November 26, 2020

Library Leaders Still Won’t Protect Their Employees

Amidst a second spike in COVID–19 cases, library employees are being put in danger with nonessential on-site work requirements.

We write in response to the November 18 Maroon article “University Libraries Adapt Protocols and In-Person Services for Autumn Quarter,” to offer an alternative perspective on the changing situation. Since last we wrote toThe Maroon, the Director’s Council of the University Library has done little to convince staff of their optimistic take on the Library’s capacities. Many of the uncertainties and misgivings that marked our previous letter remain unaddressed—relations between different levels of Library staff remains strained, and the University administration has done little to clarify how changing scientific knowledge influences their priorities and decisions. Though we have, as you write, worked extensively towards “adapting study spaces and print resources,” that is not necessarily our highest priority. For too many of us, our primary focus is surviving in the face of continually worsening pandemic conditions and the institutional apathy of our leaders.

The University has, to its credit, taken steps towards protecting its stakeholders, including the October expansion of the Voluntary Surveillance Testing program and recent guarantees of ancillary time off to quarantining staff. These are necessary and important first steps. But the situation continues to deteriorate, and the University and the Library find new ways to fall short.

The Library has been steadily increasing the density of staff on-site since June and called several employees to return to the Regenstein the week of November 16. However, on the 13th, the Office of the Provost issued the Precautions for Holiday Travel and Reinforcement of Remote Work in response to new municipal restrictions. The Provost expressly ordered University departments to “implement remote work for anyone who does not need to be on campus, in order to reduce campus density” and to “anticipate continuing work from home through [winter quarter].”

Yet the Director’s Council brought new staff members on-site anyway, the same week—the same day—that a new stay-at-home advisory took effect in Chicago. The Council, which has long championed the Provost’s approach and the counsel of University epidemiologists, affirmed in a recent internal communication that “[t]he campus guidance for this time…is to hold or minimize the density of current operations.” Nevertheless, the Council immediately contradicted itself by plowing forward in the face of state, city, and campus guidelines. So much for adapting protocols.

How do we account for this? Perhaps University leaders are unaware of all this—in which case we demand that they correct this misstep—or perhaps they share the Director’s Council’s free interpretation of their own policies. It takes an incredibly creative reading to interpret “hold or minimize” as “increase at will,” but the University’s tendency towards opacity and obfuscation, which has perplexed the editors of your very newspaper, has long allowed for a spectacular degree of creativity. We want to believe that when the University finally gives a straightforward answer, that answer means something.  

In the absence of the good faith of our leaders, Library staff have been forced to shift their priorities. Unionized employees at the Regenstein initiated a formal safety grievance with the University on the 19th of November, the day after Library administrators attempted to reshape the narrative in The Maroon.

On the 20th, the directors of the John Crerar Library yielded to science and announced that Crerar would cease its in-person services, closing the building to students and bowing out of the Book a Seat program “until further notice.” Staff are left, in the meantime, to wait and see if other buildings are forced to follow suit.

All this underscores the fact that the Library, and the University at large, leans rather heavily on the good behavior of its community. Its plans hang on the hope that so long as everybody works together, everything will be fine. This is not leadership. Even if it were, the University’s refusal to acknowledge the enormous power it has—its reserves of knowledge and expertise, its responsibility to ensure consistent application of its own best practices, its capacity to enact preventative policies without waiting for Lightfoot and Pritzker to force their hands—undercuts its inconsistent overtures towards public safety.

We can only adapt so much. There are limits, and there must be respect for those limits. We staff are happy to abide by the Health Pact, to balance on-site and remote work, and to serve the Library’s mission as much as is safely possible—but in turn, we want the forthright good faith of our leaders. If we must adapt, then you must, too.

The authors are unionized employees of the University of Chicago Library and have requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation by their employers.