment and personal belongings from the building so that they could transition to fully remote operations.
I haven’t set foot in our building at 1154 Boylston St. for over two months.
As a library worker, I’ve rarely been busier.
Across the nation, as pressure increases for libraries to reopen — and for staff to return to their physical spaces — the call #ProtectLibraryWorkers has grown louder. It has become clear that many people don’t understand that the work that library workers do carries on even when the physical library is closed for the health and safety of library staff and the many communities within which we are embedded as both members and service workers.
I want to be clear that it is morally abhorrent to expect library workers, at any level, to risk death to provide library services in the midst of a pandemic. If the choice is fewer — or no — library services, for a time, in exchange for the health and safety — the lives — of library staff (and of patrons who would enter unsafe conditions if visiting an open library) the correct choice is to protect your people and resume services when it is reasonably safe for everyone to do so. Donna Lanclos and Stacy (@DarkLiterata) break down how the push to reopen libraries without regard for the lives of workers fits into the deeply problematic narrative of vocational awe, and I encourage you to read their threads. The are absolutely right.
That said, the choice being presented is a false one because in most cases* no service is not what happens when the library’s physical doors remain closed to the public while infection rates remain high and a vaccine remains under development. So in light of that, I thought it might be helpful to provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what is actually happening in my own research library environment during pandemic times. To that end, between Tuesday, May 26th and Friday, May 29th I’m going to live tweet my work day at the hashtag #WFHLibrarian. At the end of each day, I’ll collate the Tweets and share them in narrative form below. I hope that others will join in as well, since my own experience is specific to my institution and my position within it.
Tuesday, May 26th, 2020. (#WFHLibrarian #AJCCday1)
8:46am. Good morning. Today starts my four-day live-tweet sharing what’s happening in my work life while my research library is physically closed for staff and patron safety. Hashtagging, threading, and sharing in a round-up post.
8:48am. Why am I beginning on Tuesday? Because yesterday was a paid holiday and it’s been important — particularly in these extraordinary times — to establish boundaries around when I do and don’t do labor related to my job.
8:50am. (Now seems like a good moment to share that I have this message in my email signature [whether working remotely or not]: “My working day may not be your working day. Please do not feel obliged to reply to this email outside of your normal working hours.”)
8:51am. (Please appropriate as you wish! It’s important to both normalize work schedules that fall outside the 9-5, M-F “business hours” workweek AND remind people that being available 24/7 should never be normalized.)
8:54am. One more thing before I start talking about my actual workday: I want to be clear that it is not always appropriate or possible for library staff to work during #covid19, at home or otherwise. I’m documenting labor, not suggesting we work miracles.
8:55am. Unlimited, paid sick leave should be universal. We must fight for library workers (like all workers) not to be fired or furloughed because the pandemic has made it necessary to #CloseTheLibrary to #ProtectLibraryWorkers and other members of the community.
9:04am. My goal is not to sanctify library workers or convince you nothing has changed. What I hope to do is give you a sense of what we can and must do to carry on even as buildings are necessarily closed for our collective wellbeing.
9:10am. Ugh: “must” … I meant not in a moral sense but in the looser sense of “the tasks I continue to have on my plate even though the library is closed, e.g. the fact I just opened my email to 67 new messages that came in over the long weekend!
9:16am. This part of my workday hasn’t measurably changed from the Beforetimes, apart from the fact I’m checking email at my dining room table rather than in my office or the ref. desk. The ritual of morning email triage remains important to an organized day!
9:17am. It’s Tuesday, so while I’m checking email I am also logging into the @MHS1791 Twitter account; we rotate staff responsible for the account throughout the week and I handle content Tuesday and Thursdays.
9:34am. One of my NEW morning rituals is sending my colleagues at cat photo first thing in the morning. I began sending cat photos in the early days of our building closure & have kept it up by popular demand. Here is today’s picture of Teazle and Christopher.
10:46am. Email communications is a major part of my workday, whether I am in the building or not. Here are typical kinds of email labor I engage in:
- Triage of queries sent through the general contact form on our website, directing them to appropriate staff.
- Responding to internal housekeeping emails related to the day-to-day business of our org (scheduling meetings, looking over documents, providing policy language, etc.).
- First pass through reference requests (more on these in a bit).
- Communications with various external groups I am involved with as a library worker engaged in the broader field.
- #covid19 – specific discussions as we begin to plan for a staged reopen.
