Few places are as simultaneously comforting and intimidating at once as a good library – or indeed an evil one, come to think of it. The shelves of books are an immovable presence radiating both the call of old friends, and the uncertain promise of new people met at a rather sedate party. Either way you’re not entirely certain as to what will happen next.
The bustle of libraries, full of children, has been firmly quenched in these covid lockdown days, and more’s the pity. Instead we have a return to the deep silence that has always underpinned these places. Despite the faint traffic noise that sometimes murmurs and hisses in the background there is now a quiet and stillness that some find unnerving.
Those who remark on it sometimes say that the silence is expectant, and it makes them want to fill that awful void in an otherwise frenetic soundscape. I think that tells us as much about how uncomfortable they are with their thoughts in the quiet as any statement by the librarians; even if that statement is a simple “Shhhhhh!”
It sounds like the title to some High Fantasy Detective novel, but in this case its actually a work post. We’ve taken on some young apprentices at the library as part of a structured course; and today I met the one assigned to our neck of the woods (mostly because where they were due to be working is currently having its floor dug up, but that’s another story)
I don’t say this lightly, but so far I’m impressed. They’ve had previous retail and customer service experience and it shows. For their sins they’ve got to work with me again tomorrow, so there will be some interesting dynamics at play, with a very young set of people and varying degrees of motivation.
Do you ever get those gut feeling days where getting out of bed doesn’t appeal? That was me this morning, and while it wasn’t horrific in any sense it was busy.
It was also filled with Sod’s Law moments: like having to reset the fuses for the lights when i walked in to work, or having to change libraries to support someone when bank staff didn’t turn up for work, or a colleague telling me she was having such a stressful day that her period had started as soon as I walked through the door – with her eyes doing the flickering dance of someone whose brain is catching up with the words just after they’ve left their mouth and is considering digging a deep hole in the floor.
So we got on with the day, as the only sensible way to move on from the moment, because there was a lot to do.
So, as an antidote to that, here’s the film clip I recorded for Libraries Week on Saturday:
Next week we’re celebrating libraries, and I got put in the spot to film a quick 60-90 second spot about amazing things in the library.
So I scribbled some notes, and recorded something this afternoon on the phone, as you do. I might share that at some point next week, but here’s the text of my notes:
Got time for a quick story? I pretty much grew up in my local library. I spent nearly every day in there, reading everything I could: Secret Seven, Famous Five, the Hardy Boys, Tintinhull, Asterix… not to mention all the Dr Who novels.
Life and my career took me elsewhere, but not as effectively as the stories I devoured…
And then I came back to work in a library. I was surrounded by books – old friends and new – but this time I’ve discovered the real treasure: the people who work and browse here.
There’s nothing like the buzz of a library full of excited children singing, or doing crafts, or just chattering with their friends.
Even better is the sense of being part of the community – whether on visits to schools and play groups, being spotted by children in the local supermarket, or talking to familiar faces who just want to say hello and know they’ll be missed if they’re not there.
There’s still lots of Dr Who novels though. I do like those.
Well, what a week that’s been, and there’s still more to go. We’ve had libraries reopening, the wait for an MRI still ongoing for Lady M, aches and pains, and life going on.
I can tell the Lady M is starting to feel a little more comfortable as she’s making noises about logging in to work again. I still see her getting very drained very quickly so we’ll see what her management say about some limited hours. Hopefully it will stop her brain exploding a while.
The library reopening has so far gone smoothly enough, with the public largely pleased to see us, even with the limited service available. It’s all new, and a bit odd, but its working. I’m back in on Friday and I know the time will just fly by.
And myr s has an amazing new haircut, having had their first experience of a barber’s shop. They also got a new job confirmed today that I think they’ll really enjoy, so a great day all round on their front.
I’ve even heard from the Charleesi, who is decidedly not resting on her laurels but is trying some freelance writing while the job hunt continues. She’s a grafter with a lot of talent and determination so there’s little doubt there’s success to follow.
And me? I’m exhausted, but there’s nothing new there. I’m worried for Lady M, and missing myr s something fierce, but we’ll get there in the end.
Lady M had to pop out this morning to drop some things to the post office, and then get some ingredients to do some baking. All things that sound innocuous enough, but when she returned, she was exhausted – and revealed that her stress levels had spiked so hard when getting to the supermarket that she’d had to stop and have a bit of a breather. This is not unlike the sort of conversations I’ve been having with staff this week.
The UK government decided to lower it’s pandemic severity rating from a 4 to a 3 this week, to catch up with the announcement the week before that it was going to recommend more places opening up. There are more than a few medical and clinical workers facepalming at the moment, but in truth it is a political decision as much as an interpretation of the highly contentious statistics of infections and deaths.
Lady M, like many of my staff, have obeyed the lockdown – in no small part because they’ve been working from home and so haven’t had the experience of seeing people getting used to the strange interpretations of social distancing and mask wearing that different people have been making. I’ve been able to get out and do grocery shopping while she’s been battling work issues so my usual internal grump is around the anticipation of queueing a while.
