For a few months in late March, nobody knew what day it was. For a few weeks in mid-Victoria, nobody knows what August it is. I worry that further lockdown has warped the spacetime of greater Melbourne, that they will emerge from this black hole slightly older than the rest of us. As Westerners, we’re not used to this. But time has always been a malleable thing.
Industrialised society rather fancied itself the master of time. Clocks enabled the division of time into ever-smaller portions, into which workers were expected to cram ever-greater amounts of work. Watches, and later mobile phones, ensured we could always know our exact temporal position. I hate them, honestly. A year ago from a friend I borrowed 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, a polemic on the possibilities of chronotopic anti-capitalism. Sadly I only ever got halfway through; the dense, archaic prose had put me to sleep.
We speak of the beforetimes as a distinct epoch: a time where time made sense to us. As we were forced to abandon our daily routines, so we also lost our larger-scale markers of time—commuting to work, a midday meal, after-school pickup. Five of those in a week and we’ve made it to the weekend. Without those markers, every day was a weekend. But every day was also a work day. Every day was all the time. And the news became ever more deranged.
Yet the autumn leaves kept falling. Temperatures kept dropping. Day-lengths kept shortening. Time moved on, regardless. But we didn’t feel it that way.
I have a complicated relationship with time. For one thing, it doesn’t move in a straight line like most people think it does. Time forms great circles across the cosmos, guiding the Earth and all its lifeforms in cycles lasting many thousands of years. We’re all familiar with timelines, but such diagrams are deceptively linear, overly short and fixated on dates.
One of the hallmarks of my depression is that I lose the ability to see into the future: the worse the illness, the shorter the timescale. Life beyond is unknowable, hidden behind an impenetrable fog, as if time will simply cease to exist. My future has felt as long as five decades and as short as five minutes. There is no such thing as forever.
Perhaps it’s because I experienced both times at the same time, but to me corona time felt very similar to depression time. There is no real future, just an eternal present. Everything is too much. Seconds last for hours. Days last for weeks. We are dislocated from our regular chronologies. We feel temporally seasick. We struggle, though we don’t realise it, to weave ourselves back into the fabric of time. We yearn for something that might reconnect us with a greater existence. The key difference, of course, being that everyone else is experiencing corona time too, and they’re not used to time behaving this way.
A lot of people have written a lot about pandemic time, but they are mostly people for whom time was always already linear. A crucial exception: Diné poet Jake Skeets, whose expansive piece ‘The Other House’ speaks to Indigenous temporalities and cosmologies in our times of apocalypse.
Two years ago, when the world shrank to the size of my bedroom and I was utterly convinced that there would be no next year, I found deep comfort in the idea of deep time. I saw, to paraphrase Anna Spargo-Ryan, the fabric of time split in front of my eyes while I waited for help that never came. (It never came because I never asked; our society expects those least capable of self-reliance and self-advocacy to do these exact things in their darkest moments.) I found myself at the bottom of a large temporal hole, terrified into oblivion by the horrors of climate catastrophe. I lost all perspective of what had already happened, and what still awaited us. Time existed in zero dimensions.
Recovering from depression is an exercise in lengthening time, in re-placing oneself within and across the cosmos. I found solace in deep histories spanning tens of thousands of years. Knowing someone’s ancestors had walked this land for that long; knowing my own ancestors had walked faraway lands for almost as long. I felt part of something much greater than my own tiny golden speck of existence. It was a comfort to know the stars had been here long before me, and would be here long after me, too.
It may seem disjointed from the current Melburnian folk horror, the fear of being trapped in time, of being forgotten by the wider world, of existing in too tightly wound a time loop, of ‘living a life that resembles death’. It might feel like the darkest timeline, but there is hope to be found in our tangle of loose temporal threads. Perhaps, as Skeets writes, ‘maybe an answer lies within the reimagining of hope through the reimagining of time’.
They say that ‘staying apart keeps us together’, but everyone I know is slowly disintegrating. I was slightly ahead of that curve, but the futures of many appear just as bleak. Most of my social circle lives in Melbourne, back in lockdown and under increasing strain. People are stressed, exhausted, weary, afraid for their health and their livelihoods. To think I almost moved there earlier this year. To think I’m now grateful I was forced to stay put.
