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The Return to Public Spaces: Alleviating Anxiety for Staff, Patrons, and Yourself

by on September 20, 2021

Those of us who are vaccinated for Covid-19 likely all have that moment when we are in a public space and say to ourselves, “Well I guess this is why I got the vaccine.” I guess we are hoping this affirmation will alleviate our anxieties. For me, I was standing in a crowd of tightly packed fans at a Black Pumas concert at a large venue in Austin, Texas. With not a single person wearing a mask, the many months of being so careful dissolved in an instant. It felt as if I was doing something wrong. I felt uneasy. Even being safely immunized could not erase the effect the pandemic still had on me. At least not yet. All of us have different feelings related to the end of the pandemic and a return to normal life. As keepers of a public space, librarians are wise to bear this in mind when thinking about our library guests, staff, and ourselves.

Helping to manage expectations and ease anxiety levels is an important role for library supervisors during the pandemic and beyond. This includes both internal and external sources. During periods of transition and disruption, it is crucial to provide a sense of stability to your staff. Sometimes that means being a buffer between outside sources pushing expectations and your staff. Sometimes it means listening to concerns, frustrations and fears. Encourage staff to speak up during meetings because those who do often express things others are also feeling. When anxiety levels are high, help to alleviate the rising stress and be careful not to ignite it further. Be clear with plans but remain flexible when faced with shifting directives from above. Shield the staff from your own frustrations while validating their concerns. Embrace solutions, even when you might have done something another way. Then reflect and realize that these actions ring true not only during a pandemic, but in all other times as well.

We know that our libraries serve an important role in our communities as a physical space to meet, interact, and spend time. We also know that we serve everyone, the mask-wearing or immunized citizen alongside the anti-maskers, the Covid is a hoax believers. Wherever an individual is on that spectrum, it has been an anxious, frustrating time for all of us. As our doors are reopening, we see people coming back having missed our community space. Some are seeking interaction, others are desperate to browse the shelves once again or to head to the children’s area with several kids in tow. Of course, others are more leery, utilizing curbside pickup, if your library is still offering it, or simply waiting to return to public settings at some point in the future.

That missed sense of interaction was expressed by a volunteer recently when I told her it was nice to have her back. She responded pointedly, “The last year and a half has been very lonely.” Other library guests gush about how wonderful it is to be back in the building. Of course, there are frustrations too. Some guests are impatient with the speed in which things are returning to normal. Often their anger is not directed at the library, yet they feel the need to unload that burden on service desk staff anyway. We had one guest express that they realize the library staff member was not responsible, yet she continued to recite her list of grievances anyway. Staff often take on this role of listener and empathizer, but that can affect our own well-being. Some staff members are adept at not allowing this to affect their mood; others are more sensitive and triggered by those negative emotions.  All of us should look to support one another and allow space for those who need to process before they move on. Check in with your staff often.

We need to recognize we are in a time of transition. As much as most of us long for the return to pre-pandemic normalcy, the expectation that this return will be as easy as flipping a switch is incorrect. The current situation differs from community to community and the impacts differ from person to person. Some people have lost family members and friends. Some states lag behind the nation in terms of vaccination rates, leaving many still vulnerable as a new more dangerous variant spreads. This is not the time to rush to get everything back to normal. Many in the community are not ready to return to public spaces. They should not be chastised or judged. Find a way to ease back into a sense of normalcy. Find a transition that makes sense for your community and your staff. For example, our library is continuing with virtual programming through the end of summer and plans to begin offering some in person programs in the fall. 

All of us are in the process of defining what normal has become, what has changed and what we have learned.  For instance, our virtual programs have reached patrons who may need or want to interact from home even after the pandemic ends. Virtual programs appeal to those with limited mobility options or other health concerns. We should consider the feasibility of offering some virtual programs or hybrid options in addition to in-person. When it comes to assessing how the pandemic has changed community expectations, it is probably too early to tell. Be patient and avoid the expectation that the community will all rush back into our public space at the same level as before. It will take time. 

Perhaps the most long lasting knowledge gained from this experience is the need for flexibility and empathy. Rigid thinking and relying on the status quo as an excuse to resist change will leave libraries unprepared for future major disruptions and the resulting shifting needs of our communities. We have no choice but to adapt to conditions beyond our control. Thankfully, it is something the library profession is adept at doing. Help your staff embrace that ambiguity. Listen to them and help alleviate their anxiety. And do the same for yourself. 

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