It’s cliche to say I didn’t realize the fall of 2019 would be my only “normal” Olin semester to date, but it’s true. I started my job at Olin in July of that year. The first day I rode my bike to work, I got a flat tire about six miles from campus, but a fellow commuter showed up out of the blue, gave me a spare tube, and helped me make it on my way. That week, Summer Sketch Model was happening, and the library was full of people both from campus and beyond. I marveled at how different this new job was from my last one in a busy system of public libraries less than ten miles away, and not just because there was free lunch. At the public libraries, I only knew the names of a handful of our regulars. It allowed for a sort of shallow memory that made it easy to empty out the contents of my brain at the end of a given day and make room for a new crop of strangers on the next one. At Olin, I didn’t know who anyone was, but I knew being successful at the job required quickly figuring it out. And there was not only a cast; there was also a script, a shared language with tons of jargon. I furiously took notes at an early orientation session where somebody patiently explained the most frequently used acronyms on campus. A few days later, I chuckled when I heard our pop-up campus coffee shop was called “ACRONYM.”
That semester, I tried to make sense of the priorities for myself and the library while also grasping a better lay of the land. I took advantage of the course visitation program; that let me pop my head into classes offered at the time. I think most people in those classes were probably like, “who’s this lady with the unicorn hair?”, which is fine. I was included in a new faculty orientation pod, which helped me feel like I wasn’t alone in thinking of “The Raven” every time anyone said “POE.” I also conducted a community-driven strategic planning process that helped me put most of my assumptions aside and confirmed a few of the smarter ones, and also gave me much greater insight into the unique role the library plays on Olin’s campus. From September to December, we saw thousands of footfalls every week – library workers love to measure those entrances and exits – and it ticked up throughout the semester. We hosted everything from geodesic dome building to community breakfasts to guest speakers to final presentations. But what I liked the best were our casual gatherings, whether impromptu or part of an event, when we’d talk about anything, everything, and nothing. We made sense of the world in the library, whether we were seeking greater understanding or just trying to make each other laugh.
I won’t say it was a hard decision to close the library from March 2020 to May 2021. It wasn’t. We had the institutional support to do it (thanks, y’all). Over this past winter break period with cases spiking around the country, it didn’t seem appropriate to change our course. In the early days, when no one knew a thing about COVID, a huge amount of attention was placed on potential surface transmission. That was particularly the case in libraries, where the paranoia was kicked up by a series of talks and studies that meant well but led us to think we were all doomed. With a small staff and a very tactile work environment, it seemed impossible to find a way to keep up with quarantining and cleaning expectations, so we opted to move ourselves as much as we could online. I also was very concerned about the safety concerns spreading throughout the library field, especially given that most state-level guidance chose to pretend libraries don’t exist (or that, as one Johns Hopkins paper suggested last summer, libraries are “low risk,” even though the entire deal with libraries is you touch things other people can touch and you spend a ton of time breathing the same air as people you’ve never seen in your life and probably never will again). So we closed when the college did, and we decided to stay closed for this entire academic year.
Now, as we get ready to dip a toe into something resembling “normalcy” on campus, I find myself thinking about the folks who’ve told me their ability to socialize has diminished throughout the pandemic. I don’t know if I’m in that boat (I’m always awkward, so what’s a year of isolation gonna do?), but I’m not sure I remember how the fall of 2019 felt, either. And I’m cautious. I’m fully vaccinated, but I’ve still only gone to a restaurant in the Boston area once since March 2020. (It was Semolina in Medford – that place rules.) We’ve got a long way to go before we can even approximate what we were doing two years ago. I don’t think the before times are gone, but some of them have started to fade. I’m still new at Olin, though, and I’m still learning how to be a part of this place, and I’m trying to remember my glimpses of what it felt like in here before no one was around. One of my favorite memories of that time was when the library rats started showing up. There was one, and then there were dozens, and if you’re a first year or a new employee, you may have no clue what I’m talking about, but you will soon. (I feel an obligation to end this paragraph with “don’t worry, they aren’t actual rats.”)
This academic year has been tremendously hard, and we’re almost to the end of it. There were so many days when I wished we could be open like before, gathered around in a circle, sharing snacks and stories, finding a way to push through like we did on the day we found out we were all being sent home, eating Wegmans cake. One staff member said to me recently that they wouldn’t feel things were “normal” until they saw the library’s front doors opened. I can’t guarantee normalcy, but I do hope one thing that will help us soon in the future is the ability to return to a place where we can all come and process the world together, no matter how silly, tiresome, or abnormal it gets. I’ll prop the doors for you.