11:29am. I have a weekly meeting with our staff member responsible for reproductions and use permissions (who reports to me) to discuss any business we need to touch base on. We stopped doing this during the early weeks of the closure & realized this was a mistake!
11:32am. Today we discussed the new workflows and labor associated with what we anticipate will be a dramatically increased need for reproductions once staff can safely regain access to some of our collections material.
11:35am. We have just – thanks to a carefully orchastrated “grab-and-go” campaign last week – gained an additional level of access to some digital master files that will increase the number of digitized collections we can use to fulfill incoming requests (huzzah!).
11:40am. Now we turn our attention to what staff will need to safely image materials for researchers, and to drafting new pricing schemes we hope will lower barriers to access, during an upcoming interim time when staff but no patrons will be in the library.
12:09pm. In the Beforetimes, my workdays were typically neatly divided into a 1/2 day shift at the reference desk and a 1/2 day shift in my “office” doing everything else. Remote days are a lot more fractured.
12:13pm. Last week, I built myself a spreadsheet to start tracking structured vs. unstructured time. Here’s an example week.
12:31pm Back to the reference questions … library staff have offered uninterrupted reference services since closing the building to the public on March 11th.
12:33pm. As an independent research library, with unique and rare materials, a great deal of our reference services are provided to patrons who will never (or rarely) set foot in our building whether or not there is a public health emergency.
12:35pm. As part of preparing my annual self-evaluation narrative last week (another task our staff are completing remotely) I did the math and can confirm that I personally respond to an average of ~50 remote reference questions per month when the library is open.
12:38pm. These questions can range from cut-and-dried factual requests (e.g. do you have the 1789 Boston city directory and is it available online? we do, and yes it is) to much more extended questions for help to scope a project.
12:48pm. While I can’t describe specific questions (patron privacy) I can, for example, note that one researcher today inquired if we hold a print of a Civil War era photograph for which the Library of Congress holds the glass plate negative.
12:58pm. The MHS holds an extensive collection of 19th c. photographs, including many images that were carte de visite, stereo views, and other mass produced images. You can find catalog records for many in our online catalog ABIGAIL.
1:01pm. Unfortunately, not every image in our collection has been cataloged at the item level (item cataloging is expensive in terms of staff labor!) so I cannot confirm whether we have a specific image for this researcher until I have access to the stacks.
1:02pm. However, we are keeping a spreadsheet of every patron question that must be put “on ice” until staff can put hands on the collections again, so this researcher’s request will be added to that spreadsheet.
1:05pm. In the meantime, I will suggest that thematically they may be interested in visual content from our collections from the Civil War period that may be pertinent to their research. Our online collections include many digitized 19th c. photographs.
“Mrs. Fields,” Marian Hooper Adams Photographs, MHS.
1:06pm. And if the researcher’s interest is in the Civil War more than 19th century photography, the MHS has a number of digital resources available on that theme as well.
2:20pm. I am taking some paid time off this afternoon (sick time) because I wasn’t feeling well yesterday evening and want a slow entry into the workweek. I am lucky that my workplace is providing unlimited paid sick time during the pandemic.
Wednesday, May 27th, 2020. (#WFHLibrarian #AJCCday2)
7:55am. Welcome to #WFHLibrarian #AJCCday2. You can learn more about my live-tweet project, and the live-tweets from yesterday, here. If you haven’t already, please join the 4,893 others who have called to #ProtectLibraryWorkers by signing this petition.
8:13am. I strongly believe (& I am grateful that my employer supports me in) a core part of being a library worker is engagement with colleagues at other institutions, awareness of critical issues in our industry, and taking action to build a more just future.
8:13am. The Archival Workers Emergency Fund (established by @awefund2020 in response to #covid19) was not something I knew would be on my plate prior to March but has since been 2-5 hours of labor per week. Critically important.
8:18am. Since the fund began accepting applications on April 15th, as a member of the review committee I have reviewed over 100 applications for aid. It’s tough emotional labor that I am grateful to share with fellow committee members.
8:30am. Having reviewed this week’s applications, I’ve moved on to responding to the new crafter submissions to the @awefund2020 @PersistStitches #Auction4AWEfund — a fundraiser for the AWE Fund we will be holding July 1-4.
8:54am. Here’s a delightful item that will be up for #Auction4AWEfund! This handmade Happy Doll will be on offer for a starting bid of $20.
And now it’s time to pivot to my morning Inbox.
