We are all in this together – a crucial time for information professionals in the next normal

The last few months has been very intense in our personal lives but also in our professional lives. For most libraries and information services, it has been a time for us to close our physical spaces and switch completely to digital services. We have not been closed behind the scenes – we are diligently working to re-open libraries like many other sectors with physical spaces.   For example, I have seen NHS libraries still operating in providing critical information and evidence in this very challenging and critical time in essential services. We certainly owe them for the great work they are doing as medical practitioners. I have noticed most other libraries I have seen also emphasize that they have always remained open since Coronavirus COVID-19 disrupted our global lives. I have decided to dedicate this month to looking how this has affected me in a professional capacity as it has been unavoidable for me not to think of work, libraries and the whole process of initially shutting down very quickly to… gradually opening up libraries and information services again. It really is an extraordinary experience.

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It has been four months since our official full time working from home, and initially, it was difficult to switch to all virtual and digital services. However, in the last couple of months, I actually got into a pattern of my working from home during the day, with fitting in some exercise, errands as well as family time. I was able to do some of the digital things I have been hoping for a long time, in terms of using more digital platforms and working from home tools – it has also made me super…super…busy. I am very much ‘living and breathing’ video conferencing for everything! This includes my local book club, social events and even family catch up. I haven’t been keep track of the many Zoom meetings I have attended but they have been intense for adjusting our current services, plans on reopening the physical and special resources, giving business information and advice as well as providing the face to face sharing of ideas, information and knowledge.

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We have also had to focus on Black Lives Matter as a very urgent issue. I will remember this time too for the Black Lives Matter and how it is being discussed with a new hope for genuine change within the library and library profession.

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I was also able to join a great chat up on a SLA’s Virtual Mocktails, Cocktails hangout – which was great for talking about visiting other countries, the social and cultural impact of drinks such as beer, bourbon and gin! Obviously an alcoholic drink was not compulsory for attending and it was nice to see persons I have met on my trip to New Orleans in 2019, and who I hope to meet in the future! It also made me realise – just like in my professional capacity – I will see and meet people virtually but may never meet them in real life. I still correspond with a contact in Singapore for over 25 years although I have never met her in real life.

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This really has given us the opportunity to create the digital transformation that we all wanted but never had the time or the resources to do. It has made me remember the time when I work for a global accountancy firm but even now I am learning new systems and providing different services by current technology. Since the lockdown in March, I am impressed that our wider department has implemented a new library enquiry system by Springshare called LibAnswers. I am also using Lib Chat to answer, “real live queries in the clouds”. Springshare’s slogan in their website says they are making librarians into rock stars!

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The Springshare system has lots of customer interaction and relationship features that are also used for retailers on the high street and is beneficial for global teams who are working virtually and remotely. It reminds me of chatting online with someone from the retailers Monsoon who was based in Scotland, and also when I use the ‘automated’ chat on Go-to-Webinar when I need to clarify my queries or my curiosity! These are some of the new skills that we are all learning or refining in a truly digital space. Just like retailers, gyms, cinemas, restaurants and all physical spaces – we are communicating with our customers virtually but it is likely that we are going to reopen more of our physical spaces with new safety measures, social distancing, clear signage and new ways in the ‘next normal’.

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I have only seen my local library reopen but have not been inside although we have a project with local libraries virtually in Covid-19. They are also offering a reduced service in my local branch but their current campaign is hashtag #ALLTogetherNowWF. It is ironic that I am seeing more little free libraries than local libraries in my walks. In the last few months, I have interacted and met 1000s of customers and library patrons without leaving my home! That is phenomenal.

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This a time to really learn from each other and I am really developing at a very accelerated speed in the last few months. I was asked to moderate the fabulous inaugural ‘Info Trends’ for SLA with Eugene Guidice – who is great at chatting, sharing his knowledge and making you feel at ease. We haven’t met in person but we already seem to get on great! I learnt so much from the presenters, the new virtual conference format was on the Remo platform, and it really was mind-blowing hearing of the new technological trends in the sector being used such as virtual reality, chatbots, AI, Fab Labs, search developments, social media for research etc. In hindsight, it was a great honour to participate on this global and high level at a virtual conference, and to represent SLA Europe, my current employers and the libraries and information profession here in the UK. It really was a highlight of the last few weeks and I am very pleased I was asked to take part. I will try to attend the Info Trends event next time too! I wanted to also say a special thanks to Tara Murray, Diana Shapiro, Eugene Guidice and all the SLA headquarters for the opportunity.

