Looking Ahead: A Sign of Hope?

It’s been one year since we shuttered the library building due to COVID-19. We were on a Spring Break that got extended by one additional week. Then the university made the decision to move all classes online. Faculty/staff were sent home to work by the Governor’s order. In prepping to close, we were busy turning off equipment, making sure we all had laptop access and remote desktop connection, and transitioning all services to online only.

What did we forget? The library plants.

In summer of 2020, we returned for a phased re-opening. In-person staffing was minimal while most of us continued working from home. Even now, we’re staffing at around 50 percent in-person. Foot traffic is off by about one-third.

And the plants? They had seen better days–especially an orchid that was a sure goner.

However, a year since we first closed the library building, this orchid has managed to spring back to life. Apropos for the season.

Now please don’t draw parallels to “resilience.” That word gets bandied about too much while ignoring things like the actual trauma and loss due to COVID-19, toxic stress, low morale, and the ever-present “do more with less” mantra. As if by merely staying positive, everything will work out. No, that’s not how life works.

Instead, I merely take the orchid blooming as a simple sign of hope. The hope that people will get vaccinated. The hope that people will continue to mask-up and social distance. I don’t like to say a hope for “returning to normal” because I think we’ve discovered things we would like to change over the past year. In some ways, the blooming is an opportunity for a new start. Time for new ideas, new possibilities. It’s the hope that things will get better.

The library orchid is back stronger than ever

Will COVID End the All-Day Academic Librarian Interview? I Hope So!

I come from a working class family. As I was approaching the end of my MLIS program and job hunting, I was perplexed by this all-day academic librarian interview thing. I kept thinking:

It takes the library ALL DAY to figure out if they want to hire someone?

Why All Day?
Then it was explained to me: The all-day interview is really just a series of shorter interviews with different groups of people, who often ask you the same question. At the end of the day, you’re either REALLY good at answering those questions, or so frazzled that your brain is fried. Also, in cases where the academic librarian position is faculty status with research expectations, they may want to ask you about your research agenda. I was told that it has to be an all day interview to see if you are a “good fit.” Today, more attention is paid to the inherent biases of interviewing for fit, which workplaces need to focus on eliminating.

Virtual World
With COVID, a lot of interviewing has gone virtual. Now is the time to re-evaluate if you truly need an all-day academic librarian interview. Rule #1: Be kind. Pity the job candidate who has to sit through an ALL DAY VIRTUAL INTERVIEW…and shame on that library! I even heard of a MULTIPLE DAY virtual interview. Or virtual interviews where you eat lunch on camera with library staff. Seriously?

In hiring during COVID times, I re-examined our interview template and decided we do not need an all-day interview for librarian positions–whether it is virtual or in-person. I had a dry run in late February 2020 for a librarian position and it worked well. I didn’t feel like I was missing out on important information to make a hiring decision. It’s also a more humane experience for the interviewee. For the record, I’m a library director at a small academic library (5 librarians, 3 support staff, 5 part-time evening/weekend staff) where librarians are classified as professional/administrative staff. All of the librarians report to me. So your mileage may vary.

Interview Template

9:00-9:50am
9:50-10:00am
10:00-10:45am
10:45-11:00am
11:00-11:15am
11:20-12:00pm

Welcome/Search committee/Library staff
Break
Presentation (no more than 15 minutes) + Q&A time
Break
HR/Benefits overview
Meet with Library Director

This interview template comes in at three hours. It gives me 135 “active” minutes to see the candidate one-on-one, in a group setting, and a teaching session/Q&A. This is in addition to the first-round preliminary phone interview. This is enough “face time” for me whether it’s on Zoom/Teams or in-person.

Criticisms
One criticism is lack of feedback from members outside of the library. This can easily be fixed by inviting campus faculty/staff and student representatives to sit in on the presentation to gain that perspective. You should also include people from outside of the library on the search committee from the get-go.

Another criticism is the lack of “social time.” I would push back on this too. We’re getting back to the “fit” question and its biases. Once COVID is over I might consider offering a wrap-up lunch as a thank you. But this is just a professional courtesy for investing your time with us as a candidate. The only time slot I would add back in for a physical interview is a library walk-through/tour.

Advantages
This template peels back the layers to what is essential: library staff face time, a short presentation, and one-on-one with the supervisor. In higher ed, we often have a tendency to add more window dressing. Let’s stop with that. Frankly, it’s a bear coordinating common meeting times when setting up interviews. I’m not one who thinks pulling all ideas from the business world into libraries/higher ed is good, but this is one.

The other big advantage is that it is more friendly toward the candidate. Everyone is trying their best to make-do in COVID time. Let’s not waste the candidate’s time or overburden them with an obnoxiously long Zoom/Teams call. Going forward, even after COVID is over, I could see us continuing to offer virtual interviews if that is what the candidate prefers.

Tips

  1. Give candidates an itinerary of the day’s events with their Zoom/Teams meeting links. Make sure time zones are clearly stated, if needed.
  2. Send an org chart with names, FACES, and titles. This is especially helpful in online-only environments.
  3. Give the presentation topic AT LEAST ONE WEEK in advance.
  4. Reiterate that there will be time reserved for the candidate to ask questions in each time slot.
  5. Reassure them it’s ok to have a water bottle, etc. at close hand.
  6. Consider that taking a barrage of questions from 5 or more people during a search committee time slot can be intimidating. It may make more sense for 2 or 3 people to ask the list of questions while others listen in.
  7. Consider giving interview questions in advance.
  8. Participants in the interviewing process should mute their microphone when not speaking.
Image: clock, representing the theme of an all-day interview
Image: clock, representing the theme of an all-day interview

Lessons on Working from Home

I used to think I was the textbook example of a classic introvert–that is until I started working from home.