It’s been a hard slog, though. After I got out of the psych ward in early April I spent 3 1/2 months at my mum’s place, learning how to be well again. We watched almost every episode of Great American Railroad Journeys. Mum watched a lot of Essendon football matches (especially the old ones where they won). I watched a lot of flowers bloom. Moving back into my own place a couple of weeks ago was almost an anti-anticlimax. It wasn’t the cute little flat in St Kilda I’d had my eye on, but it was still here, and for the moment, so was I.
Each person’s anxieties manifest in different ways. Until recently mine included a lot of shouting on Twitter. I need to stop doing this because it only makes the noise worse. I also have a lot less energy these days to scream into the void. I’d prefer to spend my time on more constructive pursuits.
Regular readers of this blog will recall my long-term criticism of the Australian Library and Information Association, including my unflattering appraisal of their response to the pandemic back in April. I considered not renewing my personal membership this year, and not just because for a while I couldn’t afford to pay it (though I did at one stage donate some of my renewal money to the GRLC casuals’ fund). Discontent with ALIA in Australia’s library community has simmered for some time. Library workers whose views I respect, such as Bonnie and Danielle, have chosen to leave. Others openly question the association’s choices in event management. Planning a large in-person conference for next February seems particularly foolhardy.
Despite all this I ultimately chose to renew my ALIA membership, albeit three months late. I did so for one primary reason. It wasn’t because I’m an ACORD office-bearer (and therefore obliged to hold personal membership for as long as I’m on that committee). It wasn’t because I felt my seat at the broader ALIA table was really getting me anywhere. It was because I was genuinely excited by this year’s elections to the Association’s Board of Directors. After years of waiting and wishing (and whining), I felt like we finally had some solid progressive leadership. I wanted to put my money where my mouth is and support those new Directors to start making necessary strategic change. This won’t happen overnight. It might not be anytime soon considering how much else everyone has on their plates right now. But there are some good foundations in place, and for the first time in my five years of membership I was optimistic about ALIA’s potential. I wanted to support that.
I was concerned, however, that my renewal would be interpreted as an endorsement of the status quo. I want to be very clear that it is not. My membership is an act of faith, not an act of trust.
It has also finally dawned on me that ALIA will never truly be the kind of organisation I think it should be. CEO Sue McKerracher made clear back in January (in InCite’s critlib-themed issue, no less, submissions for which were curiously never advertised) what she sees as ALIA’s core function: ‘taking the facts about libraries and shaping them to fit the interests of government’ (p. 7). Lobbying, in other words. Advocacy. Public relations. Media management. I know ALIA does quite a few other things, but lobbying appears to be its primary focus. It’s why the Association moved to Canberra in the first place. Certainly there are good reasons for librarianship to establish—and fund—such a body. I just resent funding it personally, is all. I don’t feel particularly advocated for.
ALIA put out a pamphlet-type thing recently listing some of the ways it had responded to the pandemic. Curiously, none of those ways included advocating for casualised library workers who lost all their shifts, or academic library workers facing forced pay cuts and mass redundancies, or LIS students graduating into a non-existent job market. They did encourage libraries to hire authors to do talks, which I would find more admirable had they also encouraged those libraries to not lay off their staff.
There’s a bit of a gap here. ALIA advocates for libraries as institutions, while our trade unions advocate for library workers within their workplaces. There’s no organisation that advocates for library workers as a whole, as professionals1, as workers with valuable skills, as people who deserve stable employment, as individuals who have so much to offer. So many of us are screaming ourselves hoarse, but it feels no organisation is listening. Globally, many library workers have had enough of their professional associations, and are investing in real change. Lindsey Cronk’s exhortations to #FixALA and Callan Bignoli’s #LibRev[olution] conference and subsequent organising point to a groundswell of support for radical change in the library sector. What kind of united future could we create for ourselves? How might we go about building a different kind of power?
Picture this: a national library workers’ association. A separate entity to ALIA, uniting library workers across all sectors, at all stages of their careers. One big library union, perhaps. I’m intrigued by the Danish model: in 1968 the librarians of Denmark collectively revolted against their library association and formed the Danish Union of Librarians, ‘to secure wage and working conditions and to cultivate their profession’. The union has both an industrial and a professional role, supporting librarians at work and in their careers. Meanwhile, the Danish Library Association takes the lead on lobbying and public outreach efforts. Interestingly, their org structure includes politicians as well as professionals, and one seat is reserved for a library student. It was the inclusion of the former that so riled the latter.
