The martyr complex

I agree with Brooke Reid about many things, but this in particular is a standout:

Brooke lost her casual academic library job thanks to coronavirus. (You should hire her, she’s great.) After a month off sick I’ve been working remotely now for two weeks, but I don’t yet feel as if I’ve fully ‘returned’ to librarianship. Or the world at large. Besides, what is there for many of us to return to?

Recently the Guardian Australia saw fit to run this deeply mediocre article on Australian libraries in lockdown and their impact on digitally disadvantaged people. (Fun fact: I went to high school with the author, though she likely wouldn’t remember me, and I’m disappointed to see this kind of thing from her.)

The library user interviewed, who relies on her local public library for internet access, reckons that ‘Really, there’s not as much traffic as you might think. Maybe just open the library without storytime’. I imagine you’re as disinclined as I am to take her advice on the subject. Meanwhile the only comment from a library worker (from SLNSW) is buried near the end of the piece, as if his (entirely correct) view that ‘public libraries are very busy public places […] under the current circumstances compliance with health orders is necessary’ was outweighed by the sheer inconvenience caused by such compliance.

The digital divide, like so much else in society, is largely a matter of public policy. Home internet access is not considered a basic utility, like running water and electricity, but rather a luxury for the better-off, and is priced accordingly. Try as it might, the library cannot possibly solve these kinds of policy problems. We offer internet access as a public service and as part of our commitment to freedom of information, but society shouldn’t force disadvantaged people to rely exclusively on our services. Contemporary libraries are public policy spakfilla—we are routinely expected to fill gaps left by policymakers at higher levels. Spakfilla is good for filling holes in plasterboard, but it won’t fix rotting foundations.

In 2006, my teenage life was rather more similar to that of the library user interviewed by the Guardian. My family couldn’t afford to get a landline phone connected, never mind the internet, and I refused to get a mobile because deep down I was a bit of a Luddite, and I didn’t particularly want to be contactable. Outside of school, my internet access was a weekly hour at the local public library. But had a pandemic struck that year, in those circumstances, I would have felt the library’s loss far more keenly. I would probably have watched far more television and been kept home from school, but also probably have fallen far behind in class, and been even more deeply isolated than I am now. Mum’s line of work is difficult to do remotely. I don’t know how we would be coping at the moment without the excellent home broadband we now enjoy.

In some ways, I chose to self-isolate as a teenager. But being too poor to afford the internet was not our fault, nor is it the fault of any other library user. Disadvantaged people deserve far more than just access to a public library—and when that access is rendered impossible, they should not be left to make do with nothing. Physical isolation is hard enough. Social and information isolation is even harder.


Faced with the prospect of extended building closures, many libraries have duly pivoted to making their physical collections available in other ways, with a combination of click and collect, home delivery and postal delivery services. The American Library Journal featured a brilliant op-ed the other day on why click and collect in particular, or ‘curbside pickup’, is a bad idea. It says everything I would have said on the topic, but I think this part is worth detailed consideration:

When folks are getting curbside meals, they aren’t eating the food, then returning the container to the restaurant to be used by another person. Moreover, food workers are trained in and regulated on avoiding contamination, and their workplaces are set up to prevent it. None of those things are true of libraries. Finally, restaurants are not doing delivery and pickup because there is no risk, but because the risk is outweighed by the daily need to eat. That simply isn’t true of access to physical library books. Books and other media are incredibly important, but they are not a priority right now—keeping people alive, safe, and at home is.

I would only add that restaurants and other food outlets are also relying on takeaway and deliveries to remain solvent—libraries are by and large not cost-recovery enterprises, so we don’t have this problem.

