Library workers cannot deal with systemic issues themselves, but in a world where public libraries have become a catch-all social safety net, little is being done to ensure frontline workers are themselves protected. From continuing to operate in the “new normal”, to being excluded from citywide and countywide vaccination mandates, to have to operate on their closing dates to play the role of heated shelter, to take COVID tests and masks (and receive said tests went back to their book scraps or make them good on library property), at closed for lack of staff due to COVID or more than a decade of relentless budget cuts and austerity restructuring, the demands placed on public libraries to function as the solution to the lack of funding and services in society weigh heavily.
Public libraries provide essential resources, but they are not essential services. After being told this for decades by cities across the United States and have tight budgets, it is impossible not to see how now, at a time when fundamental services have completely disappeared, these same governments are telling public libraries to do this work too.
The fact is that public library workers are not equipped to perform roles other than those for which they were trained.
One of the first things those who work on the front lines in public libraries learn is that they are there to provide access to resources, not answers. A client seeking information on how to get legal help on a matter, for example, cannot ask the librarian for his advice. Instead, the librarian can direct them to the appropriate legal resources.
And yet, we see every day in the news and on social media how the same libraries should be doing more to ensure their communities have all their needs met. The profession, which remains predominantly female, assumes the role of guardian, somewhat like the nursing and teaching professions. These are calls vocations that inspire tremendous wonder when it’s convenient and, in times of protracted crisis like now, ravenous anger.
Libraries offer something unavailable in too many places across America: a safe place, a warm place, and a place that is one of the few in the country where you are not asked to participate in capitalism. just to be inside. them. It is a huge privilege and responsibility to undertake in non-emergency times, but in times of disaster it is magnified. This magnification highlights not only the cracks in the foundation of the library, but also the complete holes in the larger structure of government and social safety nets.
And so, frontline library workers carry the burden of underpaid, undervalued and underfunded work because it is expected, and being a profession based on the principles of access, a profession of professional respect and a profession dominated by the helping class, it has become a weapon used against them.
Take the example of a viral tweet recently, in which an author was frustrated with the Seattle Public Library closing during a winter snow emergency. The library – designated a warming center by the city – was not open and therefore did not help those who did not have access to a warm space. Many jumped into the conversation, increasingly angry, on the fact librarians did not show up for work to make sure people would stay warm. Even though it was claimed that they would “make extra money” doing it. Didn’t they care about the less fortunate? Those who have no home?
A designation as a heated shelter by the city of Seattle does not replace the fact that libraries had to close on the day of the emergency. This does not replace the fact that it is dangerous for staff to travel if it is dangerous for someone else to travel. A designation that does not replace the fact that COVID is impacting library workers, especially those who work on the front lines with people every day. It also overlooks the fact that the library has created resources to help people when the library is closed, including a list of other warming centers.
But what’s more, rather than directing anger that the city isn’t adequately funding or creating safe spaces for the homeless population – the city government of Seattle actively funds encampment sweeps that the homeless develop — library employees are called as not caring enough on those who need it most.
And in a world where the Seattle Budget 2021 offers about $440,000,000 to the police but only $86,000,000 to libraries, is there a “bonus” for the “few” librarians who would commute to heal a gaping wound that they are not the alone to repair?
This is a global pandemic, and while libraries can provide a safe space for the most vulnerable in the community, it should not come at their expense. Instead, it’s where those who work in public libraries have to keep doing things that seem contrary to their mission to be the only safety net around. They must close when understaffed. They must close in the event of a weather emergency. They must demand that municipal leaders and municipal media see them as the last refuge to provide goods and services to an entire community. It doesn’t help anyone when libraries get a small shipment of masks to distribute and they’re gone in an hour, and library workers are enduring over 10 more hours a day, plus every two hours this week and the following weeks, explaining that no, they have run out and no, they don’t know when they will have more, and no, the other branches don’t either.
But what good is the reality of what goes on inside the library if it can’t look good for a government’s failures to its people and the weakening of legacy media’s desire for clicks?
Public libraries have not been a panacea for decades to take from the most vulnerable and give to those who prioritize doing more harm to those same vulnerable communities. It’s time for library workers to call in when they’re sick, to speak up when asked to take on a role that isn’t theirs, and to encourage solutions that create a cohesive network of resources, people and funding that doesn’t fall entirely on them.
The solutions exist. But we have to want to listen to those on the front lines to make them happen, and right now too many people are more interested in their platonic ideals of what librarianship is, rather than the realities of how the institution and his best, brightest, and most capable people call him and go.
Instead, library workers are told to practice self-care as a solution to the crisis. If they just create a vision board for what they need, they can make it happen – not a joke, but a real suggestion at a staff meeting in a large public library system city when staff spoke of a lack of resources, being understaffed and overworked in the midst of a global pandemic.
Workers are told they don’t care enough if they put on their own masks first before putting on other people’s masks. That their job is to be the invisible force behind ensuring that social services exist in whatever capacity, even if they are collapsing.
Maybe that decades-long lie that librarianship is a growing field with huge retirements coming is now playing out a little differently than expected.