What Should the Role of Libraries Be During the Pandemic?

In a previous post, I explored the potential impacts of librarians’ vocational awe on the community. I used the definition of vocational awe found in Fobazi Ettarh’s “Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves” to question whether libraries had lost their focus by taking on tasks best performed by other organizations trained for and dedicated to those tasks. The pandemic, of course, has made such questions even more relevant, as libraries attempt to pivot to answer the needs of their communities, and to continue to provide services during stay-at-home orders. Some libraries responded by refusing to close back in the spring, or by attempting to reopen fully back in the summer or fall. Many libraries have responded by offering curbside services and virtual programming. However, in the July 2020 of School Library Journal, Mega Subramaniam and Linda W. Braun argued that libraries should be providing social services in an article provocatively titled, “Wake Up, Libraries: Curbside Pickup is NOT the Answer.” This article is a telling example of the way in which vocational awe has been ingrained in the profession, with librarians chastising their peers for not risking their lives and pivoting to become social workers during a time of crisis.

Before we explore the arguments put forward by Subramaniam and Braun, we should first look at Ettarh’s definition of vocational awe. Ettarh writes that, “‘Vocational awe’ refers to the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in beliefs that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.” Ettarh goes on to illustrate how job creep, or the expectation that employees will take on increasing job duties with no additional compensation, is one of the primary ways vocational awe manifests in libraries. Because libraries (and their employees) see themselves as upholding a “sacred” institution that provides equal access and protects democracy, they are willing to takes on roles they have not been prepared for or trained for in the name of meeting the needs of the community. To refuse to do so would be unthinkable, because the sacred mission of the library must never be questioned or critiqued. Those who speak out against job creep are seen as unwilling and unable to make the sacrifices necessary to be a “good” librarian, and treated accordingly.

Under this definition, we can see how the proposals Subramaniam and Braun make are a prime example of vocational awe. In their article, they proclaim that libraries have been “focusing service on low-hanging fruit by reformatting traditional offerings” (creating virtual programming, offering increased WiFi access, starting curbside pickup, etc.) and have thus failed to meet the true needs of their communities. They argue that libraries need to, “Shift emphasis from physical access to the library and technology (i.e. curbside pick-ups, summer reading programs) and instead focus on how to establish relationships with the community irrespective of the library physical space.” They propose that libraries do this by focusing on key areas such as meeting insecurities (such as lack of food, clothing, employment, etc.), supporting schools and learning, supporting youth employment, encouraging activism, and providing accurate health information. In other words, libraries should pivot from providing access to information and materials to providing social services.

I think that Subramaniam and Braun’s proposals likely come from two places: a place of caring and a place of fear. Librarians are trained to help people and, during a time of crisis, they understandably start thinking how they can meet people where they are. In some cases, this may indeed mean moving away from an emphasis on the materials collection and towards an emphasis on other services and community partnerships. I also think, however, that libraries fear that closing during the pandemic means government officials will see their work as “non-essential” and believe that the library is truly irrelevant and outdated. If they want local officials to continue funding libraries, the workers need to find a way to show they are necessary during a crisis. So workers stop thinking about how to circulate the latest YA releases and start wondering what they can do to make their importance visible during a time no one can enter the building. Subramaniam and Braun suggest the answer is to offer social services.

I would suggest that this type of thinking is both unfair to librarians and to the communities they serve. Librarians are trained to be information professionals, and not social service workers. What they can offer is probably not as good as what a trained professional or organization can offer in their place. Furthermore, librarians did not ask to be social workers. They did not go to school for that job or apply to that job. To ask them to take on that kind of work–especially with no training–is not right at the best of times, but even worse now. Librarians probably did not go into their line of work imagining that they might have to literally risk their lives or the lives of people they know and care about, in pursuit of serving the community. Telling them that they cannot simply offer curbside pickup and virtual options during a global pandemic, but must go out into the community to provide social services (because you can’t really offer food security or employment services if your building is closed to the public) is to ask them to perform a job they never signed up for. Maybe we would like to believe that the average librarian is willing to risk their lives to offer job help, but I do not think we can blame them if they are not. After all, how many of us would be willing to do the same?

