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.