9:01am. 30 new emails since I logged off yesterday. One is a query to a listserv about software for tracking reference requests in a special collections environment. I’ve flagged this for follow-up because it’s an issue I have in my queue to tackle this year.
9:11am. Another type of query that I end up fielding a lot is questions about using material from our website in other online environments (sharing content on social media, etc.) Happily, this is an easy yes!
9:14am. I also have a reminder in my email this morning to go check on new messages in the @LibraryJournal professional development course interface. *flagging for later attention*
9:17am. I provide support to students in some of their online courses — currently “Evaluating, Auditing, and Diversifying Your Collections” — and this WFH period has seen a boom in enrollment so I’ve been busy!
9:22am. I’ve also presented on queer representation in fiction & nonfiction twice since the closure — to my colleagues MHS (as a preview of my work with LJ) & once for the LJ online course. A version of the presentation can be found here.
9:25am. Library workers do a lot of what is likely invisible labor to many patrons in building collections that are usable/valuable — & a lot of that work is ongoing while our physical spaces are closed due to #covid19.
9:28am. We educate ourselves on new/forthcoming resources, determine what our communities need, what our institutions can afford. We plan programming. We revisit outdated/problematic materials and make decisions about how to handle them.
9:41am. The students in this @LibraryJournal course have been using their time away from their physical collections to learn how to audit their collections, find high-quality resources by and about under-represented populations, and better serve their patrons.
9:42am. At 10am I’ll be going radio silent for a couple of hours as I head into Zoom meetings — who knew the apocalypse would involve so many meetings!
9:43am. Each Wednesday during the closure my department has been meeting so that we can touch base about projects and make sure that everyone on staff is hanging in there. This week, directly following that meeting, we will roll into our monthly all-staff meeting.
We have monthly all-staff meetings when the building is open, too (and those meetings have donuts! sadly I don’t have a donut today)
For the past year, I have been the volunteer “scribe” (note taker) for all-staff meetings.
9:47am. This is a self-created role that I took on because when the library is open to the public not every staff person can attend an “all staff” meeting. Written meeting notes also provide better accessibility for all staff.
9:49am. This labor typically takes me the 1.5 hours of the meeting and ~1.5 hours of labor following (interrupted by other reference business) as I flesh out my notes, provide links to external and internal documentation, etc. before circulating.
1:22pm. Oh hey so I’m back for the afternoon.
1:38pm. Some things I’m working on while I make myself available at this virtual reference desk:
1. Pull together some suuuper drafty language/ideas about policies and pricing for reproductions services once staff regain access to the building (July-ish?).
2. Finalize the all-staff meeting minutes (more on that later).
3. Listen to a lecture on best practices in genealogy research (professional development via New England Historic Genealogical Society)
1:48pm. 4. I also have two book reviews due to professional publications today — a forthcoming genre romance , one of a nonfiction title in 20th c. American evangelicalism. More of that labor that helps library staff get patrons connected to good resources!
3:29pm. I’ve reached the point of my afternoon where I’m finalizing the all-staff meeting minutes. Obviously it’s an internal document but I have a few things I’d like to note about what it means to gather as a staff these days.
3:32pm. The first thing I want to acknowledge, with gratitude, is that @MHS1791 has retained all of our staff. So when we gather as “all staff” in our virtual Zoom meeting it is not with the shocking losses so many of my colleagues are living with.
3:36pm. The second thing I want to point out is that in order to discuss — as we did in our staff meeting today — what it may look like for staff to return to the building … you need a staff on payroll TO PLAN A SAFE RETURN.
3:39pm. We have staff at my institution who have been working since the moment we closed to determine what conditions will be needed to reopen. If you’ve fired/furloughed your staff … who is doing that planning?
4:47pm. Another item that came up today was MHS acknowledging that staff have been shouldering certain operating expenses by working from home — there are discussions underway to address that. If you are library admin have you addressed this for your staff?
8:01pm. Forgot to wrap this thread at the end of my workday. See you tomorrow morning for day three!
Thursday, May 28th, 2020.
8:49am. I’d also like to take a moment to remind folks that I’m a reference librarian working for an independent research library. That’s only one of the many types of library jobs a library worker might have! I hope others will share what their #WFHLibrarian labor has been like too.
8:49am. This morning’s email triage is accompanied by a first cup of coldbrew (safely delivered for the week last Saturday by @oakleafcakes). It’s hard to concentrate, though, because I have friends in Minneapolis and last night/this morning wasn’t good.
