Tuesday 28 April 2020

Grief, Anger and Loss - School Librarians and Furloughing

We are living through strange times. A worldwide pandemic, social distancing, lockdown. For many this means working from home; however there are quite a few school librarians who have been furloughed.  You might be forgiven for thinking they’d consider that’s a great idea; they can do all those projects they never had time for or they can sit and read all day.

But the reality is, for many, very different. Furloughing is temporary suspension. The problem is that nobody knows how temporary, there’s a huge unknown quantity to this situation – when will schools reopen, will this be partial, will some people still have to social distance? And this unknown element makes everything feel as though we’re in limbo, swimming through murky waters without any sense of direction. It makes it difficult to actually start any of those projects. Personally I’ve found it very hard to focus on anything that requires even a minimum level of concentration; I’ve lost count of the amount of knitting I’ve had to unpick because I’ve gone wrong and the reading I’m doing has dropped dramatically!

Furloughing can feel a bit like redundancy. I’m a freelance consultant and yes, all my outside work has been cancelled but I also work a lot from home as well as being involved with several committees so part of this feels “normal” to me. However, I have previously been made redundant and have also off sick with work-related stress and anxiety (another aspect which has a huge unknown element to it) so I know very much from a personal aspect what it can feel like to be told of a decision that requires a significant adjustment and change to your life. 

When you are told that you’re going to be furloughed yet see other staff continue to work, the immediate response is often one of shock and shame - isn’t my job worthwhile, doesn’t the work I’ve been doing for the past “however many” years count, why me, what’s going to happen to the students, to the library? So many school librarians put their heart and soul into their libraries (and note the use of the word “their” it really does become a very personal space), they work above and beyond their contracted hours supporting students and staff. They love their jobs – to most it’s more of a vocation. And being told you’re being furloughed can result in a definite loss of self-esteem.

You know that you can continue to provide a service to students and staff, you see librarians in other schools doing this – the internet is currently awash with online resources and activities created by librarians – and yet your school doesn’t want you to do this. Even though logically you tell yourself this is a business decision it still hurts. You feel guilty for being at home, doing nothing and still being paid, when others are working. You feel as though the school doesn’t value you or your work – and this has an emotional impact leading to feelings of loss, grief and isolation. 

And the big question going round in your head, the elephant in the room, is – if the school copes without a librarian or library for several weeks will they decide they can continue to do so? Will I actually have a job to go back to?

One thing that struck me when thinking about all this was that if the job was “just” about books then it would be easy to move everything online. But it isn’t and never has been. A huge part of the role is one-to-one personal interaction with students – knowing their reading habits, likes and interests so you can give them individual recommendations; taking ad-hoc opportunities to deliver digital literacy skills when they ask about resources for their work; just being there as a trusted person to talk to in a safe space. All these are hard to do remotely. And it occurred to me that perhaps the reason for some librarians being furloughed was because those making this decision have decided that the lack of students in school means this aspect of the job, the personal side, couldn't physically happen. I know there's a huge amount of things we can do to support students online not to mention the never-ending admin work but few people see that side of the job. This personal aspect is why librarians are important and why I think schools will need them when this is all over – more so than ever as there’ll be huge discrepancies in home education to balance out plus an impact on children’s and young people’s mental health and wellbeing that we’ll all need to support.

But there’s no doubt that the feelings generated by being furloughed, together with any worry about at risk or vulnerable family and friends, are creating a lot of stress and anxiety, and impacting on people’s mental health. So I would say to any librarians who have been furloughed and are struggling, the first thing you need to prioritise is your own wellbeing. Stress and anxiety result in physical reactions – they vary but can include tiredness, a lack of motivation, sleep disturbances, headaches, changes in appetite – so it’s important to maintain a programme of self-care: a healthy diet, enough sleep, exercise, continued contact with family and friends, carry on with hobbies and interests, incorporate relaxation and mindfulness into your routine. Mental Health UK has some ideas and downloadable resources that might help but a search for “wellbeing” will give you lots more.

The thing to remember if you’ve been furloughed is that while you can’t do any work directed by the school, there’s nothing to stop you undertaking self-directed CPD. This can be for personal development or to help you improve the service you deliver. An example of this is keeping up-to-date with books being published. Knowing what’s available is part of our skills as librarians. I keep lists of books on various topics with keywords and age recommendations so that when I’m asked to evaluate a collection and make recommendations to fill gaps I can do so fairly quickly. Thus there’s nothing stopping you from doing the same – so that when schools reopen, you can order new books and create new book lists. 

There’s a huge amount of CPD opportunities currently available. I won’t list them all but have a look at FutureLearn for MOOCs, investigate TED talks on the topic of library, listen to some of the 13 Must-Hear Librarian podcasts, have a look at the School Library Association website for some further ideas, read that pile of professional journals and jot down any ideas for future events and activities, investigate professional e-books you can read. Stay connected with your work colleagues – you should still be receiving school emails so that you are kept informed and up-to-date with the situation; just remember that you can’t respond to any requests for advice, etc. (and yes, I know, it’s hard not to!). Make sure you add in some leisure activities. I’m writing more letters to friends and family, and sending that physical connection helps me, I’ve added the National Theatre At Home, Cirque De Soleil and The Shows Must Go On to my viewing each week, I’ve made myself do more painting (something I’ve been promising myself for ages) instead of sitting at my desk clicking from article to article feeling like I should be doing something productive. And if you’re a member of CILIP then this is an ideal time to think about your Chartership portfolio or Revalidation. Finally, you could always think about writing up a case study for the Great School Libraries Campaign – something around a project, event or activity you do. Have a look at the website for examples and a template. 

Everyone will have different experiences and different reactions to this situation; there’s no right or wrong response. The important thing is to find what works for you and above all, stay well and stay safe.