A few short weeks ago, when I was seriously ill on my own, I had a lot of deeply conflicting ethical opinions on whether I should get pizza delivered. What right did I have to demand someone else leave the house so that I didn’t have to? Would I be forcing the delivery person to take unacceptable health risks, or would my custom instead be helping keep them employed? It’s a moot point now—I ultimately did get pizza delivered, though it didn’t agree with my insides, and I promptly threw it all up—but it reveals the class issues at the heart of it all. Many people able to work from home are white collar professionals. Many people unable to work from home are blue collar or gig economy workers. They are expected to risk themselves so that others might stay safe, but they’re not necessarily getting paid (or being suitably protected) for that risk.

In setting up book retrieval and delivery services, libraries are expecting people (be they library workers, library users, or both) to risk their health for a bibliographic reward. Someone has to leave their house to retrieve books. Someone else has to collect them, or another someone has to deliver them. None of those people are likely to have, or be provided with, adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). To me, these all look like non-essential reasons to be leaving the house. Nobody ever died from not having a book to read, but the coronavirus can live on paper and other porous surfaces for up to 24 hours and on plastic for up to 72 hours; that’s enough for me to say ‘no’ to library books for the time being.

I get the feeling that large parts of our sector are desperate to prove their continuing value and relevance (and keep staff employed), and are bending over backwards to figure out ways to carry on as normal. I also suspect that many people are struggling with the idea that right now our physical collections and services have the potential to do more harm than good. That’s undoubtedly hard to process for people who’ve spent careers believing that librarianship is inherently good and noble work. Vocational awe is a hell of a drug.

The Library Journal article outlines ways libraries were already reaching people outside the building: ‘virtual and phone reference, ebooks and audiobooks, streaming movies, newspapers, databases, online programs, and more’. The immediately obvious problem? Most of these rely on people having personal internet access, which as I’ve outlined above is not an option for many. More needs to be done to figure out how to reach people while staying safe at home. The public health situation is undoubtedly far graver in the United States, where people are increasingly having to take matters into their own hands. But I have a hard time believing library books anywhere at the moment are worth that level of risk. Besides, there’s plenty that suitably online library workers could be doing from home. I hear catalogue maintenance is suddenly back in fashion.


You know what, though? Honestly, when all this is over, I don’t want to go back to normal. Normal was boring. Normal was unjust. Normal was killing me softly. Now is our big chance—our free space—to design a new normal, both within and beyond librarianship. Now is the perfect opportunity to deeply consider why we do things (not just the what and the how). Now is the time to imagine what kind of world we want to live in. The first step towards great change is believing that such change is possible. Besides, ‘things cannot and will not go back to the way they were. Of this even our enemies are certain.’

For starters, there is an obvious need for more, and more critical, library sector commentators in Australia. LIS academics would be well-placed for this kind of work, but appear largely uninterested in actively critiquing—and thereby improving—the library sector. Virtually all public librarians are government employees and do not enjoy the necessary academic or intellectual freedom. I am one of those people. That’s the price I pay for a secure job in my field. Already this post sails close to the wind of Things My Employment Precludes Me From Having Public Opinions On. But who else will point out that the emperor has no clothes?

ALIA were notably absent from the Guardian article—I suspect they simply weren’t asked for comment—but it has been evident for a long time that ALIA stands with library institutions, not library workers. The most recent ALIA Board message of Friday 24 April only confirms it: sympathy is shown for library managers having to stand down staff, but not for the staff themselves, despite ALIA’s considerable investment in a relief fund. Readers are also told that ‘we [all] have a responsibility to the library brand’, as if marketing and PR should be anyone’s priority right now. A previous message expressed concern that very few libraries and their staff would be eligible for JobKeeper, potentially putting large numbers of library workers out of work. Yet ALIA was seemingly not prepared to stand up for library workers and lobby for changes to the eligibility criteria, instead merely endorsing such efforts from unions and the Australian Local Government Association. I’m not entirely sure what these regular Board messages are meant to achieve. I don’t find them terribly reassuring.

