The library stopped being a library.
They let me back in to work in the building, three days a week. I emptied the book drops. I checked in material.
I watered my coworker’s plant, still hanging on after two months with no water.
I edited all the process documentation. I edited it again.
I took everything off the hold shelf, that had been sitting there for three months, unable to be picked up. Empty shelves. No patrons. No services.
I took all the forms that we have patrons fill out and filed them in a filing cabinet. I organized folders by month. I labeled the drawers.
I threw away old documentation. Out of date forms. Empty three-ring binders. I found circulation policies from 2007 and thought about sending them to the archives collection.
I ran documents through the shredder.
I noticed that my coworker, who quit two months before we went into lockdown, had left behind a really cool supply organizer on her desk. I stole it and put it on mine.
I reorganized our network drive, and the hard drive.
We were a one-way library. Books come in….they don’t go back out.
Outside the library, our campus had become something of a park, a picnic ground for neighbors in the area. They couldn’t go to the actual parks–the city had closed them. They couldn’t stay in their houses forever. So, they came to the college I work at, sat under a cottonwood for awhile, let their kids toddle in the grass.
I piled up boxes of mail, waiting for our ILL staff to come back to work, along the wall. I organized them by date, in crates. It took about two weeks to fill up a crate. I ended up filling 6 of them, before my coworker started coming to the office, started unpacking and processing everything.
I took our larger-than-lifesized cardboard figure of Legolas the Wood Elf and made a mask for him out of paper towels. I moved him to different places around the office so he could surprise the cleaning crew.
One of the staff computers near me had its monitor on, and it was being used by someone working remotely. I could see them highlighting and annotating old digital versions of the school newspaper to make them accessible to screen readers.
I was often the only one in the building. Most of the lights were off. I listened to podcasts. Wiped my desk down with disinfectant even though nobody else was going to touch it.
I stayed away from windows. Every now and then, someone would walk by, cup their hands to their face and peer through the glass, trying to figure out if we were open.
My coworker who organizes building stuff showed up eventually. He started taking away furniture, piling it in study rooms, blocking off the entire lower level. Stickers appeared on the floor, directing people to this side of an aisle or that one. We threw dropcloths over bookcases to keep people from browsing. Plastic wrapping appeared over the drinking fountains. I put a sign on the dishwasher letting people know they had to hand wash their dishes or bring their own dishes in with them. We ran out of coffee but there was nobody to order any more, and anyway, we weren’t accepting deliveries. At the request of the custodial staff, we placed our trash cans outside of offices, to reduce the number of areas they’d have to walk through.
We put up a curtain around the front desk. No lending books, not right now. Not even when we let people back into the building. The library is closed.
I signed into staff meetings on my phone so that I could walk around and show everyone else, who hadn’t been in the library in over six months, what the building looked like now.
Quiet, quiet, quiet. I had no patrons. I had no requests to fill. No printers to fill with paper. No questions about restrooms or room assignments.
I was getting caught up on so much that I’d been planning to do for years. It was terrible.
I took inventory of all of the chargers and headphones and projectors and everything else we check out to patrons. I wondered if we’d ever check them out again.
Eventually, I started meeting patrons by appointment. They could put items on hold and set up a time and I would bring the items out to their car. Since no one else was working in circulation, I could organize the hold shelf however I wanted. I gave patrons weeks and weeks to pick up their items before cycling them back to the shelf.
When does a library become a library again? We’re lending books now. Students are in and out of the building. We’re even having classes in the building. Holds get picked up. But there’s still no research center, no computer lab, no writing center. No questions about restrooms or school assignments. No group study rooms. It doesn’t feel like a library. I’m still behind a curtain. Still behind glass.
I’ve started to picture the library as a great, slumbering beast. Unlike most beasts, though, it was a lot easier to send it to sleep than it is to wake it up. One of the podcasts that I listen to adapted its sign off by saying, “We are produced on Radio Row, which is currently scattered across the North American continent but will always be centered in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.” The library is currently scattered across the North American continent (or at least…the greater metro area), and what lives here is a skeleton that puts books in the mail and electronic files in email boxes. It lives on Zoom and in the chat room.
And it slumbers, which it can do because campus is quiet and empty, waiting for thousands of students to be safe enough to come poke it with a stick until it wakes up entirely.