During my morning shift at the Batavia Public Library of Illinois on March 12, 2020, the library director, George H. Sheetz, offers me a piece of chocolate from a variety box. The chocolates are open, uncovered except for their little cupped paper beds. Another employee jokes, “Uh-oh, we probably shouldn’t be sharing food right now. Maybe I should wash my hands first?”
George says, “I don’t think we’ll have to worry about the virus.”
I take a chocolate, comment on the cute St. Patrick’s Day decoration, and pop it in my mouth. I fall silent, but inside my head, I am screaming. At the time, I can’t quite connect my thoughts with actions, can’t convince myself to react in a way that isn’t business as usual. Unfortunately, that space—that frozen moment between clinging to the past and accepting the new normal—is becoming increasingly deadly.
Of course, it’s easy to say this in retrospect: to act like a hero, like I knew everything. The reality is a little more complicated because, as an Appalachian, I’m prone to self-aggrandizing exaggeration. But I’ve also been a revolutionary socialist since middle school, which means that whenever a boss states anything with authority, I do tend to call bullshit. So, what’s the truth? Perhaps the more important question is, what do I actually remember?
Rewind: at the beginning of January 2020, I attended a dinner for a coworker and stated (quite honestly) that working as a tech/reference assistant and substitute page at the Batavia Public Library was the best job I’d ever had.
Fast forward: on the morning of May 20, 2020, during a telehealth session, my therapist said, “You’re done with this job. I can sense that from you right now.”
“You’re right,” I said, depression-hunched in a black hoodie, “but it’s scary.”
This is the story of the five-month progression from one reality to the other. The story of why I quit my public library job during the COVID-19 pandemic. And, due to my severe social anxiety, it’s also the story of how I did most of this drunk.
The library is already slammed during the second week of March 2020. The local St. Charles Public Library is in the process of moving, so we have all their holds, and I have all their patrons in the computer lab. Add the Geneva Public Library’s computer system going down, and you get a clusterfuck. On March 11, we sign twenty-nine non-cardholders into computers. The previous week’s number, for comparison? Only eight. I am so stressed I skip roller derby practice after work that week. I am so stressed I make a Facebook post, urging library patrons to be patient. I am so stressed I fill my water bottle with alcoholic still water and drink on the job.
In this middle of all this, we get the first positive COVID-19 case in the county. When I arrive at work, I start making rounds of all the departments, informing staff about the latest virus updates. Patrons expect us, as information professionals, to have the correct sources. To know the truth.
Late in the workday on Friday, March 13, we get an email from our human resources manager, containing woefully inadequate safety protocols—extra cleaning measures, extra distancing of chairs, fake, peppy “we care” rhetoric. Now, we’re starting to see community responses: the schools are shutting down, the parks, other local libraries. Soon after the email goes out, staff across all departments (including myself) start responding, sending dozens and dozens of messages from that night until midday Saturday, pleading that we close to the public, urging management to take this more seriously, asking legitimate questions, offering completely viable alternatives. We get no response.
On Saturday, March 14, I am absolutely terrified to go to work. Like, panic-attack terrified. I stop by the local farmer’s market in the morning and walk by the library parking lot: it’s chock-full of cars. I drink a mimosa at the market to attempt to calm my nerves, the concoction colored sickly green for the upcoming holiday. So, yes: I have a bad habit of drinking before—or on—the job to mitigate social anxiety, a mental crutch that I take great pains to hide from my coworkers. Welcome to America, where it’s easier to get booze than a psychiatrist. A woman sitting at the farmer’s market bar to my left, typing on a laptop, is already wearing a mask. I go back to my apartment, and I’m really starting to freak out. I slam a shot of brandy, turn to my partner, and say, “Okay, I guess I’m going to shut down the library.” As someone with labor organizing experience, I fear I’m the most qualified shit-starter for the job. When I arrive for my shift, I realize that I forgot my key fob. Like a dumbass.
To say that the situation at the library is chaos is honestly an understatement. Circulation staff have to sanitize every returned item, and they’re struggling to keep up with the sheer volume of returns. I’m told that George Sheetz didn’t even show up until 11 a.m. (We opened to the public at 9 a.m.) When I arrive, one of my coworkers is on the phone with a manager; the manager contacted Jo Ann Smith, the president of the library board, and demanded she come and shut down the library because George wouldn’t make a decision. There’s serious talk of getting a lawyer involved.
I shove on a pair of latex gloves and start looking at the department schedules. I tell my coworkers I’m going to organize a sickout for everyone’s safety and together we begin compiling a list of everyone who’s scheduled to work the next day.