In the face of all this, we have limited avenues to organise our labour as a sector, and fight for better. Library workers in Australia are unionised according to their employer type: government, schools, hospitals, higher education, and so on. The idea of ‘one big library union’ is not new; in fact, ALIA’s initial predecessor, the Australian Institute of Librarians (AIL), explored the possibility during its early years but could not overcome jurisdictional issues, noting that ‘A further obstacle was the opening of LAA [Library Association of Australia, AIL’s successor body] membership to employers as well as employees’. Overseas, Canadian rabble-rouser Sam Popowich has made some salient points, while the American Library Association’s companion body, the ALA-APA, exists in part to advance library workers’ salary interests. The closest thing I can think of to a pan-GLAM workers’ association in this country is newCardigan, but their reach is limited, and they lack the formal powers of a trade union.

In the past I have criticised libraries and library managers for being overly risk-averse. Now I find myself criticising them for not being risk-averse enough. It’s a strange state of affairs. I won’t pretend there are easy answers to any of these issues. But I’m also not interested in developing a martyr complex or smothering myself in vocational awe. Librarianship is important, and I appreciate many people are missing their library terribly, but right now providing access to physical collections runs the risk of spreading the virus, and library users being solely reliant on our internet access is a failure of public policy. Ours is not—and should not be—a life-or-death profession. We’re not frontline health workers. We’re not supermarket workers. We’re library workers. It’s great to be a library worker, but it ain’t everything, and it’s not worth risking public health for.

The parting glass

Content warning: this post discusses suicidality, anti-depressant medication and hospitalisation in a mental health ward.

Of all the money that ‘ere I had
I spent it in good company
And of all the harm that ‘ere I done
Alas, it was to none but me

I wrote two weeks ago that ‘Home is the only place I feel safe at the moment’. As it turned out, this wasn’t true for very long. Coronavirus has transformed every aspect of our lives, but I haven’t read the news in days. Don’t tell me what’s happening. I don’t want to know.

I’ve been very ill. Not with covid-19, I hasten to add. I’ve been acutely anxious for a shorter time and chronically depressed for a longer time. The former catapulted me into the doctor’s office. The latter had lain unattended for months if not years, despite my friends’ efforts to persuade me to get treatment. I went from doing nothing about my deteriorating mental health to suddenly doing all the things. Highly on brand.

As part of this I reluctantly decided, in forlorn hope of prompt improvement, to give anti-depressants another go. I spent four days on the most horrible medication I’ve ever taken, an hour at the doctor the following Tuesday, fifteen minutes in an ambulance, seven hours in emergency and seventy-two hours in hospital, followed by an indefinite stay at my mother’s, who found this all out rather suddenly. We’re not great communicators.

The world grieves for those we’ve lost to coronavirus. But last week I switched off the world, as I tried not to lose myself.

For all I’ve done in want of wit
To mem’ry now I can’t recall

I don’t remember a whole lot of that weekend. The meds felt like a bad trip on one of those fun drugs I’ve never taken. I barely ate. I barely felt. I barely rose. I barely slept. I did get pizza delivered, though. (That was a huge mistake.) I had never been so ill in my life. I was terrified of what my brain could do to me.

So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be with you all

I woke two Saturdays ago to the most horrific thoughts. They weren’t my thoughts; they arrived from somewhere else, and lodged themselves in my brain. The leaflet had mentioned this could happen, but I didn’t expect them so soon, or with such horrendous force. I fought these impulses with everything I had. I marvel, now, at how I found the strength to do this alone.

My own psyche didn’t want me here. But I had other ideas.


I didn’t know the place existed before I ended up there: a six-bed ‘low-dependency acute mental health unit’ located out the back of the emergency department. It’s a short-stay unit designed for people who need an extended mental health assessment, to get their meds sorted, or just somewhere to be safe and supervised for a few days. The main inpatient mental health ward, which I came to call ‘long-stay’, is at the other end of the hospital.

It’s little things I remember. I took a shower this morning and was instantly reminded of the shared bathroom in the ward. There are no hot taps, only cold and ‘warm’, which is just warm enough so as not to be cold, but isn’t really warming at all. I recalled episode 3 of No Feeling is Final where Honor is admitted to a mental health facility and describes the bathroom in detail. I recognised things I had never seen before. The shower head was the same. The conspicuous absence of towel rails.

