Essential Until We’re Not: An Angry Librarian On the Disregard for Library Staff Safety

Katie McLain

Contributing Editor

Katie's parents never told her "no" when she asked for a book, which was the start of most of her problems. She has a BA in Creative Writing from Lake Forest College and is working towards a master's degree in library science at U of I. She works full time at a public library reference desk in northern IL, specializing in readers’ advisory and general book enthusiasm, and she has a deep-rooted love of all things disturbing, twisted, and terrifying. (She takes enormous pleasure in creeping out her coworkers.) When she's not spending every waking hour at the library, she's at home watching Cubs baseball with her cats and her cardigan collection, and when she's not at home, she's spending too much money on concert tickets. Her hobbies include debating the finer points of Harry Potter canon, hitting people upside the head who haven’t read The Martian, and convincing her boyfriend that she can, in fact, fit more books onto her shelves. Twitter: @kt_librarylady

As I write this article, many, many libraries across the country are planning to reopen in some capacity, whether it’s offering curbside pickup services or allowing patrons inside the physical building, like the Chicago Public Library plans to do as of June 1. And while libraries are pushing ahead with their reopening plans, I read about a lot of talk from administrators and library publications about how libraries are resilient and librarians are heroes. The internet is full of articles like this one from Publishers Weekly that says “Librarians, America is counting on you.” All of this is complete and utter bullshit.

I’m not hiding it. I’m furious. I’m stressed out to the point where I feel like I’m vibrating from anxiety. Several years ago, I wrote about how I hated the “hero” narrative surrounding library work because calling us heroes ignores the fact that we are just average humans who need way more from our profession than our leaders are willing to provide, and now I’m watching that narrative play out on a national level. Libraries are resilient, they say, ignoring the fact that it’s not safe for patrons or staff to open the libraries yet. But no one seems to realize that empty words can’t keep us safe.

Staff Aren’t Safe

Every day I see these articles, and then I see actual librarians going on social media to talk about how terrified they are to return to work. It’s too early to open up the library, yet their board members are demanding it even though the board will never have to actually work with the public. Directors are putting up signs that encourage social distancing, saying that patrons will inevitably police themselves and obey library signage. (Because we all know how well people read library signs in the first place.) Staff are forced to go without essential PPE, because opening services to the public is more important than ensuring that staff are safe. Some argue that the libraries have to open because otherwise their funding will be at risk, but what kind of a service are you actually providing if your staff are terrified, angry, sick, or killed?

Employees and customers at essential businesses are being harassed, assaulted, or even killed over social distancing and mask-wearing policies. And over the last couple of years, we’ve watched as library staff members have been murdered on the job, before the pandemic. What are we supposed to do now?

Your Job or Your Life

This hurts on a very personal level. I’ve long been an outspoken advocate for library safety, and yet I ended up having to leave a job that I once loved because I did not trust the administration to protect my physical or mental well-being. I have since found a wonderful new job with a director and colleagues that continually demonstrate their willingness to put staff safety first, but those types of scars don’t heal easily. And now I’m reliving my trauma on a national level.

I see conversations on Twitter where library employees are in tears because they are considered at-risk for COVID-19, yet their libraries are forcing them to choose between their jobs and their lives. Some are allowed to stay home, but without pay, and only for a limited time. Many depend on health insurance through their jobs, but aren’t sure that they, or their loved ones, will make it through COVID-19 alive if they return to work before it’s safe.

And although I am one of the infinitely lucky library employees who doesn’t have to make that choice or force any of my staff to make that choice, I’m still scared. I’ve been tasked with creating a no-contact plan for curbside services, which even under the best conditions still seems too soon to think about. My number one priority is to make sure my staff are safe and supported, and I know I have the support to do so. But I’m watching the stories roll in about staff having to deal with poorly conceived plans and furious patrons right off the bat, and my spirits sink even lower. How many of these employees are expected to just take it because “everyone is frustrated and scared,” forgetting for a moment that the employees themselves don’t seem to be included in “everyone?”

Essential or Disposable?

We are considered essential until we’re not. Essential enough that we must work with members of the public, but not so essential that our libraries can set up systems to protect us. Essential enough to bring books out to patrons’ cars, but not essential enough to protect from harassment or assault.

Once again, I don’t feel safe at my job. But this time, it’s not the administration or the other employees that are contributing to this. It’s the fact that having a supportive organization is becoming more and more of an outlier in this profession, and I’m afraid of having to watch my fellow library employees die because their libraries didn’t do enough to protect them.

Libraries are resilient because the failings of our local, state, and federal governments force us to be so, but now we’re screaming for help. Stop telling us that you expect us to carry the country safely through the pandemic, and help carry us instead. If you can shrug and say “What can you do?” you have never been in a position where you feared for your life or your livelihood, and it shows. We’re drowning, we’re scared, and we’re angry, but no one is listening.