8:54am. Today I’m at the helm of @mhs1791 so logging onto that in a separate browser; also on duty in the reader services live chat service from 10am-1pm today after a 9:30am Zoom meeting. So many different online spaces to be present in.
9:06am. (I’ll be looking for places to donate specific to the MSP protests but in the meantime, the @MNFreedomFund is working to liberate people from incarceration during these pandemic times & would be a place to donate if you have $ minnesotafreedomfund.org)
10:54am. While I’m at the remote reference desk this morning, I’m working through some email reference queries. While I have to be a little vague about specifics for patron privacy, here are some examples of the type of questions we get & how I can respond ATM.
11:11am. 1. I had a Zoom consultation with a researcher last week in a different state who was finishing up a major academic project and was hoping for images of material related to their topic which was partly Boston-based.
11:13am. 1. cont’d While I couldn’t access our physical collections specific to this topic, the MHS website did have some already-digitized images of key figures involved. I also pointed the researcher to Digital Commonwealth as a resource: digitalcommonwealth.org
11:17am. 1. cont’d Because this researcher lived far away, had little funding for reproductions, & the project was on short deadline, the assistance I gave them was not very different from the assistance we would have provided if the library were open.
11:25am. Oh hey, trying to replicate my standing desk at home … with mixed results.
11:34am. 2. Another example reference question: A researcher looking to access something in the Timothy Pickering papers (we’ve actually had several queries this week about ole Timothy!)
11:37am. 2. cont’d. All of the preliminary information I provided this researcher about the collection is a) identical to what I would have communicated to them if we were open, and b) did not require me to access the physical collection.
11:40am. 2. cont’d The collection guide (as you saw linked above) is available on our website. A published index to the papers is also available — and has been digitized! Thank you HathiTrust.
11:44am. As a detour from the specifics of Q 2., HathiTrust is a not-for-profit collaborative of academic & research libraries preserving 17+ million digitized items, making them available to the extent possible within copyright law.
11:47am. Thanks to @HathiTrust & another nonprofit, the @internetarchive, the MHS library staff has been able to work steadily during this closure period to direct researchers to alternate copies of print materials from our collection that are digitally available.
11:54am. Back to 2. cont’d The Timothy Pickering papers, microfilm edition, has also been digitized by ProQuest as part of their HistoryVault subscription database product.
11:56am. 2. cont’d While MHS is unfortunately unable to provide remote access for researchers to this database, we are able to encourage researchers to reach out to their own local libraries to determine if it is available to them.
12:00pm. 2. cont’d One of the resources we built in the early weeks of the #covid19 closure was a public list of all subscription databases in which MHS materials could be found, and a list of what collections were in those databases.
12:23pm. 2. cont’d So the researchers seeking material from the Pickering papers held at MHS have some options for access even as the MHS research library remains closed to patrons and staff; once staff return we may be able to provide additional options to them.
12:38pm. 3. I have a researcher interested in a specific subgenre of Massachusetts court records from the late 18th / early 19th c. Because of our name (Massachusetts Historical Society) many people (fairly) assume we are a state agency.
12:42pm. 3. In many parts of the country, STATE NAME Historical Society houses the state archive and/or state library. That is not the case here. The Massachusetts Archive (sec.state.ma.us/arc/) & State Library (mass.gov/orgs/state-lib) are two [separate] entities.
12:47pm. 3. cont’d This reference book (which I currently don’t have access to, working remotely, argh) is a handy guide to locating court records across New England.
12:47pm. 3. cont’d However, I can tell this researcher that Massachusetts state, county, and local court records are housed by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives. The information for reaching out to their archivist is here.
1:22pm. 4. Last query to tackle before my 2pm meeting is a provenance question — someone interested in the donor of a collection of letters that came to us in the 19th c.
1:23pm. Happily “accession records” from that period, to the extent they exist, were published in the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society which are available via JSTOR.
2:52pm. Finished weekly call with the @awefund2020 review committee approving applications for assistance from archival workers in financial crisis. If you are an archival worker in need, or have the ability to donate, learn more here.
2:54pm. Now it’s time to wrap up those open, half-finished emails and other miscellaneous tasks before taking a dinner break and then turning my attention to a couple of on-deadline book reviews.
3:42pm. A last-minute internal reference question from a colleague who is trying to finalize some footnotes pointing back to a particularly complicated multi-generational family collection (ah, we have a lot of those!)
