In deciding to keep its library buildings closed, Cambridge chose safety for staff and residents
The last time the board of the Cambridge Public Library Staff Association wrote a letter to the Cambridge Day was March 13, 2020, pleading with the city to close the libraries due to the looming Covid-19 pandemic. In the 15 months since, the CPLSA and all of its members have been diligently hard at work for the library, though much of this work has not been visible to the public eye.
While many libraries around the state and country faced having to layoff or furlough staff, the Cambridge Public Library was able to pay all of its staff throughout the pandemic, with all staff returning to working full schedules in May 2020. Part of this work, and perhaps the most visible, was contactless pickup. This service required much behind-the-scenes work for it to successfully roll out in the seemingly small-scaled and simple manner that it did. Even so, this resulted in some library locations lending out thousands more items per month than in pre-Covid times, despite limited hours. Association members got creative and found ways for patrons to “browse” for materials through windows and doors. We were told by countless people, especially parents with young children, that this service was “lifesaving.” In addition to contactless pickup and Zoom programming, library staff visited public housing developments, temporary homeless shelters, free lunch sites and food pantries to distribute thousands of free books to those most affected by the pandemic as well as the closings of physical library spaces. Association members engaged in virtual visits and story times with remote classrooms, many made up largely of low-income and BIPOC children. The library lent out hundreds of laptops and hotspots to English to Speakers of Other Languages students and to the general community. Association members who were unable to work in person due to health or child care restraints lent their labor to the city’s Remote Call Center, answering Covid-19 questions, booking testing appointments and conveying negative test results.
But could we have been doing more? Should the library have opened earlier? To answer the question – why does a well-resourced city keep its libraries closed while less-resourced cities have opened theirs, and when businesses such as bars and casinos are open – one need only look at the question itself. Businesses have suffered great financial losses during the pandemic and to stay afloat had no choice but to reopen, regardless of safety concerns. The City of Cambridge has been in a unique position because of its resources. Rather than rushing to reopen in-person services, which would put residents and city employees alike in harm’s way, the city chose to wait and be safe. During a global pandemic, the city chose safety first. As the Association board, we feel that the city and the library had the interests of the employees and residents of the city at heart throughout the entire pandemic. They viewed the library staff as humans whose safety was their concern. Everything we were permitted or not permitted to do and all of our particular procedures, including a brief closing of all city buildings due to staff Covid cases, were at the approval and decision of the City of Cambridge’s award-winning Public Health Department. Each decision was well-organized and based on logic and science.
That said, as Covid rates decrease and vaccination rates increase, we are excited to welcome back the public to our buildings in stages. We have missed you all and look forward to seeing you in person. The incremental aspect of the return has to do in part with changing the interior setup of the libraries to accommodate patrons once again, as well as bringing staff back on site, many of whom still fall under the city’s remote work policy (set to expire June 30) due to health or child care circumstances. The library does not run itself. It is run by the staff. We are human beings who have been working very hard for the past 15 months to provide as much service to the people of Cambridge as we can, while at the same time balancing work, family, health and safety. Many of us are not yet fully vaccinated because, despite much advocacy, Gov. Charlie Baker did not deem library workers to be “essential,” so most Association members were not eligible to be vaccinated until April 19.
So when comparing CPL with other libraries and businesses, perhaps it is better to ask “What can we do to ensure that all workers have access to strong unions and supportive leadership so that they can stay safe, healthy, and protected all of the time?”
Liz Danner, Michael Roberson, Clara Hendricks, Anne Crockett, Amanda Gazin, Emily Meyer, Hill Saxton and Jimmy Smick, the executive board of the Cambridge Public Library Staff Association
Views expressed are those of the authors and do not represent the opinions of the Cambridge Public Library or any other entity.