In Honor’s opinion: ‘Hospital isn’t a place you go to get better. It’s a place you go to not die.’ It’s true that hospital didn’t magically cure my brain. And I suppose not dying was part of the goal. But for me hospital is fundamentally a place you go to be safe. It wasn’t until I subconsciously said as much to the triage nurse that I realised I didn’t feel safe at home. Strange to think now that even during a pandemic, I felt safest in hospital.

Of all the comrades that e’er I had
They’re sorry for my going away
And of all the sweethearts that e’er I had
They’d wish me one more day to stay

I was well looked after in the short-stay ward. A nurse noticed I wasn’t eating (and hadn’t been for days) so they brought a dietitian around to learn about my usual eating patterns and habits. The next day the lunch tray was full of things I had mentioned I liked—salad, a sandwich, yoghurt, orange juice, custard. (Apparently hospital custard either really appeals or really doesn’t. I said I liked it, so naturally it appeared with every meal.) Someone had clearly gone to a lot of effort to assemble a meal they thought I would eat. I was very touched by their efforts and valiantly ate the sandwich over the course of an hour. The nurses subsequently woke me up for dinner, which I thought was highly unreasonable. Didn’t they know I had already eaten lunch?!

My mum visited every day, coronavirus be damned. The hospital has limited visitor numbers to one per patient per day (and no, you can’t tag-team, as my brother unfortunately learned). Everyone has their own room, but the mattress foam was so hard and uncomfortable it felt like sleeping on concrete. They let me keep my phone, though I had to charge it in the hallway in sight of the nurses’ station. It felt a little weird leaving my phone unattended outside my door, but I was confident nobody would steal it.

An iPhone charger plugged into a powerpoint marked 'cleaning purposes only'
Not quite ‘cleaning purposes only’

My only real complaint about my time in hospital was the complete unavailability of any psychologists. Having refused all offers of alternative medication it was the one thing I said I really wanted, yet despite the nurses’ considerable efforts they couldn’t find a free psychologist to see me before I was discharged. It seemed deeply ironic that I was able to see a psychiatrist every day, had (controlled) access to all kinds of serious brain meds, could have doused myself in Seroquel if I so chose, but couldn’t get hold of someone to simply talk to for an hour.

Having said that: one particular psychiatrist was absolutely amazing, and worth the price of admission alone. She explained in great detail why the meds hadn’t worked for me and that I wasn’t meant to feel like a rotting potato on them (who knew?), outlined alternatives that might work better in case I changed my mind about medicating, and discussed a couple of other highly illuminating things that Explained A Lot about how my brain works. For the first time in a long time I left a doctor’s appointment with more answers than questions. It’s one thing to know what is happening, but quite another to understand why it’s happening. At last I could start to make sense of it all.

Honor was totally right about one thing, though: the lack of good snack options in psych hospital. The patient fridge had a large vegetable crisper that was completely full of, I kid you not, hundreds of tiny packets of lactose-free margarine. I wondered just how many lactose-free people had stayed there, and how much margarine they collectively hadn’t eaten, and why the fridge was hoarding it all. I also wondered who nicked my orange juice popper out of the fridge. I’m still cranky about that.


I find myself now in what should probably be called the ‘recovery’ phase, but I’m still processing the speed at which I took ill in the first place. Was I really in hospital for three days last week? Did that actually happen to me? Did I really spend the four days before that in a medicated stupor? The weeks before that rolling slowly downhill? What on earth did I say on the phone to people?!

If nothing else, my time in hospital gave me the greatest excuse ever to not get back to people. I was like, ‘I am literally in a psychiatric facility! I am profoundly unavailable! I’m not going to return your call! Or answer your email! Not even sorry!’. My sole responsibility in hospital was to get better. That was it. That was all I had to do. I had literally one job. I didn’t have to go anywhere, or see anyone, or do anything except rest and heal. A nurse commented that people often complain of being bored in the short-stay unit. The idea of boredom while acutely ill hadn’t even occurred to me, but I figured if someone had the energy to be bored, they were probably ready to go home.

