By Desmond Beharilal
Many Librarians across most libraries (that includes public, academic, special libraries, and libraries operated by the private sector amongst others), have found their comfort zones in their respective work environments. For the purpose of this article, I would refer to all staff working in the library sectors as librarians with specific reference to the library staff employed at the various campus libraries within the University of Kwazulu-Natal.
The recent outbreak of the Covid-19 virus which is a world pandemic as announced by the World Health Organisation, forced the governments of many countries, including South Africa, to implement a” Lockdown” or “shutdown” of all non-essential services within their countries. Such actions had a major impact on the academic environment especially university libraries, where library resources and services had to be offered away from University premises. Such drastic measures resulted in the change of the work environments and approach to library services of many Librarians although many resources are still located in-house.
Adjusting to the “new work environment” is no easy task as one would enjoy being at home for reasons other than the fear of contracting a virus during a pandemic. Some Librarians are unsure about working from home as their focus is on their health and that of their families rather than their work tasks. Library users would not necessarily be disadvantaged by the lack of print library information as much information can be found online. Where possible Librarians are accessible via email and circulation staff field general queries. There is someone available in all library sectors and the contacts lists on the library’s webpage have been updated to ensure that Librarians can be contacted. Such library services are being offered as part of the distance learning modules offered by many educational institutions including the University of Kwazulu-Natal. With little time to discuss, plan or get clarity on many aspects of the impending lockdown, in mid-April many library staff, particularly Subject Librarians and core services and some admin staff whose circumstances permitted working from home, gallantly took their laptops home and after getting data, began the process of trying to maintain and forge new ways of working from their homes.
In practice, some librarians who are not used to such work environments have really suffered, both mentally and physically. Some of us who have been employed for many years felt that the environmental change has really affected our personal lives as daily routines have had to be changed, not only as individuals but in family units as well. After the usual hygiene practices and breakfast, my family usually sat around chatting about various issues, but unfortunately, such discussions have not been held anymore. Family members who gathered together were asked to occupy themselves with whatever they could as work needed to be done by the Librarians within such families. The fortunate or privileged (in terms of their spacious living facilities) who have homes with separate spaces that can be identified as a “study” or separate lounges or guest rooms have not really felt the impact of working from home unlike others who have had to ask their loved ones, spouses, children, etc. to leave common spaces in their homes or apartments solely for the purpose of the person who is working from home.
Amidst a world pandemic, one with paternal instincts cannot always find the courage to ask some loved ones, especially children, to excuse themselves. While library management has tried their best to equip staff with all the necessary tools to enable them to work from home , space requirements have had to be organized by individuals amidst the cries of toddlers, the needs of sick and aging family members and the calls of spouses that simply have to be ignored. Nevertheless, Librarians are trying their best to ensure that work is being done to the highest expectations so that the university community can be provided with the necessary library information requirements.
Unfortunately, some Librarians cannot function effectively due to personal illnesses or anxieties brought about by the world pandemic, especially those who have family members and children who are based in other countries where the pandemic is much worse than in South Africa; and others who have ageing or ill family members. The impact of not knowing the status and the medical conditions of such relatives impacts drastically on many librarians.
Alongside such personal circumstances, some Librarians are faced with technological challenges. In the physical workplace their comfort zones were always cushioned of such impact. In the limited time allocated by the President before the national lockdown, library management had to ensure such services were also available to librarians who worked from home along with various other related arrangements like providing internet and WIFI connections to those who did not have such.
Personality traits of some individuals, both negative and positive, have come to the fore. Speaking to some colleagues who probably suffer with some form of anxiety or panic related illnesses, their fears of the Covid-19 pandemic have been heightened. Unfortunately, some colleagues have suffered so much that they cannot bring themselves to even keep up to date with the news relating to the Covid-19 virus. The media and social media platforms also play a vital role in contributing to such panic and anxiety attacks. Some staff are fortunate to have good support systems such as family and friends while others do not have such privileges.
One feature observed amongst many of the librarians is their commitment to assist their library users and ensure that tasks allocated to them during the lockdown are being focused on, although within limitations and obstacles. To add to these limitations there was peer pressure rather than the Library Management instructions, as some Librarians have exhibited their competitive characteristics which further demoralizes already traumatized colleagues. Although the University’s management provides psychological assistance to staff in distress, not many librarians use such services for fear of being identified as emotionally weak.
Fortunately, staff who had close relationships with some of their peers keep their sanity by keeping in contact with their peers via phone calls, WhatsApp, emails and other technological means of communication.
Some of you may be experiencing the “Lockdown” differently so please share such by commenting.