Australia’s industrial relations are very different, with library workers divided into unions based on their sector: schools, healthcare settings, levels of government, higher education and so on. There can be real advantages in organising with fellow workers in one’s sector, irrespective of role. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that some library workers can struggle to find appropriate union representation, including special librarians, employees of vendors, and those working outside a formal library environment.
Such a national library workers’ association could resemble the Danish model, and become a formal trade union, ensuring that all library workers could have someone in their corner. Or it could be a different kind of organisation, taking after the Casualised, Unemployed, and Precarious University Workers (CUPUW, formerly the National Higher Education Casuals Network), a cross-sectoral alliance of non-permanent university workers fighting for recognition of their worth as people and workers in the face of structural collapse. We could all start imagining what this new association might look like. Would people join under their own steam? Would we want ‘delegates’ from different library sectors or states, or specific representatives for students, casuals and the unemployed? How could we best set ourselves up for success and longevity?
Another benefit of such an association: it would enable library workers to speak publicly and collectively on issues that matter to us, rather than waiting for ALIA to do it on our behalf. I feel like a lot of us have spent a lot of time over the years trying to get ALIA to say particular things. Like many others, I was surprised and impressed by ALIA’s recent statement on Black Lives Matter. It was strongly worded, it came from ALIA directly (not its Board), and it was seemingly issued without members having to ask. I hope to see more of this kind of advocacy from ALIA. If only they’d spoken up for marriage equality like this before we begged them to.2
Brendan Bachmann wrote a searing piece on many libraries’ shameful treatment of their casual staff during the pandemic. I will note that MPOW, to its credit, has continued offering shifts to its few casual workers, and has moved heaven and earth to enable the vast majority of us to work from home. But many library workers have been treated far more poorly, and it is precisely the kind of behaviour Brendan discusses that a library workers’ association would stand against. Workers need to feel seen, to feel heard, and to feel like someone’s prepared to stick up for them. I’m realistic about the chances of policy reversal, but even just having that solidarity would make a world of difference.
Brendan is completely right. We are better than this. But we deserve better than this, too.
… It does seem to be a pattern though, doesn’t it? New librarian joins ALIA, chills for a bit, realises how cooked it is, agitates for change, gets nowhere, is crushed, leaves ALIA. Over and over.
So why have I spent so much time and energy over the years being cross at my professional association? Despite outward appearances I’m not naturally a ‘burn it all down’ kind of person. I don’t enjoy being angry all the time (in fact, I’m much worse at being angry now than in the Before Times, and it gladdens me). I’d much rather try to make things better. And generally speaking I prefer to be a member of things rather than not. It takes a lot for me to consider quitting something. I do think that ‘Together we are stronger’, to echo ALIA’s motto, but it’s time for a deeper introspection on who ‘we’ are.
I don’t know why I keep looking to ALIA to demonstrate leadership in the Australian library sector. I don’t know why I hope they will stand up for library workers. I don’t know why I think they will change.
It’s deeply frustrating because we, as workers, want so desperately for our professional organisation to advocate for us. But ALIA doesn’t do that, and it’s not going to do that for as long as Institutional Membership is available. The conflict of interest here is insurmountable. So we need a separate association focussing on library workers. I had thought for a while that newCardigan would be ideally placed for such a role, but I would understand if they wanted to remain a radical social group rather than something more formalised. I don’t think the organisation we want really exists yet. I think it should.
I have a long personal history of sinking my time and energy into people and things that didn’t or couldn’t reciprocate. The time for that is over. If the Australian library sector is to have any hope of getting through these tough times, we as library workers need to build our own platform, and find our collective voice. Staying apart won’t always keep us together—it’s time for a national Australian library workers’ association. Let’s make it happen.
Irrespective of how (or even if) such workers have degrees or other professional accreditation. ↩
Man, this was three whole years ago and I’m still bitter about it. ↩
This edition of Papercuts, the occasional series where I talk about cool stuff I read recently, is haunted by the ever-growing number of unread items in my Pocket account (now 1,943 and rising) and the grim knowledge that the ability to read at all is a transient gift. I was tempted to declare Pocket bankruptcy (akin to email bankruptcy) and start again, but I knew I would regret deleting things I had long forgotten.
Most of these reads are not corona-related. I figure everyone is well aware of the coronapocalypse by now, so why not read something else?