I walk around and gauge the tenor of various employees. The children’s librarians downstairs are livid, especially because they asked George to cancel the Friends of the Library book sale, and he didn’t. The majority of our Friends volunteers are senior citizens in the vulnerable population. (Later, during a board meeting after the closure, George would nauseatingly read a message from the Friends, thanking him for closing the library, as if he cared about their safety at all.) The adult librarians at the reference desk are irritated because no one’s informing them about what’s going on, so they can’t adequately answer patron questions about how long we’ll remain open. One of them also informs me that she’s not confrontational enough to speak out against our boss. Luckily, I’m buzzed enough to not combat this classic bit of Midwesternism, although in my head I’m thinking, none of us will be confrontational if we’re all dead. The circulation employees are filling up bins to the brim with books. Some of them don’t take a single break during an eight-hour shift. A majority support a sickout.
After meeting with board members, George comes out to talk to the circ staff about management’s decisions. He totally dismisses our concerns, says we’re overreacting, and announces that we won’t close to the public. Instead, the decision will be tabled until Monday. I look across the room at one of my coworkers, who is almost in tears, and mouth: “I’m not going to listen to this shit.” I leave the room, red-faced, and send an email about the sickout.
Our circulation manager comes in, and I talk with her and another employee in her office, explaining that the staff does not want to come to work tomorrow if we remain open to the public. George is back in a meeting with the board. Boldly, our young circ manager—a new hire—interrupts the meeting to inform them of our sickout plans. This pressure helps force management to close to the public as of 5 p.m. The reference librarians at the adult services desk aren’t even informed until close to 4 p.m., and I need to quickly start preparing the book drops for closure with hardly any notice. For the last hour, we’re slammed with people: long lines at every circ clerk’s station and at the self-checkout machine, so many people in the stacks that it’s pointless for me to try to shelve material. People are touching everything with bare hands like we’re running a Scratch-n-Sniff business, walking through every aisle with no masks, filling up huge cloth grocery bags with items.
Because I’m worried about the days ahead, I sign up for a bunch of open circ shifts; we’re already understaffed. Ironically, after the library closes to staff, I have to be paid for those shifts; this becomes a joke between my partner and I (“You did all of this just to make more money!”). Already, the sight of George is enough to trigger my fight-or-flight reaction. At the end of the day, he walks through the circ workroom, thanking everyone for working hard—as if he hadn’t been able to prevent this disaster the whole time. I hide in the adult services workroom until George leaves, and then rush out of the building, calling out behind me to my coworkers to stay safe.
We hear that staff won’t have to work on Sunday. Instead, the managers will meet to decide our fate, seemingly without staff input. Given the lack of leadership presented so far, I’m uncomfortable with this framing. Late Saturday evening, after the nightmare shift and after pounding Jim Beam to numb my nerves, I reach out to a library board member on Facebook—saying I’m the one who organized the sickout, explaining that the workday was incredibly inappropriate, and asking for a video conference call on Sunday. The board member agrees to talk with me. I decide to send out an email to the staff, informing them of my plans and asking if there’s anything they want me to say. I’m so anxious about sending this message, sweaty, nervous, panicking, drinking even more bourbon. I finally convince myself to hit send around 1:30 in the morning.
On Sunday, I invite the manager who called Jo Ann Smith onto the video conference call. We talk on the phone beforehand to agree on a set of demands: no one should have to return to the building, everyone should continue to get paid, and no one should be fired for speaking up. If these demands aren’t met, the staff will walk out on Monday. We contact different departments, make sure everyone’s on board and in the loop.
The information revealed during our meeting with the board member horrifies us: George and our deputy director aren’t taking the virus seriously and might even believe it’s a hoax; they’re letting conservative political views influence decisions about staff safety.
Library service workers, much like teachers and nurses, are unfortunately accustomed to being tasked with making up for the failures of capitalism. We give unhoused people a safe place to stay during the day because the state does not care. We provide internet access and computers to those who don’t have them because the state does not care. We teach free classes to those who can’t afford college because the state does not care. We serve as self-taught social workers for patrons undergoing mental health crises because the state does not care. We’re notaries. We’re archivists. We’re research database experts. Sometimes, we’re even begrudging babysitters for over-worked parents. People often ask us to help with their taxes (which we cannot do, although we can give you tax forms to fill out yourself).
The pandemic merely exacerbated this ongoing problem. Libraries were expected to stay open, and library service workers were expected to put their lives on the line, throwing the question of why we provide essential services into sharp relief. We’re simply one of the only public places left that you can patronize without money, a space that you can enter freely without the expectation of needing to make a purchase. Without us, a society gutted by neoliberal policies quickly crumbles. The government uses us as a safety net because they’ve taken everything else. But you’ll never catch capitalists admitting that.
