Late last month, UVA had to put Clemons Library in time out for bad behavior. The university shut down its largest study area for two hours, in an attempt to air the place out after staff noticed that just 75 percent of students were wearing face coverings. Then, four days later, the same thing happened, this time with 9 percent of students disobeying the requirement that they wear masks in indoor common spaces.
The situation in the libraries has left library employees worried about the health and safety of students and staff.
“Indoor spaces are the least safe spaces regarding coronavirus and transmission,” says one full-time library employee, who wishes to remain anonymous. “We knew there would still be risk, and we knew people would break the rules.”
While library staff have taken a range of precautions, such as spacing out furniture, visitors can still come in close contact with each other, he says.
Working in person is technically voluntary, but library staff have felt pressure from the dean of libraries and the rest of the UVA administration to show up.
“I have more colleagues now who are working in person, who don’t have the luxury to work from home, [who] are full of fear and anxiety, fearing for their potential job security,” he says. And with the libraries already understaffed due to a hiring freeze, “they are stretching us very thin.”
“What’s worse is that there’s no transparency,” he adds.“Staff are not being told how many times we would go through this…before UVA would even question libraries being open anymore.”
UVA Libraries communications director Elyse Girard says that if the university ever moves into its “short-term restricted operations” phase, which would implement a set of additional restrictions, library spaces could be closed to the public. And while materials would be available for contactless pickup, all other services would be moved online.
There is currently no specific threshold that would move the university into this phase.
Every hour, an employee—often a student—walks around the library and records how many people are wearing face coverings. If compliance is less than 95 percent, a warning is issued over the intercom. And if that number does not rise to at least 95 percent after several more checks and warnings, the library closes for two hours.
One student says the plexiglass shield at the front desk, where she sits during most of her shift at Clemons, helps her to feel comfortable working in person. However, she is occasionally required to do mask checks, which she says have caused her stress and anxiety.
During her shift last weekend, she says Clemons almost had to shut down when a group of students inside of a study room would not put their masks back on—even after she gave a warning over the intercom.
Though employees are not required to approach individuals who aren’t wearing a face covering, another student worker, whose shift was scheduled to start, spoke with the group directly, in order to avoid another closure.
“It’s pretty frustrating seeing people [not complying], especially since we have signs everywhere and make announcements on the intercom pretty often. People for some reason think that they’re an exception,” she says. “I don’t really feel unsafe in my job…but I’ve also never been there when we had to shut down.”
“Students in Clemons have sort of figured out the routine and how the library workers are counting,” explains another full-time library employee who also wished to remain anonymous. “So they’re taking their masks off and putting them back on when they see a librarian coming to count…Most students are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, but there’s [usually] a couple who are not.”
“In an ideal world, the university wouldn’t have come back and tried to have people on Grounds at all this semester,” she adds. “I’m hoping that looking towards the spring semester, there are ways that…maybe there are fewer students on Grounds, and we can have fewer—or no—library spaces open.”
In mid-September, United Campus Workers of Virginia at UVA also published an open letter demanding the libraries be shut down, and all employees—including students—be allowed to work remotely.
“We’ve spent decades and millions of dollars buying electronic materials, books, journals, and other databases,” explains the first employee, who is in favor of closing the libraries. “And we provide virtual reference services.”
But for the student worker, shutting down the libraries could put her out of a much-needed campus job. “I’m not on work study,” she says. “A lot of student workers rely on the libraries being open.”
When asked about safety at the libraries, Girard emphasized that the university aims to “keep students and the UVA community as safe as possible” by complying with social-distancing guidelines, as well as the mask mandate.
To ensure that face coverings are not removed—unless a person is alone in a private space—food and drink are not allowed in the libraries, she added.
Down between the shelves, however, “people are feeling rather expendable and sacrificial,” says the first employee.