Vocational awe. Job creep. “Other duties as assigned.” For public librarians, an exhaustive and ever-expanding list of job responsibilities has become something of a professional in-joke among those of us who know all too well how far modern librarianship has come from the stereotype of quietly reading and shushing children all day. 21st century public librarians and paraprofessionals in public-facing positions are accustomed to rapid-fire shifting from de facto social workers to custodians to tech instructors to babysitters, and anyone who’s set foot in a public library since the beginning of the COVID pandemic can tell you that public libraries represent the front of the frontlines. So why aren’t public librarians in the United States further up in line for the COVID vaccine? School librarians are commonly accepted as educators, so many are being vaccinated according to the CDC’s Phase 1b guidance, which classes elementary and secondary school employees as essential workers. Public librarians don’t fit so neatly into common definitions of frontline essential workers. Could confusion about the duties of public librarians actually be endangering us?
While the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendations concerning vaccine distribution are not law, they are widely accepted as the gold standard in determining vaccine eligibility at the state and local level. So when the CDC chose to remove librarians and library workers from their December 22, 2020 Interim Guidance on Vaccine Distribution, despite these professions being listed as essential workers in the CDC’s July 2020 Working Group Report, library advocates took notice. In a powerful statement issued the very next day, EveryLibrary stated “because we recognize that the guidance from the CDC is not an order, we are calling on state and local health officials to correct the omission of librarians and library workers and include them in their Phase 1b or Phase 1c vaccination plans.” This solution is less than ideal, however, as it puts the onus on state and local governments, already overwhelmed by industries and advocacy groups clamoring to be considered essential, to remember to prioritize public library workers. With severely limited doses of vaccines to go around, any neighborhood librarian who’s campaigned for library funding during budget season can see where this is headed.
As of February 2021, in most communities across the United States, the only public library workers who are being vaccinated are those who qualify based on their age, comorbid health conditions, or some other demographic factor besides their employment. Some municipalities, especially those in which the public library is a department of the local government, have included frontline library workers in their phase 1 vaccine distribution, but this is far more the exception than the rule.
Urban Librarians Unite, in a January 25 statement, make a compelling argument for vaccinating public library frontline staff: “Library staff serve our communities every day as a vital part of our social safety net, providing the information and access that people need to manage their lives. With the deep pandemic-related impacts to our local and state economies, libraries both want and need to be there for our community again. [Due to] our high-traffic facilities and intensive individual and group work with visitors to our locations, the pandemic has made it necessary to limit library operations to preserve and protect community health. Vaccinating staff promptly is a crucial piece in our phased reopening plans, allowing us to offer greater access to our physical resources safely.”
This last point, about the overall community benefit of vaccinating library workers, may be key to convincing decision-makers to move library workers up the eligibility list. While public library workers may not be valued as essential, the real estate and collections we represent form an invaluable part of the social infrastructure of communities across the U.S., especially in times of crisis. If lawmakers are not concerned about the health and well-being of frontline library staff, they should at least see the benefit of expanding access to safe, free, climate-controlled public spaces.
The ongoing debate surrounding the importance of vaccinating public librarians has staff demoralized. An informal questionnaire about vaccine eligibility sent to public librarians across the US revealed common themes of uncertainty, frustration, and the all-too-familiar sense of a profession taken for granted. A public library director in Ohio states of the local government, “they have pretty much forgotten about us.” A library staffer in Maryland reports, “we are not considered educators, front line workers, public servants or the other classification we thought might fit: ‘continuity of government.’” Other responses speak to the haphazard nature of the vaccine rollout, with some librarians “not technically eligible, but able to receive the vaccine due to an extra supply of teacher vaccine doses.” Overall, the sense of disappointment at not being valued alongside other educators, public servants, and similar service professions, is palpable across the public library field.
Many libraries are experiencing the frustrating contradiction exemplified by Chicago Public Library employees, who have made headlines in their fight for protections at one of the largest public library systems in the country. CPL reopened to the public earlier than most urban public library systems, in June 2020, and has maintained nearly full services since that time, with the argument at the time of opening being that libraries provide essential services. Paradoxically, however, library workers are not considered sufficiently essential to qualify for vaccination before phase 1c. Chicago librarians, for their part, are bringing this contradiction to the court of public opinion.
Labor unions and library associations representing public library workers from New York to Illinois to Washington State echo these sentiments in resolutions which call for local governments to prioritize library workers, who risk their safety every day in service to the public, in their vaccine roll-outs. While the jury may still be out on exactly what it is we do in public libraries, the crescendo of voices calling for public library staff to move up the line for vaccines demonstrates that whatever it is, it’s essential.