Unlike the Chicago City Libraries, the New York Public Libraries (NYPL) were ahead of the game last March when they closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among users and staff. But now, with the numbers steadily increasing, NYPL staff are demanding to be heard about the growing safety concerns.
A group of NYPL staff posted an open letter on Medium expressing their disagreement over how the library administration is turning current and past COVID concerns. They feel like their concerns have not been listened to or addressed as frontline workers at busy service counters across town.
“The past year and a half has been a nightmare for NYPL employees. We have been exposed to the whims of apathetic government and our experiences have been hidden from the public to give a semblance of normalcy. All of this happened during a pandemic that continues to have devastating effects on various communities across the city, “the letter reads. It includes a timeline of events from the start of the pandemic to the present day.
During the closure, while some employees were allowed to work from home, guards and maintenance staff in the physical building reported daily. Staff were expected to provide the same, if not more, services to guests from home while the administration worked hard to reopen the buildings on a schedule inconsistent with the spread of COVID.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, NYPL management’s priority has never been to consider employee input or find a new model for delivering services, but rather to open the buildings as soon as possible. As COVID-19 cases increased across the city from September 2020 to January 2021, senior management continued to open even more stores for changed services. This rush to open the physical rooms was made regardless of the impact of the pandemic or the serious staff shortage issues that plagued the system for years, ”workers said.
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As in Chicago, throughout the pandemic, library workers heard from the administration that the most vulnerable customers had been hurt most by the library closings. Instead of addressing the root problem – a lack of social support services across the city for those in need – the administration instead pressured and blamed employees.
“We understand that public libraries have long been a stopgap solution to social services where social safety nets have failed and / or gone, but this model has never been tenable and senior management has refused to answer why they continue to carry this burden to weigh on our shoulders. especially during a global health crisis, ”the letter continues.
The physical, emotional and mental well-being, which the employees found inadequate in the first months of the pandemic, was only further neglected in the course of the reopening.
“NYPL failed in what it externally identified as its top priority; to protect everyone from the effects of the coronavirus. From July 2020 (when staff returned to stores for the first round of gradual reopening) to date, there have been over 130 (reported) positive COVID-19 cases in the system’s 92 stores. These numbers were withheld from customers even when they visited affected locations to obtain their materials; Instead, branches suddenly closed without any explanation to the public. To make matters worse, the library staff was only informed of positive cases two or three days later; As expected, some got sick, “the letter said.” Management has told employees, both openly and covertly, that our unwillingness to work under certain conditions translates into disregard for the public and implies that we are ungrateful are considering how we “took care of each other” (another lie) through this difficult time. “
Library staff cite that after being fully reopened, user abuse increased, as found in a service area in the United States. Likewise, a number of employees have left an already understaffed system, so those who remain have even more work and less support to carry. Shelters are few and far between, and those responsible for looking after them during the pandemic have been directed to report to their physical offices.
The letter ends with concerns about the burnout and compassionate fatigue that plagued the field before the pandemic and what will become of the people who comprise library facilities when they have enough.
Tired staff cannot solve a systemic problem, nor can they do their work effectively from a physical library branch, with constant reminders of mask duties, physical distancing and other scientifically proven methods of reducing COVID transmission in their days. For the past 18 months, librarians have worked to provide key references, programs, and materials to their clients, even if they are working from home. As in other areas, employees were able to get involved and use their skills in new ways to meet the ever-changing demands.
But library staff, like this one in NYPL, reflect the same sentiments expressed by many across the country about customer service: administrative demands are high, while compassion and security protocols, if any, are low.
What can you do?
First, share the NYPL staff’s letter and get the word out. Understand that the experiences here mirror the experiences of other library staff – from librarians to Pages to administrators and maintenance workers – across the country, in both large urban systems and individual rural libraries.
To assist NYPL staff, communicate with the committee that oversees the libraries. Call your individual council member followed by committee chairman Jimmy Van Bramer at 718-383-9566. Other members of the committee should be your closest contacts, including Laurie Cumbo 718-260-9191; Darma Diaz 718-642-8664; Jim Gennaro 718-217-4969; Francisco Moya 718-651-1917; and Mark Gjonaj 718-931-1721.
Write letters to local newspapers to support and commend library staff for their outstanding work, and encourage their administrators to recognize them in meaningful ways. Citing the successful manner in which services have been provided since March 2020 to encourage a return to hybrid work.
Above all, listen to the library staff, not the administration. Glowing praise, self-gratifying language, and numbers that look suspicious should be cause for concern. Do the employees feel that way or has the administration spun a narrative that makes them look good?
Library staff are just as human as their customers, and gaslighting library staff back into physical spaces doesn’t help anyone – and it only reinforces the reality that libraries are too often viewed as the only solution to a wide variety of social service problems for what they are they shouldn’t be responsible.