September 28, 2020

Take It From Library Employees: Reopening Isn’t Safe


Alvin Shi / The Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago Library believes that a diverse and inclusive environment builds a stronger, more creative community where we broaden approaches to our work and make better decisions. We encourage open and honest discussion, reflect on our assumptions, and actively seek viewpoints beyond our own.

—from the University Library’s Diversity and Inclusion Statement

The University of Chicago is welcoming students back to a campus that has been radically transformed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As part of this process, the University of Chicago Library is readying its study spaces for a phased reopening, and Library staff is examining the plans closely. We understand how serious the situation is. The Library is the heart of the University, and it is a privilege to keep that heart beating. Even in this time of crisis, we want to ensure that the Library meets the challenge of serving our patrons as fully—and as safely—as possible. We want to honor the trust and faith that the University community has held us in for decades. We want to promise that the Library will be a safe place for students and faculty to undertake their work.

We cannot make that promise. The Library brushed its employees aside while plotting its reopening, and most of our concerns and objections were ignored. We had no part in the planning process, and we will not ask patrons to trust in plans that we ourselves object to.

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Chicago, the University spent much of the spring and summer quarters protecting its own, and we honor that effort—the shift towards remote work on a massive scale, for instance, or the offer of expanded COVID-19 leave to cover time-off needs arising from the pandemic. The Library, for its part, made bold moves to support the scattered University community by expanding our electronic collections and bringing our librarian services online. We found so many ways to support our patrons safely. But now we are being pushed too far too fast.

On Wednesday, September 2, the Directors’ Council of the University Library announced a pilot program for the Autumn Quarter during a private meeting with Library employees. Starting on September 29, the Library will welcome a small number of patrons into its study spaces on a reservation basis. If the pilot goes well, the Council intends to increase capacity; if the pilot fails, they will reverse course and close the spaces down again.

We—the rank and file of the Library—were surprised to hear of this reopening. Many Library employees are already working on campus. Some spend full five-day workweeks in the Regenstein. Several Library workers and many other staff on campus face heightened risk from the coronavirus arising from age and other health factors, and we wondered whether the Council’s plans would take their welfare into account. Reopening the campus to students this fall will likely have significant effects on infection and transmission rates throughout Hyde Park. The planned changes to Library occupancy pose dozens of discrete logistical and safety issues on top of these campus-wide concerns. We were troubled.

In the two weeks after their announcement, the Directors’ Council held a series of forums for Library staff to ask questions and voice concerns. They told us that they valued staff feedback. They told us that our suggestions were important to their preparations. We reviewed their plans and projections and we brought our issues to these meetings in the hope that the Council would reassure us. They did not.

We asked: How will the University judge whether the pilot succeeds safely? We don’t know. Will the Library maintain its present single-user bathroom policy? We don’t know. Will patrons studying in reading rooms be allowed to browse the reading room collections? We don’t know. What happens if a patron tests positive for coronavirus? We don’t know. Who will contract tracers notify in such a case? We don’t know.

What are the metrics—the patterns, statistics, and trendlines—that guide the University’s campus-wide safety objectives? We don’t know.

Can we at least delay the program, to settle any uncertainties, and see how the campus at large responds to such a rapid increase in population? No, we have made far too many plans, and at this point we have to pilot something.

How is it that there are so many plans and yet so few answers?

Staff from all parts of the Library community—clericals, supervisors, librarians—posed questions and voiced concerns, but too many of our questions remain unanswered and most of our concerns remain ignored. The Council did not respect our open and honest contributions. Instead, they urged us to have faith. They told us to trust the plan and the process.

Why should we trust the Council? Where should we root our faith? The University decreed that the Library would reopen, but Library staff were not part of this decision. The Director’s Council asked us for feedback, but staff concerns were not addressed. Campus committees have monitored the pandemic for half a year, but our reopening plans appear to have come together in under a month. We are days away from reopening, and there is still much too much left to sort out.

The Director’s Council says that the University has been pushing for months towards a safe reopening—though their plans barely reflect this work. Perhaps they never will. Library staff will not see the reopening plans again until they are already underway. The University claims the sole power to determine the relative safety of plans for this fall, and not even the Council knows what the University thinks is “safe.” Our community has tried to improve the work of the Council and guide them towards better decisions. The Council has not moved.

The University says that it is sworn to protect all of its stakeholders—though University HR has other priorities. The University opted not to extend the expanded COVID-19 leave policy put in place in March beyond Spring quarter, forcing staff who fall ill to the pandemic to either exhaust their standard time-off accruals for a disease that takes weeks to overcome, take unpaid leave in a time of economic uncertainty, or return to the workplace and risk infecting their peers. Newer hires who have yet to accrue reserves of sick time face an impossible choice. At the same time, older and more vulnerable members of our community have been ordered back to campus with no respect for their greater risk.

Our worries are rooted in student wellness as well as our own. There are serious concerns about accessibility, contact tracing, testing, staff-patron interactions, policy enforcement, bathroom usage, rates of responsiveness, reallocation of space over time, sanitation, water fountains, and site-specific safety orientation, to name a few. These are questions that affect every single person who sets foot in the Library, and in turn every person who interacts with Library patrons and staff members. Problems in the Library will ripple outwards through the campus, the neighborhood, and the city. There is so much left to plan and no way to test these plans without bringing patrons into the line of fire. But the Director’s Council has made too many plans and has to pilot something.

There has been no clarity about the metrics by which the reopening experiment will be assessed. If this pilot program succeeds, it succeeds in spite of hasty planning and the objections of the staff who work with students every day—but if the pilot succeeds, we will increase capacity. If the pilot fails, the Library will reverse course and close our spaces again.

The pilot fails when people get sick. The pilot fails when people die.

Our administration has decided that the lives and welfare of students, staff, and faculty are an acceptable risk. They have prioritized vague ideals and mission statements over the very human needs, concerns, and vulnerabilities of their employees. They have thus far refused to actually explain their decision-making process to the University community. They have, by action and inaction, brought mortal danger upon the people of Hyde Park, Woodlawn, and the greater South Side, and they have made the Library complicit with their moral failure.

It would be different if the administration could explain, in plain detail, the metrics they will monitor to ensure our safety. It would be easier if they would tell us where the limits are, and at what point we will turn back. But even the Director’s Council, which has a direct line to the Provost, is in the dark. The students, staff, and faculty of the University deserve openness and honesty from the people entrusted with their lives and livelihoods, and the administration refuses to answer. The administration makes its decrees, but they do not offer the resources and knowledge that campus leaders need to make the best decisions for staff and scholars. We are forced to scramble and driven to fail.

As things stand, the Library is not ready to help. This is hard to say because we want to support our patrons. The Library is the heart of the University, and the students and faculty are our lifeblood. But in the rush to reopen, our leaders have ignored our concerns and made pledges that we do not believe in. We rebuke their hollow promise. We cannot promise that our practices are the best practices. We cannot promise that our patrons will be safe. We will not betray your trust or faith by doing so.

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