The type of thinking exemplified by the Subramaniam and Braun article is, however, more than a prime example of vocational awe. It is also an example of libraries losing their focus in the attempt to be relevant. Very often, libraries try to be relevant by meeting community needs that are currently unfilled. During the pandemic, this might mean handing out free food and clothing, offering to read and review resumes, creating youth activism clubs, and more. But what happens when the pandemic ends? When the need is met? Libraries lose their relevance when it becomes clear that they are not really a soup kitchen, not really a career center. Then they must pivot again, to find a new, unfilled need that they can meet.

This raises the question: “What is the core mission of the library?” Is it really to take on any community need, as that need arises? Should workers expect to pivot constantly from one job to another, with little or no training? Or can the core mission of the library be re-imagined as something more stable, something that libraries can constantly refresh as community need and engagement changes, without having to redefine their entire job function?

These questions have been circulating around libraries for awhile, as they seek to transform with the times and to demonstrate their relevance in a constantly-changing world. However, I think the pandemic has heightened the dialogue around what libraries are and what they demand of their workers. The pandemic has shown that library administrations, local officials, library workers, and their communities have all, in various places across the U.S. expected at one time or another that libraries would reopen as a matter of course, despite the safety risks. Librarians were literally willing to risk their lives–and those of community members–in the name of serving the community, simply because it was so unthinkable that the library, the place where people gather, read, find information, and access the internet to do anything from applying to jobs to applying to government aid, would not be available. This is vocational awe taken to the extreme.

I believe in libraries and in the work they do. I believe that circulating books, paying for database access, and providing internet access is important work–even if it is work that cannot reasonably be safely done during a global pandemic. I do not think that we need expect librarians to become social workers during this time simply to prove their worth. Libraries still have a role in the community as places where people can find reliable information. In a time of crisis, I think libraries should be able to pivot to find ways that they continue to provide that information–without asking their employees to take on new roles they are not trained for and did not sign up for.

Suggesting that library workers continue to provide information about resources instead of handing out those resources themselves may seem uncaring. It may seem to threaten the very existence of libraries, or even to personally attack the desire of library workers to help when needed most. However, we need to resist the pull of vocational awe. We need to ask whether we can, in all fairness, really ask librarians to risk their health and maybe their lives to reopen buildings during a time when it may not be safe to do so. The library is important, yes. But is it more important than the people who work there?

10 thoughts on “What Should the Role of Libraries Be During the Pandemic?

  1. ashley says:

    This is a great post as always! The library where I was volunteering before the pandemic is doing curbside, the library in my town which is the one I’ve been using is doing take out service where you put books on hold and you can go pick them up. Before the numbers surged the library opened for appointment only browsing. I think you can still book appointments to use the computers though, but you can’t book for browsing anymore.

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    • Krysta says:

      That’s good! I think it’s concerning that some libraries are open to the public right now with the cases so high. Yes, libraries are important, but important enough to risk people’s lives? And, of course, these decisions are often made by people who don’t work on the floor and won’t be exposed to the public.

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      • ashley says:

        That’s the scary thing that the decisions aren’t being made by the people on the floor. I think that the library in my town is doing a great job of still providing services to the community and keeping both staff and patrons safe staying open the way that they are.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Eustacia | Eustea Reads says:

    I don’t know if it’s a US-thing, but perhaps the libraries there are responding to the way the pandemic has been handled and feeling that they need to step in (because no one else does/govt doesn’t do enough/other reasons)?

    Personally, I think it’s asking too much of librarians to do so much – keeping libraries open and access available in these times is already a huge task!

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, the U.S. uses libraries as a catch-all for all kinds of social services that the communities are otherwise not providing. For the most part, libraries have embraced this, believing it increases their relevancy at a time when budget cuts are common. However, I do think it might be time to reflect on the changing roles of libraries and to ask whether using libraries as a band-aid solution for large-scale social issues that aren’t being met/funded by the proper organizations is really what we, as a society, want.

      Liked by 1 person

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