The week of March 16 brings some truly bizarre revelations through email. George has taken it upon himself to send us long-winded, unhelpful missives that no one asked for on a daily basis. Staff members start to message me by the end of the week, asking how to block these emails.
On Wednesday, restrictions on taking out new material due to outstanding fines are suddenly lifted without fanfare. I’d been asking the library to ban fines for months by this time, to no avail. It’s truly fascinating how quickly things change when people beyond the poor and oppressed are affected. I know local families who are shut out of the library system completely due to fines, which has caused them serious hardship. One man in particular comes to mind, like me, a regular at a bar across the street, who’s going through a nasty divorce. I let him use the computers on my shift, despite the fact that his card is blocked, and he doesn’t talk about seeing me drinking before work, or let on that he knows what’s in the water bottle at my desk isn’t water.
George had recently gone so far as to praise late fees in a disturbing op-ed in Batavia’s local magazine Neighbors, somehow using Faulkner’s famous “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” quote to justify his claims. Considering Faulkner was discussing how the South will never overcome the legacy of slavery, and library fines disproportionately impact Black patrons, who are more likely to be impoverished due to systemic racism, this is the ideological equivalent of quoting The Communist Manifesto in support of low wages.
On Thursday, George shares some truly horrific statistics compiled by our library consortium, showing the surge in workload on the day we closed, based on user checkouts. Brace yourself: we were the second busiest location in our library system still open on Saturday, March 14. We processed 1,179 checkouts on Saturday, March 7, versus 4,550 on Saturday, March 14. That’s a 385.9% surge in checkouts—meaning more patrons in the building in danger, during a deadly pandemic. At the end of April, George would be interviewed in a Chicago Tribune article about suburban library responses to the pandemic, where he states that this was the busiest day ever at the library. Like he’s proud the library was packed to the gills when it caught fire.
By the end of March, George’s emails have gotten even more unhinged. He’s mixing doom articles about the pandemic that everyone is too upset and exhausted to read with strange reminders to brush our teeth. At one point, he acknowledges his penchant for bad news, stating, “I have an aversion to trigger warnings.” At this point, I’m absolutely beside myself: crying every day, too anxious to sleep, drinking to try to numb my depressed feelings and rapid thoughts. As someone with PTSD, George’s callousness here is one of the last straws for me. If he only knew how many times I’d hidden in the downstairs employee bathroom while having a PTSD episode on my shift, wiping away my sweat with brown paper towels, head in my hands. If he only knew how many times I’d been worried that I was working too slowly because I was having a stress-induced ocular migraine that inhibited my vision. If he only knew how I had to breathe my way out of a panic attack whenever I encountered a cop in our downstairs children’s section because I was so paranoid that a kid was going to get hurt. But he didn’t know. Because he didn’t care.
There are many things I miss about library work, or about working away from home in general. Sometimes, when I get too stressed about my writing, I walk down to the West Town branch of the Chicago Public Library, near where I’m currently living in the Ukrainian Village, and I fix out-of-place books on the shelves, even though I’m not getting paid to work there. Being surrounded by books soothes me, as does the order and quiet solitude of the stacks. It’s taken almost two years for the library to feel like a safe space for me again, and I’m glad to finally have that back.
There are many things, though, that I don’t miss. I don’t miss the low pay. I don’t miss notarizing forms for kids from the Chicago suburbs, saying they’re doing community service in Appalachia, and when I tell them that’s where I’m from, both the kids and their parents look at me with pity. I won’t miss the offensive CPR training, where our instructor kept inappropriately mentioning God, assuming all of us were Christians, and jokingly (?) telling us to trip patrons if they try to take cell phone videos of us assisting during emergencies until first responders arrived, as if activists would arbitrarily film a librarian doing their best in a moment of crisis, as though police face undue scrutiny during heroic acts. And I certainly don’t miss the way that I used to have to drink to cope with the anxiety of it all.
The week of April 20 is National Library Week, but amid all George’s emailed information about how we’d be celebrating, I found something truly upsetting: “As part of planning for the eventual reopening of the Library, we received today an order for 1,000 N95 masks.”
This is in the middle of a nationwide mask shortage. I knew nurses in the Bronx who were fighting just to get adequate PPE. A close contact of mine in Appalachia has been making masks for hospital employees; even though this isn’t proper protection, many healthcare workers where I’m from don’t have a choice. My social justice publication, The Haint, has been collaborating with the West Virginia Industrial Workers of the World, Holler Health Justice, and a local veteran’s organization to make and disseminate homemade hand sanitizer. I can’t believe that the library is just sitting on a pile of N95s, especially because we have no idea when we’d be reopening to even use them. I email my manager and library board contacts, saying we should immediately donate the masks to a hospital.