I forget what led me to a radical New Orleans-based webzine (unusually, I don’t think it was Twitter) but I greatly enjoyed Jules Bentley’s piece on ‘Reviving Indigenous Histories with “Bulbancha is Still a Place”‘ (Antigravity Magazine, September 2018), about a collaborative zine on the Native American history of New Orleans. I paired it with another of Bentley’s excellent articles in the same mag, ‘Blanc Like Me: Cajuns vs. Whiteness’ (July 2019) about the history of the Cajuns of Louisiana, an ethnic group I admit I knew little about, and their complicated relationship with whiteness. People of similar ethnic heritage in Canada, from whence the Cajuns originated, would be considered Métis—that is, not white1—but in the United States consider themselves, and are considered in turn, sometimes white and sometimes not. My personal status as an extremely white lady will likely never be questioned, so I admit to being mildly fascinated (and somewhat repulsed) by the way whiteness grows and shrinks according to socio-political whims.
On Saturday I attended a webinar on ‘New Nature’, co-presented by the State Library of New South Wales and the Sydney Review of Books. A silver lining to everyone staying home for two months is the proliferation of online events that would previously have been held in-person, enabling the geographically dispersed and the ordinarily housebound to participate far more fully in cultural life. I’ve become a voracious reader of so-called new nature writing over the past couple of years and greatly enjoyed the webinar. One of the panellists was Koori poet and academic Evelyn Araluen, who I could listen to all day. She spoke to her SRB piece ‘Snugglepot and Cuddlepie in the Ghost Gum’ (Sydney Review of Books, February 2019), a beautiful and intricate essay on pastoralism, Aboriginality and the landscape as expressed in Australian children’s literature, which had lain dormant in my Pocket account for far too long. I immediately wished I’d read it sooner. It’s the sort of piece that demands recurrent readings.
Between the webinar and reading Araluen’s piece, though, I stumbled upon Paul Kingsnorth declaring that ‘The Earth Does Not Speak in Prose’ (paulkingsnorth.net, November 2019), a transcript of a conversation with Charlotte Du Cann, also published in issue 16 of the Dark Mountain Project. Kingsnorth is a complex, esoteric and somewhat divisive figure in new nature writing, a self-described ‘recovering environmentalist’ who co-founded Dark Mountain in 2009 before growing disillusioned with it all. He fled to Ireland with his family to put down roots and ground himself, but it doesn’t appear to have pacified him. His latest book Savage Gods has him desperately wondering whether words are the enemy of belonging (LA Review of Books, September 2019), whether language is the ultimate abstractor standing between us and the living earth, and whether he should give up writing completely.
Ever since reading ‘A Storm Blown From Paradise’ in the first issue of Emergence Magazine (February 2018) I’ve followed Kingsnorth’s work from a distance, not always agreeing with everything he says yet finding it deeply fascinating. His detractors accuse him of being an ethnonationalist, an impression not helped by the fact he voted Leave. I am inclined to read this particular interview more charitably, seeing a man cast adrift by his ancestors, reviling the culture that spawned him yet feeling he has no other to return to, a man desperate to anchor himself somewhere in deep time. I was intrigued by his thinking here; some parts, like the below passage, cut very close to the bone:
Paul: We’re people with no tradition, because that’s what modernity has done. It’s made us all into little individuals. So the story we tell, we have to come up with ourselves. And then we’re endlessly in pain, because we’re always driven to try and work everything out. Because we’re not supported by ancestry, we’re not supported by a culture. The bargain of modernity is we have no tradition to hold us back, but we also have no tradition to support us. So all the storytellers have to come up with their own vision which is why writers end up shooting themselves, or drinking themselves to death… Charlotte: Or rediscovering old myths, old texts… Paul: Yes. And what Dark Mountain ended up doing quite a lot of: talking about myths, folk tales and religious stories. Almost unconsciously, Dark Mountain ended up as a place where you could start looking for old stories. One of the things we got wrong in the manifesto was this notion that we need a new story, when we needed to rediscover the old ones. Martin Shaw was one of the people who really made me focus on that, because he said, ‘Look, the stories are already here, it’s just that we don’t know them anymore.’
Evelyn Araluen touched on this in the New Nature webinar, the fact that Aboriginal ways of knowing and being are not new, though they may very well feel new to those learning about them for the first time, and that it wasn’t a matter of finding new ways to live in the Anthropocene, but more a matter of centring the voices and experiences of Aboriginal people, whose ways were already working perfectly fine. I look forward to revisiting the webinar recording when it’s released, as well as delving into the new Guardian Australia series Old Knowledge for the New Normal (May 2020), which deals with similar themes.