By comparison, Lady M has also had to battle the stark clash between media sources urging care and the reality of the Great British public who are worse than a bundle of cats for staying and doing what they’re told. I shall continue to bear this in mind as we work to get the libraries open safely for both staff and customers. On both sides we will have people who are rightly nervous on some level about accessing the buildings and the treasures they contain – and I hope we can maintain both understanding and kindness in the process.
I’ve started the process of talking to staff to identify concerns and issues around reopening the libraries next month if things continue as they are. For the most part so far there’s a general pragmatism and desire to be getting on with things – as much for the sense of not being in limbo any more as anything else. The biggest concern so far has been around using public transport.
The concern has ranged from contamination risks and distancing to potential delays due to any distancing preventing their getting the bus on time. We’ll see what tomorrow’s interviews bring.
For the most part, bringing people along on these risk assessments is part of a process of getting their active involvement in thinking about their own responsibilities to themselves and their families.
I can and have done assessments of the work places alongside colleagues against known recommendations, but the only people who can give me an informed assessment of how they’re doing and especially what their fears are are the staff themselves.
It is a good excuse to get to see familiar faces again as well. Even where we’re discussing contentious or difficult issues its still a pleasure to be catching up properly. We’ll see if tomorrow manages to be as productive.
I’m taking advantage of the hard work yesterday clearing down old archives to make sure that the bags of confidential waste are prepped and ready for collection by our secure shredding service. If nothing else its giving me a workout, so I’m pausing a moment for a cuppa.
If there’s one thing this week of clearing out rubbish and shelving has made clear to me, it’s how the lockdown has affected my stamina levels. Before this week I’ve been having aches and pains, but now I have muscles letting me know that they’ve been used, and that’s a good thing.
What I shall need to be aware of is that many of the people I work with will be in similar states as and when we reopen in whatever capacity to the public. It can be very easy to forget that working in a library is quite physical between shifting stock, being on your feet most of the day, and of course moving around to help people all over buildings that frequently have multiple floors.
When are we reopening? Well we don’t actually know yet. We were working to the assumption that it would be July, but the announcement this week of non-essential shops being allowed to reopen in a couple of weeks time has also folded libraries into that umbrella.
We’re still working out how to best do it safely, and are doing assessments on how to phase some sort of service back into play. In the meantime, data cleansing and physical cleansing are an ongoing process in preparation of any announcements.
I’ve been putting it off, but yesterday I went into one of my libraries with a colleague to do a cleardown of surfaces and a general clearout of expired leaflets and paperwork. Eight large bags of recycling and three large bin liners later, we called it a day.
If nothing else it helped keep my back limber as I’ve had a trapped nerve for a couple of days.
The other good thing (aside from it being easier to clean surfaces), is that it has given me ideas for jobs for staff to do when they return, such as having a sort through craft materials. We have an archive of old crafts ideas dating back the best part of twenty years that needs a critical eye too.
Today I’ll be going back in to start going through the drawers behind the main desk. There’s a lot of rubbish in there…
I’m just back home from doing a quick tour of my libraries this morning and it has at least given me a chance to be outside the four walls of my flat. There are a number of things we’re doing while we’re closed in preparation for when it is safe to reopen, and they range from some simple maintenance of the buildings to measuring up for potential protective measures. The libraries are big enough that we can observe social distancing while a few of us go in to sort these things out, but it still feels strange to be doing so.
The first library was just a very brief stop in before we handed the building over to decorators. I was there the other day clearing surfaces, but today was the official start of works. I’ll not be returning there until works are completed on some repainting and minor repairs and the company hands the building back to us. Having been there for about two or three minutes, it was then on to the biggest of the libraries to catch up with a fellow manager while we went through and started throwing out outdated manuals, empty biscuit tins, and all the minor detritus that seems to build up in workrooms and staff areas to take over every surface.
Along the way we found training manuals for IT systems that don’t exist any more, procedures printed out from seven or eight years ago that have been superceded, and new homes for all the cash paying in stubs that we need to retain for a few more years. Waste disposal companies got politely prodded to come and actually empty bins that weren’t; air conditioning units got inspected and maintained; water tanks and sinks checked for legionella/water temperature controls – and yes, okay, we gossipped and caught up on how things are going because these things too are important.
The other libraries it was just a quick glance on the way past to check the doors were still locked and nothing looked out of place. We’ll get to them next week – we’re pacing ourselves.
More importantly the majority of our conversations are debates on how to interpret the guidance being wafted around in such a way as to promote safe access to services and buildings for staff and public alike. We’re already pushing our digital services and online presentations – with rhymetimes, storytimes, and craft events all being presented online via social media – on https://www.facebook.com/surreylibrariesUK/ – and a big part of our debate is how we can safely restart doing these activities in the branches. We’ll just have to see what happens.