5:18pm. And at 5pm my work laptop powers down. Time for some knitting and #StardewValley. Setting digital boundaries has been a work in progress since early March but I try to have a clear end to the work day.
5:21pm. I’ll be back tomorrow with my final day of live-tweeting #WFHLibrarian life. In the meantime, please sign the #ProtectLibraryWorkers petition and donate to @MNFreedomFund if you can, to help them support the protestors in MSP: https://minnesotafreedomfund.org/.
Friday, May 29th, 2020.
9:19am. #tgif. Welcome to my 4th and final (for now) day live-tweeting as a #WFHLibrarian. #AJCCday4 Have you signed the petition to #ProtectLibraryWorkers? Have you donated to support those caring for the vulnerable in Minneapolis?
9:33am. Today I only have ~5 hours left of my 35 hour workweek so I’m getting a bit of a leisurely start. @CrowGirl42 & I went for our usual morning walk and are just settling down in the home office/dining room with ample coffee.
9:39am. For me, personally, one of the biggest sea-changes in work life since we went remote has been that the action of being “at work” is no longer tied to being present to facilitate access to a library at specific times on specific days.
9:41am. For over a decade (really, the majority of my life as a worker since pre-librarianship I worked in book retail) the state of “working” has primarily been about traveling to a destination, engaging in a set of activities in that space, and returning home.
9:43am. It’s true I’ve had side gigs that looked different (teaching/research assistantships, data entry jobs that paid hourly on a flexible/remote schedule, review & writing work) but my primary income has been from going-to-work jobs.
9:58am. The flexibility to complete my tasks without being tied to a set schedule has been a net gain for our household wellbeing in ways that transcend pandemic times (not to mention regaining the time I’ve “lost” to commuting over the years.
10:11am. Another thing that’s been a learning curve and particularly important to me in this upheaval of the past few months is checking in with my/our department staff. If you are a supervisor, what are you doing to support those who report to you?
10:15am. People who’ve followed me on Twitter for awhile already know that my approach to supervising/managing is guided by the ethic of “amplifying up, sheltering down“. What can I do to help my staff be better heard/seen, how can I shelter them from harm?
10:16am. I owe this approach, and my ability to practice it, to the supervisors in my own worklife who have been effective for me in this way. THANK YOU!
10:20am. In this displaced-from-the-building, work-from-home situation, supporting those below me in the institutional structure has meant ensuring they are materially safe and secure, have the tools to do their job, have access to me, and have abundant thanks.
10:22am. (My job as a supervisor is made VASTLY easier by the fact that my workplace is retaining + paying everyone, offering unlimited sick time, equipping people to work from home, + not holding unrealistic expectations about what WFH will look like right now.)
10:34am. So as we reach the end of this workweek, I’d ask the supervisors on my timeline: Have you checked in with your staff this week … NOT to request anything, but to see how they’re hanging in there & offer your thanks that they are caring for themselves.
11:24am. As I do some digital filing tasks to tidy up at the end of the workweek, I’m listing to the final three hours of webinar content on family history research for librarians and archivists — online professional development our department is participating in.
11:27am. We have MANY genealogical researchers visit or contact the MHS library, but this is a specialized type of research that I personally don’t have much experience in. Though I find its history as a practice fascinating and problematic.
11:30am. This book, Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America by Francoise Weil (Harvard Univ. Press, 2013) is a fascinating read if you’d like to know more.
12:54pm. One of the loose ends I’m tidying up today is responding to an email about organizing an online opportunity for a group of youth scholars to learn about archival research. Their topic this year is black women suffragists of Boston!
1:02pm. While these teens won’t be able to visit the MHS in person during the period that they are working on their project, we will be hosting them for a Zoom session to talk about archival research, digital resources, and search strategies.
3:10pm. Just wrapped my second @awefund2020 meeting of the week, this time an hour spend discussing fundraising strategies and other group projects that are in the works. You can check out the Organizers website here to learn more!
3:14pm. With that I’m signing off work channels for the week, having caught up (ish) on the most pressing deadline-driven tasks and organized myself for the week ahead. The next two days will be for rest and renewal. Keep on movin’ forward.
3:20pm. If you haven’t already, please: Sign the call to #ProtectLibraryWorkers and the communities we serve & Donate to @BlackVisionsMN to help #DefundThePolice & #DefundMPD. Build a just & sustainable future.
*Oh, hey institutions that chose to furlough their staff, thus creating a situation where you had no one available to provide remote service at any level!