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 query. 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.

Public libraries have always been sanctuaries, representing safety and a chance to decompress. It’s no surprise folks dealing with mental health conditions will continue to find their way into our libraries. What might be new is an additional concern about our staff and colleagues.  Mental health conditions and symptoms run the gamut from mild to severe.  How has the pressure of quarantine affected us all?

The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) Household Pulse Survey on Anxiety and Depression during COVID-19 Pandemic reports on national and statewide percentages of Americans experiencing anxiety, depression, or both.  In partnership with the Census Bureau, the survey has run weekly since April 2020 and is ongoing through October 11, 2021.  New Yorkers were generally higher than the national average in April 2020 but have trended downwards from the nation’s average through July 2021. Recently, the percentage of New Yorkers reporting an occurrence of depression or anxiety has risen again.  For the week ending September 27, 2021, the U.S. percentage is 32.2 and for New Yorkers, 37.4. 

Given what we know about the pandemic, delta variant, vaccine hesitancy, schools reopening, etc., these stats for New Yorkers make sense.  How can our libraries respond?

We have all heard stories about the homeless or disruptive patron that causes angst in the library and requires careful action, usually based on a standard set of policies.  Often people with more severe mental health conditions are socially awkward and unable to communicate properly. Being trained on the causes of symptoms can help with empathic action when and where possible. 

As we emerge from quarantine, we are all subject to heightened anxiety as well as potential bouts of situational depression.  “Zoom fatigue,” living in isolation or constantly being constrained, caring for children and elder family members, has left us slightly off balance. As we head into expanded social realities, we may bring some of the frustration and uneasiness with us into the workplace.

Many libraries assemble and develop collections to grow materials and resources on social topics. In the mental health arena, it’s always a good idea to ask patrons and professionals for suggestions. Spaces to Thrive at the NYPL offers resources, booklists, and a few events to learn about mental health conditions. Memoirs and cultural non-fiction are a good start. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) provides free educational resources, programs, and materials at the national, state, and local levels.

Equity, inclusion, and diversity incorporate neurodiversity and people living with mental health conditions. Mental health conditions are caused by a combination of biological, psychological and environmental events, generally considered no one’s fault. Presently, one in five Americans is symptomatic for at least one mental health condition. The need for treatment and resources will continue to grow as well as the need for compassion and empathy. 

World Mental Health Day occurs this year on October 10. Hopefully, we will find some activities or new knowledge to help ourselves, our colleagues and the individuals we serve to share in building a cooperative, resourceful and engaging library community.

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 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.