A year ago your Library closed to the public. We’ve been reflecting on what this meant for us, both as individuals and as an institution. As we look ahead to reopening in mid-April, we also want to reflect on where we’ve come from.
Every person has had a different experience and perspective this year, so we wanted to capture individual reflections on working at the Library during this unprecedented moment in time. To do that, we’ve had conversations with people in every Library department and will be sharing them with you throughout the next few weeks.
Below you’ll find our conversation with Elijah, who works in the Circulation Department.
What was your job before we closed, and how has it changed in the last year?
I’m a Circulation Clerk, so typically I’m at the front desk, checking out books to people and answering questions, as well as checking in and shelving returned materials. I started in September 2019, so I had a good feel for that general routine before we shut down last March. It’s crazy though—I’ve now worked here longer with the Library being closed than open.
My job changed a lot this year, because the Circulation Department is now curbside pickup. We [the Circulation staff] have been fortunate because we’re the only people here who get to interact face-to-face with patrons, even though it looks a lot different. We mainly answer phones and take orders to curbside, but at least we still get to see and greet patrons. I also walk a lot more than I thought I would—I didn’t imagine when I applied to work at the Library that I would be getting my 10,000 steps in!
This year has been a reevaluation of what the most important parts of what we do are, and figuring out how to still maintain those. I didn’t think I’d get the opportunity to think in that way in this job, to ask, “what are essential functions of the Library, and how can we reimagine them?”
One of those functions is simply getting materials into the patrons’ hands. Being closed, we’ve had to reimagine how we do that. It’s been a lot of trial and error.
Library-wide, we’ve also had to get creative about how to offer our patrons at least some sense of being able to browse the shelves. Circulation did some readers’ advisory [help finding books] before, but since we’ve been closed it has taken on a new importance—not just getting materials into people’s hands, but also helping them find new things. People call us a lot more now for suggestions since they can’t come browse. Before it was more about making information available; now we often walk through each step with people.
How has the Library being closed affected your view of the role libraries play in society?
I’ve always approached the idea of libraries in an academic sense, as primarily a place to get books and find information. But it’s become more evident to me since we closed that it’s not just that. The Library really does operate as a ‘third space’ in our community, a space that places few requirements on people when they walk through the door. People don’t have to do or be anything in particular to be welcomed here.
Not being able to offer that space has definitely reshaped how I understand the Library’s place in the community. It’s not just about information and sharing materials, but also about the actual physical space, the building. There has been such a focus on digital materials since we closed, and I think this year has shown us the value of those digital resources. But it has also shown that they aren’t sufficient in fulfilling our entire purpose as an institution.
But it’s hard, because this year we’ve had to think about what the purpose is behind being a welcoming space. As that ‘third space’, we always want to have our community’s best interest in mind. And in normal times, this means opening our doors to everyone. But to have our community’s best interest in mind this last year meant not allowing people in.
What are some words you would use to describe the last year working at the Library?
Exhausting. You know when you start a new job and you go home exhausted, and you’re looking at your coworkers thinking, how are they doing this? They make it seem so normal! And it’s just the process of becoming accustomed to new things. I think the constant rate of change is what has been exhausting. We’ve moved curbside [the workflow and the location] around a few times and shifted how we do things. And each time you do that it takes a different kind of energy to adapt.
But it’s also been encouraging, because my coworkers are willing to be in it together, and we’re all just doing the best we can. So we’re exhausted, but we’re exhausted together. And being with your coworkers in and of itself can help you get through the exhaustion. I think the [COVID] safety measures we have in place have gone a long way in helping us do things as together as possible.
I think the other word would be imaginative. This year has provided us an opportunity to think about how things will look in the future, and reevaluate what’s really important and how we keep the most important things in focus.
For more information about what your Library is offering while it’s closed to the public, click here or call (423) 434-4450. Follow Johnson City Public Library on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube for daily updates and virtual programs.