(Note: I’m stealing this idea from Ashley Blewer because it’s a good one, and because I think it’ll be a useful exercise in a year that was especially tough to wrap anyone’s head around.)
We’re down to the last 48 hours of 2020, and I’m not joining in the chorus of people saying we’re sure to have a better 2021. I’m not sure we will, frankly, and I’m not sure which spheres of existence (personal, social, political, economic) folks are expecting to have that better year in. And better in the eyes of what beholder? I’m at least aspiring to spend my time and energy differently, but I’ll get to that. I remember thinking 2019 was a pretty tough one, too, between a shitty living situation and some, let’s say, occupational ups and downs.
For some context, in February 2019, one of my colleagues was killed in a fatal bike accident about a mile away from the branch I’d just spent the last 6-8 months helping renovate. At the time, I was riding my bike just about every day, and we’d often lock up next to each other outside the building when I was working over there. Less than a year before, while riding my bike about two miles away from the scene of my coworker’s accident, I had been knocked unconscious and woke up in the ER with a severe concussion and a broken arm after a motorist slammed me into a fence before driving off. In the months following her death, a series of disappointments at work got me thinking it was time to leave, and opportunity presented itself, and I took it. I regret how that went down, but we managed to get that water under the bridge for the most part.
Within half a year of changing jobs, though, it was clear I’d done the whole “frying pan into the fire” thing, which I can describe no further in a public blog post at this time, but suffice to say it was incredibly stressful and disheartening. Meanwhile, Chris and I were still living in an apartment in Jamaica Plain that had been a nonstop nightmare since we moved in. After contending with a broken oven for a month, clogged plumbing, broken laundry machines, and general fuckery from our landlord, we discovered we were also paying over ten times as much for heat in our apartment as the units on the lower levels because of a faulty boiler that the owner had neglected for 3+ years. The heat intermittently stopped working throughout November and December and we had to call Boston ISD on New Year’s Eve (which we spent at home, because we were both so worn out by 2019).
We moved out of that place in mid-January and I posted something on Twitter at the time along the lines of “Goodbye, terrible apartment. I hope getting out of this cursed place brings us better luck for 2020.” And we all know how that worked out!
So, that said, 2020 wasn’t the worst year for me personally by a long shot. 2019 may have been worse. 2016 and 2014 certainly were. 2020 was strangely a lot like 2009 for me, which had its ups and downs, a world in the throes of another type of societal crisis that did have a much more dire impact on my economic prospects. But in the spring, I spent a good amount of time watching Chris play Halo and chat with his friends, which was how many evenings went down when I first moved to Boston and had zero dollars and no one to hang out with. I also spent hours upon hours wandering around my neighborhood, just as I did back in the Great Recession days.
Before lockdown began, I managed to squeeze in two trips – one to Brooklyn with Chris for my birthday weekend, one to Nashville for the Public Library Association Conference. I spoke at PLA to more people than I ever had before, and I spent a good chunk of time not far from where the Christmas Day bombs went off…ugh, that poor city. I think the last live show I caught was Opeth at the stunning Ryman Auditorium, flanked by library pals. When I left Boston for that trip, covid was an increasing rumbling; by the time I got back, the Biogen thing had happened and the mood and response was noticeably changing, at least at the local level.
I had been selected to speak at the 2020 SXSW Interactive, but then it was cancelled for the first time in the festival’s history. Then other conferences, a few months off, started to cancel. Then we sent all of our students home in the week leading up to spring break. Then the grocery shopping with masks and gloves and the going-absolutely-nowhere-else-for-any-reason began. And then it became clear that not everyone was working at a library or for a town, city, or college that took this as seriously as my employer thankfully did. So I did what I could to try to help people fight to stay home or at the very least negotiate safer work conditions.
The first major effort I helped with was insisting that the Boston Public Library close all of its locations and allow its employees to work from home with no docked wages or furloughs. A group of area library workers in the New England Radical Reference Collective Slack channel worked together on advocacy with the assistance of other community supporters and the stalwart efforts of the BPLPSA union. We were successful. From there, a loose collective of activists from that group as well as the broader “Library Twitter” world joined in the fight. We targeted institutions and municipalities, imploring them to #closethelibraries. We wrote and called governors, mayors, college administrators, directors, and trustees. We put the pressure on our professional organizations to take a stronger, pro-worker stance. As time went on and restrictions started to be reversed, we adapted the advocacy and campaigned to #ProtectLibraryWorkers. I believe we saved lives. I also believe we challenged our organizations to make an effort to speak in more transparent language about workers and the importance of their health, safety, and livelihood; I’m not sure what difference that has made or will make yet, but if it gets even one fewer person to assume there are invisible elves stocking the shelves and not, y’know, humans with immune systems, I guess that’s something.
