Monday, May 29, 2023

The New Normal


It's been a little over three years since life as we knew it came to a screeching halt with one word: coronavirus. We were caught completely off-guard, as were all levels of government and health care. No one was prepared for a pandemic, no one had policies and procedures in place to deal with such a threat. Most of the country shut down for 2-4 weeks in order to slow the spread so our health care system wouldn't become completely overwhelmed, as had happened in other countries.

Many naively thought it would be over after that, and things would go right back to normal. But of course that's not how pandemics work. Others thought once a vaccine was available, that would be it and things would go back to normal. But of course they didn't, as many people refused to be vaccinated and the virus continued to evolve. Now, three years later the pandemic is considered to be "over", but that doesn't mean the virus is gone; it just means that enough of the population has acquired at least partial immunity, through vaccination or infection, and the virulence of the virus has lessoned to the point that it is no longer a crisis, but has become endemic. So, this means things are back to normal, right? Not exactly.

As I had predicted, things have not gone back to what we considered "normal" before March of 2020. Things are different now. People are different, the economy is different, society is different. I feel like the new normal for my library began at the beginning of the summer last year (2022), when people finally began coming to the library again with the return of summer reading and in-person programs. We had unexpectedly high numbers, as people seemed to be relieved and excited to finally have something to do. Circulation picked up, foot traffic picked up, and program attendance was near an all-time high. It was almost like "normal", but not quite. 

I began to notice some definite differences in behaviors, though at first I wasn't sure if it was pandemic-related, or community-related, as I had changed libraries during the pandemic. But after talking with other youth librarians online, at our regional meeting, and at the state conference, I found that others were seeing similar patterns. These are generalizations and of course don't apply to everyone, but are things I'm seeing more frequently now than pre-pandemic:

  • Kids have even shorter attention spans than before
  • Fine motor skills are less developed, especially scissor skills
  • Kids are more shy, tend to stay with caregiver, and less participatory
  • Less able to follow directions without assistance
  • Storytime attendance is much more sporadic than before
  • Program attendance during school year for ages 5 and up is low,
    families are not in the habit of coming to the library for programs like before.
  • More behavior problems with older kids (middle school age)
  • More kids being raised by grandparents or other relatives due to parental issues with mental health, addiction, or incarceration
  • Caregivers tend to 'hover' more and take over tasks
  • Parents very reluctant to let kids use scissors, even blunt-ended safety scissors
  • Adults also have a harder time following directions
  • Parents much more 'touchy' and likely to be offended if staff need to re-direct child behavior or enforce age limits/rules/boundaries
  • Teens have been hit particularly hard, many suffering from anxiety and depression
  • Parents (adults in general) have a much greater sense of entitlement
  • People are more self-centered and selfish than before
  • More negative interactions with adult patrons, despite attempts to de-escalate 
  • More instances of patrons with mental health or substance abuse episodes
  • More difficult to form successful community partnerships; high turnover, people don't reply or ghost after initial contact, don't follow through, etc.
  • More people openly express bigotry
  • More complaints
  • Very difficult to find qualified applicants to fill vacancies
  • Libraries are critically understaffed
  • Less community support for libraries
  • Libraries under attack re funding and intellectual freedom
  • Staff morale is at an all time low.

The new normal is a much more challenging time to be a librarian. What worked in pre-pandemic days doesn't necessarily work now. The public's habits have changed and their needs have changed. We have a whole generation of preschoolers who spent the first years of their lives in relative isolation, and a generation of young adults who became parents in isolation. We have a whole generation of teens that had their adolescent experience completely derailed. 
I think almost all of us have developed at least some degree of anxiety and depression as a result of everything we went through the last few years. We are starting all over from square one.

I have had to re-evaluate how I do storytime, reading fewer and shorter books, moving away from crafts to activities that are more developmentally appropriate (a good change!), reminding caregivers to focus on the process not the product and let kids do as much themselves as possible. I've had to accept that attendance is going to be sporadic, and the storytime is not as big of a priority to families as it used to be, and that it's not a reflection on me. I've learned I have to be very careful in managing behavior and managing adult expectations as caregivers seem to come in with mistaken assumptions and unrealistic expectations about how programs should be run. And while program attendance during the summer was great for all ages, and storytime has been successful year-round, I'm still struggling with programming for school-age and up during the school year.

I think many of us are still trying to figure out what people want and what kind of programs will be successful. Hopefully some good will come out of it as well, and we can pull back a little, and focus on quality, not quantity. I've heard others say they are shifting their focus from programming to services. Some libraries are still doing some virtual programs and take-home kits. My community did not respond to virtual programs at all, so those were dropped some time ago. While my patrons loved take-home kits (yay, free stuff!), we did not have the staffing or budget to continue them once in-person programming resumed, and I don't feel take-home kits really offered an appropriate level of engagement or serve our mission that well. I know of some who say they elected not to bring all the toys back out on the floor, after seeing caregivers spending more time reading with their kids and helping them choose books without the distractions. I've managed a happy medium of enough activities to encourage people to stay awhile, but not so much to create chaos or distract from the books.

Unfortunately, while we're trying to figure all this out, we are facing many other challenges. Libraries everywhere are under-staffed due to lack of funding, poor management, and/or the labor shortage, which means we are all spread too thin, we can't meet all community needs, and we may have great ideas that we just don't have the time, energy, or manpower to execute, which leads to frustration, stress, fatigue, guilt, and job dissatisfaction. I'm particularly frustrated with the lack of staff, and the inability to hire qualified, competent staff. I would love to be able to do more community outreach, and have so many ideas I'd like to try, but I can't because I don't have the staff to do it, or to delegate other tasks to in order to free up my time. Programming, outreach, and customer service all suffer because of understaffing, not to mention staff morale. 

On top of that, libraries and librarians are under attack, from people who want to take our funding for their own pet projects, politicians looking to score quick points, and far-right extremists who want to censor collections and trample on others' right to read and access to information, some wanting to go as far as to charge librarians as criminals for having books in the collection they don't like. 

To be sure, the new normal is different than the old normal, and is a far more challenging time to be a librarian. What does your new normal look like? What changes have you found to be for the better? What challenges are you dealing with?

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