I’m still on sick leave, by the way. I ran out of the paid variety so now I’m sitting at home (at my mother’s! But I love that I reflexively call it home) for free, getting better, doing nothing, planting bulbs, reading books, drinking tea, finding a psychologist, thinking about maybe going back to work next week, sleeping, writing, convalescing, healing. I tweeted in hospital about how I missed green things, could twitter maybe share some flowers and houseplants with me, and wow did twitter rise to the occasion. A whole thread of abundant flowers, plants, landscapes, outsides. It was beautiful. It was Good Twitter. People are so kind to me.

A rose set against a cloudy sky and grey colourbond fence
One of mum’s umpteen backyard roses. I keep seeing this one out the window past the computer screen, it’s gloriously distracting

I like to sit outside in mum’s beautiful garden, surrounded by birds and insects and flowers no virus can harm. Plants have no care for our human worries. They’re growing despite our fears. Perhaps, as I enjoy this light breeze and dappled sunshine, I am slowly regaining my ability to feel things, and so I feel them more intensely. But I would always choose too many feelings over no feelings at all. I can only hope I remain well enough to be able to make that choice.

I have mixed feelings about being mentally ill during a pandemic, occupying a hospital bed and using precious health resources. To be sure, my coronavirus-induced anxiety was an aggravating factor, but I had been ill already for a long time, and it so happened that this was what finally compelled me to go to the doctor. Yet I know so many others are in need of psychological help, many for the first time, to say nothing of the complex needs of thousands ill with covid-19. I try not to let my well-developed guilt complex get the better of me. There are, for the moment, enough resources to go around.

It may seem odd to talk about all this so openly, but writing this post has really helped me process everything that happened to me over the last few weeks, and it’s set me up psychologically for the next stage of healing. I’ve also benefited from recent blog and Patreon posts from the Big Feels Club, as well as back issues of the Head Desk newsletter by Jenna Sten, whose zine ritual/distraction I had the pleasure of buying for work last year. I bought myself a copy recently, too.

But as it falls into my lot
That I must go and you must not
I’ll gently rise and I’ll softly call
Good night and joy be with you all

These days I recoil from a lot of the language we typically use to describe mental illness. It took me a long, long time to accept the idea that being mentally ill was not my fault. I think of it now like any other illness. My brain was sick. I went to hospital to get better. This is simplistic language, but I think a lot of us have internalised this shame narrative that we are somehow at fault if our brains stop working. I didn’t choose to be ill. I certainly didn’t choose the horrific thoughts that have visited me recently. It didn’t make me stupid, or irresponsible, or somehow undeserving of help. It simply meant I was sick. And I needed care.


During periods of acute not-coping I tend to play one song on repeat for days on end, clinging to it like a lifeboat. This time it was traditional Scottish / Irish folk song The Parting Glass, as performed by Hozier on a late-night Irish talk show. I hope he releases this as a single. I would purchase the hell out of it.

The great thing about Scottish and Irish folk songs is that almost anyone sounds good singing them, and they’re as warm and dark and bitter as the beers they’re meant to accompany. I’ll never sound as good as Hozier, but I can hold a tune, and it was a particular comfort to hum and sing this to myself at irregular intervals.

Sports writer Geoff Lemon contracted covid-19 from a single beer glass, fetched by an asymptomatic companion. My brain keeps wanting to make ‘parting glass’ jokes, as if there’s something mildly amusing about the whole thing, when I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how horrible this disease can be. For now, my family and I remain physically well, and I think mum is enjoying having some company around the house. Besides, she has really good internet. I’m in no hurry to leave.

Hear that, brain? I’m here for the long haul.

So fill to me the parting glass
And drink a health whate’er befalls
Then gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be with you all