Column Description: Libraries and librarians are adapting, always in motion particularly as the 21st century has extended the mammoth reach of technology and digital communication. Then, this year, we said thank you for the ability to stay home and still be able to communicate with our colleagues. As many librarians wondered how new responsibilities would play out when ‘normality’ returned, it was a daily challenge to prioritize decisions. Technology helped, but the goal remained how to meet user needs and anticipate patron requests. This fall, as libraries slowly reopen, we move into a hybrid world. Administrators and librarians have worked overtime and collaborated fiercely to match estimated demand with physical distancing and health-related constraints. 

What are some of their stories and how do we understand future changes?  Libraries have always held the key for knowledge queries. Whether for the scholar, the schoolchild, life-long learner, jobseeker, or browser, libraries, and librarians have adapted to keep their doors open and their users and patrons satisfied. How do individual librarians go about their roles and what suggestions do they have moving forward? What has helped?

This column will consider several library environments (public, private, corporate, academic, online, and special) and using a combination of interviews, historic perspective, anecdotes, and a sprinkling of stats, examine the commonalities and differences. A fun exploration of how libraries remain relevant and beloved.

Once many years ago, I was executing my round-robin library location visits where I like to explore different neighborhoods and their local library.  It’s easier for me to do that in the city, as I’m not a driver. So, hopping on a bus or subway (pre-pandemic) was a great mode for getting around. Now that I’m upstate, my library excursions are confined to those I can reach by train or county bus service.  As a trustee, I would hitch a ride with my driving colleagues when also pre-pandemic, we would schedule meetings at separate library locations. 

This day, I came across a library on the very west side of Harlem. As soon as I entered the vestibule, I saw a blue flyer with black ink announcing the date and time for the memorial service recognizing their library director, recently deceased.  The brief synopses of her contributions to the library were short, heartfelt and I could sense the warmth and mutual love emanating from the staff and patrons. The loss of their beloved director was keen. She was obviously a rare soul who had a gift for connecting people. I was inspired by this wonderful woman I would never know. I too grieved her loss.

There are other losses that occur in the library arena.  HR restructuring, either because of grants denied, the pandemic lockdown, or other reasons, sometimes requires staff to be let go. It’s very hard to see a colleague leave under circumstances that are beyond everyone’s control. Perhaps we’ve shared coffee breaks and management meetings, observed them being kind and receptive to patrons. We feel a little situational grief and perhaps survivor’s guilt when our colleague is no longer there to share our professional experiences.

Another type of loss is/are the closures due to the pandemic.  During these times we would pass our local libraries, lights out or dimmed and people-less inside, remembering fondly stepping in to browse, pick up a hold or share stories with our children.  Many libraries expanded their online programs and that was fantastic.  A new set of responses from our community spaces.  Yet how happy we were when libraries began to cautiously open, even if wearing a mask was required.

Mis-shelving is one of my pet peeves.  Bring back, shelf readers!  When I was working at a small art library in the city, we all took turns shelve reading.  How tedious, but gratifying when books out of order have been righted.  How frustrating for patrons when a book is not where it should be. Technically, the book is misplaced, not lost.  But it sure fits the definition of loss.

I have never actually lost a library book, thank goodness.  No matter how many library books I have out, they all manage to get back to the library relatively on time. But I have forgotten how to find books that I love, especially non-fiction ones. Earlier in my library scout activities, I wouldn’t mark down the specifics.

Nowadays, I collect ISBNs, call numbers, and iPhone images of book I want to come back to. Some libraries keep a reading list of everything you’ve checked out (works for me!), but others do not. I have learned my lesson.   There is a green book I borrowed from a library on 169th Street in the Bronx eight years ago.  It’s about a mother and her disabled son and the extraordinary measures she took to manage their health needs and lifestyles. She had wonderful tidbits of down-to-earth advice and a sense of humor that made me chuckle.  If only I could remember the author’s name…or…something…like the title…or call number… and find it on the shelf again…so I can stop wondering…and not have it,…for me…forever lost…

Rajene Hardeman, MSLIS, is a committed community and library advocate with experience serving community groups throughout metropolitan NYC and the Hudson Valley. A graduate of Pratt Institute School of Information, Rajene currently works as an independent archivist while continuing to develop programs and raise awareness regarding the need for a balance between digital and non-digital activities. She is a trained mediator for Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. Rajene has partnered with the Mozilla Foundation and Tactical Technology Collective to bring workshops and supportive dialogue around the issues of online privacy and security, and, as a current trustee for the Mid-Hudson Library System, Rajene enthusiastically supports engagement and sustainability for all libraries and their patrons. She is a Metropolitan Museum of Art Library volunteer.  Rajene serves on the board of Wikimedia New York City and as a member of the Wikimedia and Libraries User Group steering committee. In a non-pandemic world, she coaches in-person Wikipedia edit-a-thons.