Sadly, happily, fortunately, unfortuately, there’s been a lot of well-wishing going on lately. So it was with some interest that I came across the Get Well Soon! project, by Sam Lavigne and Tega Brain (March 2020). It collates thousands of well-wishes left on GoFundMe pages for medical fundraisers, a sad indictment of the American health system (or what’s left of it) as well as the radical energy of supporters and community. Lavigne and Brain are completely right that such an archive should not exist, but in the interests of transparency and political analysis, I’m glad it does.
The accompanying essay by Johanna Hedva is outstanding, comparing the now of illness with the now of revolution, the need for care with the need for change. It does so in a coronavirus context, because that was the only context going in late March, but I read it at the time through my own prism of severe anxiety, bedridden and unable to function, and it gave me hope in a way little else managed during that time:
Those of us for whom sickness is an everyday reality have long known about its revolutionary potential. We’ve known that a revolution can look like a horizontal body in a bed, unable to go to work. We’ve known that it might look like hundreds of thousands of bodies in bed, organizing a rent strike, separating life’s value from capitalist productivity. We’ve known that a revolution can look like the labor of a single nurse, keeping the patients in her ward alive, or the labor of a single friend, helping you buy groceries. We’ve known that it can look like the labor of nursing and care expanded exponentially, all of us reaching out to everyone we know, everyone we know reaching out to theirs. We’ve known that a revolution can look like a community pitching in $5 per person for someone’s medical treatment—we’ve wondered when that community would notice just how revolutionary the act of communal care is.
We’re told everything is impossible. Until, suddenly, it isn’t. One of the recent cardiMail newsletters highlighted this incomplete, evolving collection of The New Possible, a list of recent public policy decisions around coronavirus that would have seemed unthinkable just a few months ago. My personal favourite is the French government’s decree barring flag carrier Air France from carrying passengers between cities less than 2 1/2 hours’ flying distance where a rail line exists instead. Hooray for a rail-focused national transportation policy! For a chaser, I recommend the incendiary ‘America Is a Sham’ by Dan Kois (Slate, 14 March 2020), or for something more sedate, this interesting exploration of ‘Why Airports Die’ (Citylab, May 2020).
There’s something dangerously enticing about the idea of a ‘designer asylum’: even more so, the idea that ‘The lunatics are taking over the means of production’ (Asylum Magazine, 27(1), March 2020). I think about the hospital I recently spent time in, the kinds of questions they didn’t ask on the feedback survey, and how much nicer that environment might have been were it in a forest, and full of beanbags. I think about what scares me the most about going back. I think about why I’m scared of a place that’s meant to help me get better. It’s tempting to think about what my ideal psychiatric care environment might look like, but I know deep down it will never formally exist. Whoever heard of ‘a positive place to experience mental distress’?
I desperately want someone to visit the new Heide healing garden (Foreground, May 2020) for me when it opens later this year. I don’t dare hope that I might be able to visit in person. I can’t see myself getting to Melbourne anytime soon. Again I reflect on how my future has disintegrated.
For the moment, I will content myself with the National Museum of Australia’s online ethnobotanical exhibition Knowing Plants, which came to me via Ellen Coates’ daily delightful #CovidGLAMR explorations. The exhibition highlights three sites of First Contact on the east coast of the continent, and features plants both collected and ignored by Captain Cook’s men, with local Indigenous names and knowledge featured alongside the explorers’ botanical drawings. The backdrop of the splash page reminded me of the beautiful Parnatti exhibit at Adelaide’s MOD museum, guiding the visitor through Kaurna Yerta’s windy season.
A friend read ‘Splendid isolation: how I stopped time by sitting in a forest for 24 hours’ (The Guardian, January 2020) and dropped it in my inbox, having kindly thought of me. This piece is everything I tried desperately to explain about my time in Tasmania last January; spending an entire day at Cataract Gorge doing nothing but reading Rebecca Solnit in a stone beanbag; my inexplicable outrage at TMAG over the settlers’ blithe destruction of a sacred, sustainable lifeworld, and in particular at their mechanisation of time; the brief moment at Cradle Mountain where I stood in that lakeside forest, and felt the divine. I returned from lutruwita a very different person. This piece resonated deeply with me, a sorely needed reminder that those times and places still exist; that I still exist; that today will not persist forever; that I might one day return. The yearning for such Peace is what’s keeping me going.