We have a virtual library board meeting on Tuesday, April 21—National Library Worker’s Day—and I’m the only employee willing to speak up publicly about the mask issue, despite multiple people messaging me about their support and concerns. Luckily, I can type my comments in the chat instead of having to speak, as I’m having a panic attack and drinking as usual. I’m so distraught that I offer to sew the staff masks myself, if it means we can get rid of the N95s. A board member responds, saying condescendingly, “Well, if this person can sew masks . . . ” I’m livid. Not only do they not know my name, but they’re acting like sewing masks is an impossible difficulty. People from my neck of the woods have been sewing for over a month now, because we weren’t given any other option. I sob at my desk as soon as the meeting ends.
On Friday April 24, George states the following in his daily email: “We announced (on April 20) the purchase of 1,000 N95 masks, which we later discovered was a misnomer. The Library’s supplier actually offers (and we ordered) KN95 masks, which are manufactured in China to slightly different specifications than N95 masks.” Turns out, the KN95s were ordered back when the pandemic started, and we haven’t even received them yet. So all my worry and concern? For nothing.
Oddities with the board continue through May. During a virtual Standing Committee on Policy meeting on Tuesday, May 5, a board member literally states that they are unsure whether our lowest-paid employees, library pages, are getting paid during the shutdown or not. I’m appalled. Wouldn’t someone invested in the library and the local community care enough to make sure everyone was still getting compensated? In a similar fashion, during a virtual Committee of the Whole meeting on Thursday, May 7, my board contact asks if contingency plans are being made in case another pandemic happens in the future. Another board member dismisses this question, saying they hope they’re dead if a virus like this comes again. My jaw literally drops.
At this point, I’m so concerned with upper management’s lack of transparency and general professionalism that I’ve started asking for items to be put on the agenda at board meetings, asking for managerial meeting minutes, asking to form a committee of employees to communicate with management, so lower-level employees have a centralized way to voice their concerns. I’m enraged that I have to do this—attempt to depoliticize the library’s structure from the bottom up on my own, because those at the very top aren’t communicating effectively.
All of this comes to a head on Tuesday, May 19, during a virtual board meeting. Earlier in the day, I’d found out that management had created a plan to reopen the library and would be submitting it to the board for approval at that evening’s meeting. This plan was put together with no input from lower-level employees. Staff members began messaging me, angry that the plan wasn’t shared with the people who would be impacted the most. Unfortunately, I am the only one willing to speak up again, which means another evening of panic attacks and drinking to psych myself up.
When the moment comes for me to share my prepared written comments during the meeting, George suddenly can’t figure out how to open the chat to everyone, despite this never being a problem in the past. I am forced to speak my comments in front of the entire board and my peers, during a panic attack, while trying to hold back tears. Of course, George and the library board president, Jo Ann Smith, use my demeanor as an excuse to gaslight me in front of the entire staff. George insists that because the board hadn’t always shared documents in the past, it made sense not to share this one—as if this situation had a precedent, or like this decision might not literally mean the life or death of his staff. Jo Ann states that it is much more difficult to open the library than close it, but as the person who had to step up and push for the library’s closure, I don’t remember the process being easy at all. When Jo Ann starts in on me in a sideways fashion, saying that some people were just impossible to please, making me out to be crazy, despite the fact that tons of staff agreed with me in private, I know I am done. When our human resources manager jumps in later, comparing quarantining to house arrest, I really know that I am done. I tell my partner that I am going to quit as soon as I sign out of the meeting.
On Tuesday, May 26, 2020, the day after Memorial Day, I submitted my resignation to the Batavia Public Library of Illinois to embark on a career as a full-time freelance writer.
Right before the library closed to the public, during the first half of March 2020, I put together a display of Books Banned in Prisons for the lobby. I spent countless hours, at work and home, pouring over state lists to assemble my titles. I bought props, using my own money, and fabricated a prison wall out of yarn and wooden dowel rods. Patrons and staff loved the display and found it thought-provoking. I’m proud of that.
One day, a middle-aged Black woman without a library card came in to use the computer. Our polices stated that I was only allowed to offer a non-patron two half-hour computer sessions. The woman seemed stressed. She was using the computer to look at some kind of confusing legal documents, and I could tell that she needed more time. I asked her what was going on. She told me that her son had been subject to an illegal search and seizure by members of the Chicago Police Department. She was trying to get him out of jail and was looking for information about the officers involved in the case, trying to file a FOIA request. She was doing this all on her own, without a lawyer.
I asked her to email me the site with the legal papers. I spent a decent amount of my shift at my desk, transferring the information to a Word document, reformatting and paginating everything, so the information would be easier for her to read and print later. She thanked me and left the library, passing my display on the way out, walking quickly without a single pause or head turn. I never saw her again.