The COVID-19 pandemic has been traumatic for many library workers, especially those expected to continue coming to work as cases have risen in their communities. Even for those with the privilege of working from home, the experience has been stressful; many have had to add isolation, home-schooling children, and fearing for themselves and their loved ones to their regular job expectations.
I’ve heard countless stories of library workers who have gone above and beyond to support their communities during this time. But I’ve also wondered how many libraries surpassed expectations to meet their staffers’ needs. I spoke with several librarians about what they’ve done to support their workers as whole people.
Early in the pandemic, administrators at University of Oklahoma in Norman began sending out a weekly anonymous survey to see how their staff members were doing. They followed up on the results with a weekly call to address concerns. One piece of feedback they received: “I wish my supervisor would check in with me as a person instead of just on my projects.”
That comment stuck with Twila Smith, the library’s chief technology officer. Since her staff would usually meet for an all-day annual retreat to plan for the coming academic year, she used it as an opportunity to support them, rather than just move the needle on their work. “I met with everyone weeks before [the retreat] to hear how they were doing as people, to listen, to identify patterns and group needs,” she says. “Then everything about the retreat was tailored to address these.” The theme of the retreat became “finding our why”—getting in touch with the things that motivate staffers and make them love their work.
Supporting library workers as whole people can have a significant impact on morale and productivity.
Library workers at University of Arizona in Tucson have also found ways of turning existing structures into opportunities to connect and support staff during the pandemic. Members of the library’s Diversity, Social Justice, and Equity Council (DSJEC) developed a program for connection and learning based on an intergroup dialogue training they had attended. People paired up to discuss a topic, such as whiteness theory in the workplace. The program became popular with staffers, who were enthusiastic about learning and sharing.
When COVID-19 hit, the council used its discussion model to create online cafecitos, where people met for an hour on Fridays in “a safe space to share and listen,” according to Kari Quiballo, library information associate and DSJEC member. In pairs, facilitators planned topics to discuss—some related to diversity and inclusion, some focused on morale and coping skills. They later added a monthly game hour with explicit support from administration. Quiballo says DSJEC’s efforts worked because the group was flexible about altering its existing structures to meet emerging needs.
At University of Washington Tacoma, staffers began creating morale boosters such as weekly online teatimes to connect with and support each other, according to instruction and research help librarian Johanna Jacobsen Kiciman. Library administration even distributed gift cards so staffers could buy treats for an online ice cream social. The impact on morale was significant. “For a lot of people, this is a comfortable format,” Jacobsen Kiciman says. “I want this to continue after COVID.”
Of course, the pandemic isn’t the only time library workers have struggled. From personal stresses to collective traumas like layoffs or colleague deaths, many events take an emotional toll. So often, we are encouraged to separate our work and personal lives, but we can’t pretend our feelings don’t affect our jobs. Supporting library workers as whole people and giving them opportunities to connect beyond their daily work can have a significant impact on morale and productivity. The time it takes to create and maintain structures like these is worth the investment for its impact on organizational culture and library worker well-being.