A different yearning to Paul Kingsnorth’s, I think, but perhaps a related one.
The Métis are one of Canada’s three constitutionally recognised indigenous groups, alongside the Inuit and First Nations Indians; Canada is the only country to recognise mixed-race people in its constitution in this way. ↩
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 Journalfeatured 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.
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.
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.
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
And we would go on as though nothing was wrong
And hide from these days we remained all alone
Staying in the same place, just staying out the time
Touching from a distance
Further all the time
I quit my job last Thursday.
I was so excited about it all. I had been offered two (!) positions at two different libraries in Melbourne and had the luxury of choosing between them. I had never felt so employable. I was really looking forward to moving south, being with my friends and support network, having a fresh start. Plus I had tickets to see New Order in Melbourne that weekend. A last quick trip before moving away from the city I’ve lived in all my life.
I excitedly told close friends I had accepted a new position and would be moving soon. They were all so happy for me. I couldn’t wait to join them.
That was ten days ago. Ten years ago. A lifetime ago.
Nothing is real anymore.
It felt like the last gig before the apocalypse.
To be honest I’m surprised it still went ahead, coming the day after the Friday March 13 edict banning mass gatherings of over 500 people. The following night’s show at the Forum was cancelled. I had decided not to go anyway. Outdoors at the Music Bowl felt safer, with more space to distance on the lawn.
There was quite a large crowd, considering. A reporter from Channel Nine was doing a live piece-to-camera as I approached the gates. We were ‘defying the bans’, though they wouldn’t come into effect until Monday. Many attendees seemed relaxed, but I wasn’t one of them. I kept replaying the previous morning in my head, where I had a massive panic attack at the interstate coach terminal about whether I should make the journey at all. I boarded the coach with about thirty seconds to spare. I’m still not sure I made the right choice.
In the last week and a half, and in this order, I have: been made two job offers, accepted one, declined the other, quit my current job, started planning an interstate house move, reconsidered said house move, watched the world fall apart, postponed said house move, asked new job if I could work remotely, unquit current job just in case, received word that new job would let me work remotely, took lots of sick leave, continued to watch world fall apart, remembered new job would be short-term contract with no leave accrued, sadly declined new job, confirmed I could stay at current (permanent) job, and spent a lot of time in bed, at the doctor’s office, and in the throes of anxiety.
It’s been a lot. And I am not coping.
The 2019 novel coronavirus, which causes the disease known as COVID-19, has spread rapidly around the world in a matter of weeks, causing almost unfathomable amounts of social and financial upheaval. Most who contract the disease experience mild illness (noting that the WHO considers pneumonia ‘mild’) and make a full recovery. Some will develop serious illness. A small proportion, currently estimated to be anywhere between 1% and 3.4% of sufferers, will die of the disease.
My mother has severe asthma and a long history of respiratory problems. If she contracts COVID-19 she will be at far greater risk of serious illness. I am petrified that something will happen to her and, given her age and comorbidities, she will likely not be prioritised for treatment in hospital. She deserves to survive this as much as anyone. She is the only parent I have.
It feels in many ways like I am becoming her mother, despite the fact my maternal grandmother is still with us. I just want to keep my mum in her house because she’ll be safe at home, right? Everyone will be safe at home?! Please tell me we will all be safe at home. Home is the only place I feel safe at the moment.
Part of me knows I am less likely to become seriously ill myself. I am young, have a good immune system, and already make a habit of staying away from other people. And yet somehow that doesn’t convince the rest of me, the parts of my brain consumed by firecrackers of anxiety, clutching kernels of truth and spinning around them like Catherine wheels. Every fear a sparkler, every anguish a Roman candle, every explosion ringing in my aching skull.
My director sent me home from work on Tuesday. I haven’t been back since.
As a library worker, I have the honour—and responsibility—of serving the public. Most of my work is done behind the scenes, but I also undertake reference desk shifts even though my job doesn’t require it. Usually I enjoy these shifts, but the sheer thought of being in a public space at the moment, much less working in one, fills me with inescapable dread. My front-of-house colleagues should not be expected to risk their health at work. We’re not medical professionals. We swore no oath.
I strongly believe all public-facing library services, including those at public, academic and school libraries, should be suspended immediately in the interests of public health. By staying open, a library sends an implicit message that it is still okay for people and students to meet and congregate. That library also risks becoming a disease vector and a breeding ground for serious illness. This should be a library’s only consideration. The harm that staying open could do to our communities right now is greater than the help (computers, bathrooms, reference services) we would usually provide. Surely no library wants to be known as a COVID-19 transmission site.