In May, I co-hosted and co-organized a conference called #LibRev(olution), a day-long series of presentations aimed at exploring “collective resistance & communal resilience” among library workers. It would not have been possible without an amazing team of speakers, moderators, and co-organizers. We tried to keep the conversation going via Discourse but have since moved to Slack. A bunch of us also contributed to libraryworkers.net, a resource site for people looking for help with their own advocacy and campaigns. When I was personally targeted by the board of trustees of one Boston-area library, I admit I did dial back my outward-facing efforts. But through #LibRev, the Library Freedom Project, and the state and regional associations I’m part of, I still will fight for library workers.
I also finished co-writing a book for ALA Editions that was released this fall, Responding to Rapid Change in Libraries: A User Experience Approach. I hope it isn’t bullshit.
Meanwhile, at work, I tried my best to take advantage of the situation and soldier on. We converted to a new ILS at the beginning of summer, replacing a horrendous excuse for one that was making the simplest tasks (like placing holds!) impossible. This meant we joined an area library network and now have our cataloging outsourced (we are a team of 3) and access to Overdrive. This was not nearly as painful as it could have been, and the fact that we weren’t physically open was a blessing. I believe I weeded around 11,000 books from the collection (14,000 of our total had never circed in 20 years) and the majority made their way to Better World Books – praise be to student workers. I reconfigured the downstairs layout of the library, moving 3D printers out of our space and over to the shops and expanding our sewing area setup. More furniture changes are coming once the shelves cleared by weeding are removed; all of these decisions were made based on results from last year’s strategic planning survey. The student workers and I did an aggressive deep-clean of the workroom and we began organizing and cleaning the archives, a room left to fester for several years.
When I was at home, I worked on improving our website and moving us over to the college’s Linux server. I spent an untold amount of time gathering stats and putting stat site logins into a Pinboard list. I cleaned up our record of current subscriptions, negotiated with just about every vendor, rolled with budgetary punches, and got us up and running with OCLC’s hosted Ezproxy. We also had a huge amount of scanning and digital book buying to do as physical reserves weren’t available this past semester. I’d say the big problems at the library that are within a certain range of fixable have been fixed.
On a more personal level, the apartment we now live in is such a vast improvement over the last place, I can’t even tell you. My cats have been lovely and hilarious, and Avey’s brush with death in October was devastating but has me so grateful for every day I wake up with him half-smothering my face. We were fortunate to visit our families and a select group of friends a few times over the summer, and we had two vacations to Maine that involved lots of kayaking and bike riding. A few days spent at Drakes Island Beach and in Denmark (the Maine one!) were especially perfect. The summer was gorgeous and I’m missing it dearly. We squeezed in one last trip before we got too freaked out, to a three-season cabin in New Hampshire for Chris’s birthday. As I mentioned yesterday, I got to read a ton of books this year (a ton for me, at least). Many of those happened in front of a fire with WMBR streaming on our crappy Bluetooth speaker. And I started a new weekly radio show, Outback Witch House, broadcasting live on bkfst.org from 9-11 PM EST most Fridays.
Less fun to report is the amount of injuries I sustained this year. I broke my foot in August (it was dumb and involved a shopping cart), I fell off my bike and got pretty banged up in October, and I threw my back out at least three times, most likely because of the physicality of weeding, scanning, boxing, and shifting books. I haven’t been able to see a chiropractor since we moved, but I got a bunch of back exercises and stretches from the latest doctor I saw that are saving my shit.
So, from all of this, what did I learn, what did I take away? Well, I’m enormously privileged to have been able to take as many vacations as I did, to stay healthy and keep away from dangerous circumstances as much as possible, and to have the time to read, walk, and focus. I learned that management is a two-way street, and if people aren’t receptive to being managed, that’s not necessarily an indictment of the person doing the managing. I learned that you can never be too careful with separating your personal and professional identities as much as possible online. It was reinforced for me that you have to find ways of celebrating your own victories and congratulating yourself in the absence of external appreciation (not gonna lie, this post was a little bit that for me).
In terms of allocating my energy differently in 2021: I apologize for the vagueness, but I’m going to stop bringing horses to water they won’t drink, or at the very least I’m not going to try to get them to drink it as often as I have been. In non-work-but-professional matters, I’m going to try to listen, follow, and assist more than to lead–except in matters where white female gatekeepers desperately need to be redirected. I’d like to publish something in an academic journal. I’m going to keep myself open to changes, possibly big ones. I want to keep reading, walking, and writing as much as I have in 2020. I’m going to keep trying to figure out how to get better at sewing, and I’m going to get better at all the other maker-y tech we have lying around the library.
Above all, I’m thinking back to how in the days after the aforementioned library renovation was finished but before the death of my co-worker, my boss and I fantasized about having a “quiet year” – not trying to do anything amazing or new or special, just managing things as best we could. It was no one’s fault that we didn’t get that in 2019, but I’m hoping I might try for one in 2021. 2020 wasn’t personally that bad in many respects, but I know I worked harder than I should have, and took things out on myself more than I deserved. No matter what happens at the levels I can’t control, I hope I can be a little nicer to myself next year.