By DONOVAN HARRELL
As a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases continues to ravage Allegheny County — with 1,028 people, the highest daily spike yet, testing positive on Dec. 3 — several University Library System staff who still commute to campus feel Pitt’s decision to keep library buildings open is dangerous, unnecessary and is a powerful example of longstanding mistreatment of library staff.
The University Library System will be closed to patrons from Dec. 12 through Jan. 10. Library staff will be on site until Dec. 20 and starting Jan. 7. Materials from the collection will be available for curbside, contact-less pick up through Dec. 20. Find updated hours for all Pitt libraries on its daily calendar.
The University Times spoke with three library staff members, who preferred to remain anonymous. One staff member condemned the choice to keep the libraries open to patrons until Dec. 12, as “troubling,” “baffling” and “borderline abusive,” especially since library staff have created a successful remote service system and are the lowest paid unit on campus, with a median salary of $31,254 annually.
Library staff and members of the Pitt community have repeatedly asked University administrators why the buildings should open or remain open. Amanda Godley, vice provost for graduate studies, said at a faculty town hall last month that there are a number of graduate and professional programs, particularly ones that are clinically based, that require students to be around campus and continue to engage in clinical or academic work further into December. “I think when we look at that, from the graduate perspective, there’s more of a need for library services, even after the undergrads leave campus,” she said.
But a staff member said that so far, not enough students have used the libraries in person to warrant them remaining open despite increasing COVID-19 cases. They added that graduate students have said they’re satisfied with the library’s remote services and have not requested that the building stay open. Further, the provost’s office has not provided data-based evidence of the need for the buildings to remain open.
Mark Lynn Anderson, a co-chair of the University Senate Library committee and associate professor in the Department of English, said there’s a lack of transparency in the process that determined the need for the libraries to stay open and what services to provide.
“My sense is that the question of libraries being open probably happened without consultation with librarians, staff and faculty as well as researchers, that there was a sense that in order to maintain an appearance of a particular kind of research at the University and to fulfill a particular need and guarantee for the comfort of undergraduate students, that the library would remain open,” Anderson said. “And my sense is I’d like to see that data. And I’d like to see those opinions. And I like to see evidence of the participation of those communities.”
University spokesman Kevin Zwick said in an email that the University is listening to these concerns and has worked closely with medical professionals when adjusting library operations.
“We maintain an open dialogue with our faculty, staff and students and take all concerns, such as those expressed by our librarians and library staff, seriously,” Zwick said. “All of our planning is built within the Resilience Framework and driven by the University’s medical expert’s advice. We’ve worked closely with our medical experts and Environmental Health and Safety department to modify our library environments to make them as safe as possible while still providing students and faculty with this essential resource.”
Zwick added that there has been no evidence of COVID-19 transmission in any of Pitt’s academic environments. Library staff also told the University Times they were unaware of any positive COVID-19 cases among library staff.
“Many precautions are being taken to support the health and safety of our students, staff and faculty while providing essential library services and study spaces to support students in their academic success,” Zwick said. These measures include:
Staff are working behind plexiglass and should not enter the stacks during public hours.
Hours have been modified to allow staff to do their work in the stacks prior to opening to the public.
Face coverings must be worn and physical distancing rules followed inside the libraries. The University has hired additional staff and students to do rounds and ensure patrons are following these rules. Zwick said students who are in violation of Pitt’s face covering and physical distancing policies are asked to correct their behavior immediately and reported to Student Conduct.
Anyone entering the libraries must have their temperatures screened, and staff must complete a health check each day. Security guards are checking Pitt IDs and ensuring everyone is wearing a face covering upon entering, as well as counting the number of people leaving the library for capacity purposes.
Pitt’s operational postures also help the University react quickly and effectively to the rapidly changing conditions surrounding the pandemic, Zwick said, citing the recent decision to move the University into the Elevated Risk Posture, and the decision to have students shelter in place.
However, an anonymous library staff member said these additional safety measures haven’t always been properly enforced and made more sense in early August when COVID-19 cases were significantly lower. Another library staff member said staff are scared, feel disposable and some report a lack of air circulation in the smaller departmental libraries, including the Finney Music Library and Frick Fine Arts Library.
Another anonymous staff member said these, and the other concerns, have been brought up to library administrators in weekly open chats among staff. And even though the administrators are empathetic to workers’ concerns, the number of open group chats has dropped since the start of the fall semester, they said, and the provost’s office hasn’t budged in its decision to keep the buildings open.
Anderson said he’s spoken to about half a dozen library faculty and staff about these concerns. Some said they were scared to report to work, saying the commute, especially on public transportation, was risky. However, other librarians said they were more comfortable with the situation.
“It’s not, obviously, a unanimous sort of perception among librarians, but there is certainly a significant number of librarians who are deeply concerned about their well-being, and the well-being of the people they work with,” Anderson said. “And they don’t feel that they can actually raise those concerns.”
In response to the pandemic, University libraries have begun to offer several remote services to patrons, including book scans, no-contact pickups, online research consultations, an expanded eBook selection and more.
An anonymous staff member said usage statistics for these services are high, and that they are receiving positive feedback from faculty and students. There also are several advantages to having the libraries operate completely remotely, including less staff being needed on campus, who don’t have to monitor other patrons. The University, they added, could use the resources keeping the buildings open to help improve these remote services.
“If you need resources, you can log into our databases from the safety of your home,” they said. “You can attend our workshops from your couch, in your pajamas with your cat.”
Anderson said that because of the effectiveness of these services, “I just don’t see the need to risk the lives of our colleagues.”
“Part of me thinks that library faculty and library staff are considered somewhat lesser than regular, non-library staff and faculty at the University,” Anderson said. “And that has to do with … what I would call a sort of pervasive service model of library workers, where they are seen as sort of adjunct to the rest of the work of the University, rather than our colleagues.”
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-383-9905.
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