For me this is a simple decision, grounded in harm minimisation principles and an ethic of care. But I’m not a library manager, and it is evident many libraries still believe they can do both (hint: they can’t). At the time of writing my library remains open, though I suspect that won’t hold much longer, even as the decision to close is not ours to make.
The (American) Medical Library Association issued a powerful statement in support of libraries and library workers, including the crucial sentence: “[T]he MLA Board advocates that organizations close their physical library spaces, enable library staff to work remotely, and continue to pay hourly staff who are unable to work from home.” The American Library Association, after considerable pressure from its members, finally made a similar (if more reticent) statement urging libraries to close: “[W]e urge library administrators, local boards, and governments to close library facilities until such time as library workers and our communities are no longer at risk of contracting or spreading the COVID-19 coronavirus.” And Libraries Connected in the UK (formerly the Society of Chief Librarians) this week came to a similar conclusion: “it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that library buildings should close to protect communities and staff from infection.”
ALIA have so far scrupulously avoided taking a public stance on the issue, instead choosing to remain neutral and create a libguide. While they ‘[support] the decision of organisations to close libraries at their discretion to mitigate risks associated with COVID-19’, they stop short of openly calling for library closures. On Wednesday I finally snapped at ALIA on Twitter, unable to comprehend such an absence of leadership, and imploring the Board to take a stand for the health and safety of library workers and patrons. ALIA consequently released a poster on ‘staying safe in the library’, assuming that libraries would—or should—remain open. It’s fair to say I didn’t respond well to this news.
This is how our library association responds to a pandemic. A poster. Predicated on libraries staying open.
I have never been so ashamed to be an ALIA member. We need leadership. We need public safety. We need library closures. And instead we get this.
I don’t know why I keep looking to ALIA to demonstrate leadership in the Australian library sector. I don’t know why I hope they will stand up for library workers. I don’t know why I think they will change. The ALIA Board’s statement of Friday 20 March gave the distinct impression they would prefer libraries stayed open. I was very pleased with the result of the recent Board elections, though the Directors-elect won’t take their seats until May, but I’m not sure I can bring myself to keep supporting an organisation that consistently refuses to support its members. My membership is coincidentally up for renewal, as it is every February; I’m currently too broke to pay it in any case, but I really wonder if this is the final straw. Everyone is reconsidering their priorities right now. I wish this wasn’t one of them.
I had expected to spend this weekend preparing to move to Melbourne. My house is full of half-packed moving boxes. I’ve barely unpacked my rucksack from last weekend. I had one foot out the door and one eye on the promised Yarra and now, for now, it’s all gone. It is a crushing disappointment. But I also recognise that in these extraordinary circumstances I am very, very lucky. I still have a permanent job, access to sick leave, supportive managers, a roof over my head, and soup in the cupboard. Many among us, including casual library workers, may now have few to none of those things. Now is the time for solidarity, not selfishness.
I live near a fire and ambulance station. I frequently hear sirens in the distance at all hours. But late at night the fire engines and ambulances often mute their sirens as they pass the flats, in an effort to avoid waking people.
This week has felt as if this country was waiting for the sirens’ call, watching as case numbers rose exponentially, wondering when to make extraordinary decisions that now seem less drastic with each passing day. We had the luxury of hearing the sirens coming. We’ve all seen what happened in Wuhan, China; what is currently happening in northern Italy; and what will surely soon happen in the United States. Yet the virus approached this country like ambulances approach my flat at two in the morning: quietly, then all at once. And we were not prepared.
In the last few hours several states and territories have announced the shutdown of non-essential services, including cafes, restaurants and bars. I sincerely hope this will include public-facing library services. Libraries are an important public space—but not, in these times, an essential one. We owe it to our patrons to not get them sick.
The concert was pretty good, by the way. Bernard Sumner’s vocals aren’t what they used to be, and some will swear it’s not the same without Peter Hook, but the music was quite enjoyable. New Order were the first band I ever saw live. I hope they won’t be the last.
As the crowd made to leave, another song began to play. Another band. Another time.
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
It’s the end of the world as we know it
And I feel fine
It’s the end of the world as we know it
(It’s time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it
(It’s time I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it
(It’s time I had some time alone)
And I feel fine