Now I realize how much I crave those social interactions. My family is at home with me, so it’s not like I’m “alone alone” but it’s just different not seeing co-workers and patrons/students every day. The now ubiquitous Zoom and Microsoft Teams video meetings get the work done, but are not a replacement for our in-person interactions.

As Covid-19 was ratcheting up nationwide, it was just starting to gain attention in my corner of Wisconsin. The week of March 9 we were on Spring Break (read: super quiet in the library). Then the university extended Spring Break by an additional week as it assessed the situation. I migrated the library to skeletal staffing (2 people rotating per day with the remainder working remotely). Then the situation became worse as the number of cases in our county started to rise. On March 20, we closed up the library building and have remained closed. The university moved the rest of Spring classes all online. Since then, we have all been working from home.

I’m grateful for this privilege–for all of our staff to have this privilege–recognizing that some in the library profession have not been afforded this opportunity. They should have.

It’s also given me time to think about working from home. Something I always wished I could do. I guess be careful what you wish for! Now that I’ve been doing it for the past two months, I’ve learned some things about myself and some about being a manager. Here are a few things that come to mind.

Don’t Say “When We Get Back to Work”
Nothing raises my hackles more than someone saying “when we get back to work.” Just don’t. What you are trying to say is: When we get back to the building. We HAVE been working: answering chat questions from students/faculty, holding Microsoft Teams meetings with student groups doing research, loading e-books into our catalog, processing interlibrary loan requests for e-content, and figuring out how to transition services/resources to online only. We’ve been doing this from home and actually it’s been A LOT of work.

Forget Productivity
So when a lot of Americans began telecommuting during Covid-19, people started tweeting how productive Isaac Newton was during the bubonic plague (read this rebuttal)–like he should be our role model. This is the time to write that novel, discover a new breakthrough, or learn to speak another language. OK, more power to you, but how about just trying to get through the day? I consider that productive. As a manager, yes you should check in with your employees and work toward goals. But productivity is a myth. I know some managers require remote workers to log their activities. Please STOP. I don’t have time to read that! Let. People. Breathe. (just not on each other)

Try New Things
Productivity aside, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the opportunity to try new things. In the library setting, this whole online-only world is new for most of us. We’ve done great work in turning our libraries into community hubs. But what do you do when everything is now virtual? At our academic library, we experimented with offering online professional development for faculty/staff. Our Library@Home series, conducted via Microsoft Teams, was well received. Sessions focused on: genealogy research, citation management, Wikipedia, and journal publishing. We’ve had requests to offer more sessions. So it has been a good time to do some beta testing.

Kid and Pets: All in a Day’s Work
Participating in a lot of Zoom meetings or Microsoft Teams calls? The occasional appearance of kids, babies, and fur babies is OK. This is not a sterile office environment. You’re working from home; there are no boundaries. You’re managing to be a parent or pet parent AND working from home AND social distancing? This likely isn’t the work life (or home life!) you signed up for. We even did a Twitter post of library employee’s pets just to show a different side to us. On Fridays we do a “virtual happy hour” where those kids and pets are even invited to make an appearance. It helps keep us as a cohesive team while we are all distancing. Managers, cut your employees some slack. It’s not unprofessional; it’s called life.

Ready for Your Close Up?
All of these video calls can be draining. Don’t force people to use a webcam. Yes, I like to see faces (and the fun backgrounds!). However, it’s more important to respect people’s privacy. You can make do with audio. It’s not the end of the world. Same goes for wearing “professional” clothing. There’s a lot of classism tied to that. I’m not getting “dressed up” to work from home. Also if my webcam is off, it might be because I’m in my pajamas. OK, that last line is a joke…or is it?

Encourage Self-Care
If I hear “we’re all in this together” again I think I will scream. But that’s my cue to take a walk. That’s what relaxes me. As a manager, support self-care for your employees. In a remote work environment, that might mean taking lunches at weird times (as in, OMG it’s 10:08am and the sun is shining…I need to go outside!). In general, remind people to TAKE YOUR LUNCH. Going for a walk, taking the dog out, supporting a local business, etc. are all good things.

Short-Term vs. Long-Term
One of the hardest transitions has been navigating short-term vs. long-term projects. Working from home I’ve encountered a lot of starts and stops. When I’m at the library, I typically do some short-term stuff at the beginning of my day. At home, keeping a running list of short and long-term projects has been helpful. Some library staff have also had to switch their routine around. A few staff who had more physical tasks in the library had to switch their work-from-home routines to focus on long-term projects that we typically did in the summer. That’s OK. It’s not “back burner” work. It’s stuff that needs doing anyway. We’re just doing it now.

Everyone Needs an Office
Even though we are working from home, it’s made me think about how when we are back at the library everyone needs an office. Will Covid-19 officially kill the open office plan? I hope so. Having worked in a cube farm before, I didn’t like it. Everyone needs privacy and the ability to concentrate. Now they need a space that also protects them from viruses.

Managers Need to Lead
If you’re the library director working from home while the rest of the staff has to come in, you’re doing your job wrong. If you’re the library director who is having staff out doing curbside pick up and you’re not participating, you’re doing your job wrong. I get that sometimes things are above your control (the library is part of a municipality/county or the library is part of a school/university). In those cases, you need to be the advocate. You may not win, but you at least need to make your case.

Protect Staff
It’s a weird time to be a librarian. Budgets are precarious. We’re not sure what will happen on the horizon. Above all else, protect staff–from a financial standpoint and public health standpoint. Again, you’re probably not going to win every battle, but you owe it to them to try. They are at the core of the library. Not the building, not the books.

lone tree

lone tree