Here at METRO, we’re putting together brief summaries of our webinars. We are all trying to figure out the best way to navigate our “new normal” whatever form that may take for each of us. We want to keep you updated during this time, and we want you to know that you’re not alone in this.

We hosted our first work-from-home webinar on Monday, March 30th. Lauren Comito (Neighborhood Library Supervisor at Brooklyn Public Library) and Brian Hasbrouck (Branch Manager at D.C. Public Library) shared their stories about closing their branches in order to help their library systems mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus. Their conversation was moderated by Davis Erin Anderson, Assistant Director for Programs and Partnerships at METRO Library Council. Anderson began by asking the panelists about their first reactions to learning about the spread of the virus in their local communities.

“My first response was… what on earth do we do?” – Brian Hasbrouck

This is a sentiment we can certainly all relate to at the moment. 

In early 2020, we started to hear the serious reports coming from Washington State. We began to wonder what that could mean when the novel coronavirus hit places like New York City and Washington DC. As a response to news reports in early March, Comito began to implement measures to reduce physical contact between people at her library branch in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This included making sure that everyone checked in their books by scanning their own library cards. She also had all the toys removed from the circulation floor so that little kids wouldn’t be at risk of catching an infection. This soon led to every item being removed from the floor completely. 

Comito mentioned that she wanted to provide comfort to her staff early on; it was important for staff to know that she was aware of the situation and was trying to mitigate possible exposure. She was doing her best to protect them while trying to manage expectations of the library. By mid-March, notification was sent out that schools were closing, indicating the library would most likely be closing soon too. Comito had permission to collect a few things out of the library such as books for virtual story time, and get out.

Hasbrouck was also notified in mid-March that the DC Public Library was going to close and started to delve into administrative details to prepare. In the days leading up to the closure, reference statistics went up nearly threefold, as the public sensed that this was very serious and the library would be closed for a while. 

Finding work for staff has been a point of difference between BPL and DCPL. DCPL staff is unionized and is expected to continue to work on performance goals and other projects identified by their supervisors, if assigned. Staff have engaged in StoryTime at 10:30am on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays on Facebook, along with crafting and book clubs all ages. A full listing of DCPL’s programs can be found here. 

BPL’s staff is also unionized, though they are not expected to work. Some members of the library’s staff are choosing to do so, but Comito puts no pressure on them. She reminds us that is an emotionally stressful time for everyone; it’s important to acknowledge that each staff member deals differently with the general anxiety happening at the moment, whether that means working the same number of hours or taking more breaks throughout the day. Comito mentions that if it makes them feel better to work, then they are welcome to do that, though if they need some time to process, that is more than welcome. She also has weekly staff meetings with everyone, using that time to casually chat and check in with staff. 

Meanwhile, Hasbrouck sends emails every four to five days with updates and to check in with his staff members. He’s learning to find a balance between not sending too many emails while figuring out the needs of each employee. Hasbrouck recognizes that some may prefer to not receive many emails at the moment, while others prefer consistent contact. “This is an unprecedented time for all of us,” Hasbrouck said. “We all need the time and space to figure out what our coping mechanisms are… many library patrons were living in NYC through 9/11 and the Great Recession. We should all be very careful with how we venture into speaking about these things, and we need to be aware of our own limitations fiscally, emotionally, and mentally. Everyone is figuring this out. I try to speak very precisely about things we can and cannot do.” Hasbrouck’s comments serve as a reminder that respecting boundaries while we process everything that is happening is paramount. 

One of the biggest concerns for staff have been possible layoffs. Comito spoke to these concerns, noting that state budgets are being monitored closely. She recognizes a need for advocacy, noting that public funding is a sensitive issue; any and all advocacy must come from a place of awareness. 

To stay engaged with her local community, Comito has been organizing online programs a couple times a week. She’s using the library’s local social media page to ask patrons what they would like to learn about or see. So far, Comito has facilitated a book club, an art history lecture, a new parent support group where she had midwives and doulas contribute and toddler yoga. 

Throughout the call, both speakers spoke eloquently and with a lot of compassion for what our colleagues and our communities are currently enduring. As Comito aptly says nearing the end of the conversation “We are traumatizing an entire generation of people right now. We’re all experiencing trauma together at the same time. This is something we’ll have to deal with in our libraries and schools for the next decade.” We have a lot of healing ahead of us, and we know we can count on colleagues like Comito and Hasbrouck to help lead the way.

TLDR; (too long, didn’t read)

  • Both managers are taking an organic approach to managing staff. Both agree that it’s important to acknowledge the needs of staff rather than focusing on productivity and deadlines.
  • Staff layoffs are a big concern. No one is sure of what could happen in the future or how budget lines could change.
  • This is an emotionally stressful time. Managers are encouraged to be cognizant of their reports’ work style as they process trauma.
  • The speakers acknowledge that this approach may not be possible for smaller library branches with fewer staff or a patron and student body to support. 
  • We are all doing our best in the current situation, and it’s important to give everyone the time and space to adjust.
  • “We’re building this plane as we fly it” – Lauren Comito

Our thanks to Lauren Comito and Brian Hasbrouck for their companionability and thoughtfulness. 

To attend a future webinar, please see https://metro.org/online-events-from-metro/ for details and registration.