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And again, I was pleased to be asked by Tara, co-present with Eugene, for the Madhya Pradesh Library Association in India. I knew some of our hosts from SLA Connect virtually, and it was really nice to make new contact with professionals in South Asia. I also had to present on the very topical and important topic of ‘Libraries and Librarianship in times of Crisis: Covid-19 and Beyond’, and this was some initial finding on the bigger project I am working on as the Chair of the Task Force on Reopening Specialised Libraries. I found the session exhilarating and personally good for my development on a very pertinent topic to a very large and diverse audience. Apparently, there were about 1000 professionals registered, and they were really pleased and appreciative of our work. It was the first time I used Webex by Cisco, and made lots of notes from Eugene and Tara as we spoke for 1.5hours. My team do a lot of public speaking in our roles at the British Library but this event is really special as it took me back to my roots in India as a descendant of Indian indentured labourers to the Caribbean. My family was really happy for me, especially my mother. I hope these links made will be used again in the future for sharing insights and collaborating on professionals issues.

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Due to COVID-19, I was unable to give a Presidential talk and presentations in-person at both the SLA Conference in Charlotte USA, neither the flagship SLA Europe summer soiree and networking event. We have still put on great new and topical virtual events, which have been reactive to the current situation ranging from Mindfulness, Business Research, Mind-mapping to using Data and Insights for recovery in Covid-19.

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This year SLA has moved conferences for 2020 and 2021 to virtual events, so I am not likely to go to my first SLA Conference until 2022. I know virtual conferences are better for the environment and stretched finances, but I hope I do make it one day to meet some of the fabulous people I got to know over 15plus years. I am usually very active in SLA Europe and love going to their events, so hopefully sometime in the future we can go back to hosting events that are safe and socially appropriate. These are some of the reasons why networking in real life and person-to-person contact are still essential and part of what makes us human. I do advocate for us working together virtually but also for conferring in person to make human connections with shared missions by being in a physical space together.

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I thank my fellow volunteers at SLA Europe who give up time freely to do this in their own time and go out of their way to support the organisation, come up with great events and ideas on how we can support each other and the wider profession. We inspire and learn from each other – I would be lost without being part of this great professional community over the years!

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One of the biggest honour and tasks I have been given by Tara and the SLA Board is to chair the Task Force on Reopening Specialized Libraries. This topic is HUGE! Working as a library and information professional during Covid-19 really is hopefully a once in a lifetime experience in crisis management. It should also be a great opportunity to learn from little and large organisation, local and global libraries on how we can take the next steps in providing services to our stakeholders and customers in a global pandemic. I have since been in touch virtually with other task force members (two members I met the New Orleans Leadership Symposium 2019) and others only recently virtually. It is very interesting, developing as we speak, creating some brilliant collaborative learning, exchange of insights and knowledgeable ideas on reopening as best practices and guidance.

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Remember this is a global pandemic and has affected everyone we know, everywhere! It is very interesting learning, seeing and reading how libraries have responded everywhere. I have seen and learnt about libraries and information services, systems, processes, challenges opportunities and staff and customers safety and well-being issues that we are facing at this time. Yes, we are making full use of digital and virtual technology, but it is interesting to see how much people also want and need physical collections, spaces and our human in-person services.   You might understand and see the re-opening synergies with the way we react to retailers and hospitality in the pandemic.   The Living Knowledge Network has also hosted great webinars from public libraries in Denmark, who are a little ahead of us and Christian Lauersen is a superstar! Their talks have been great at inspiring as well as motivating me to keep on track of these necessary, and heart-warming services we provide to citizens near and far.

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So this is definitely a challenging, busy…as well as an exciting time. It is certainly right up there with unexpected changes, crisis and preparedness such as the launch of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, the Millennium Bug crashing our Library Management System, working from home due to terrorism or riots, social media introduction in our lives, and other unique watershed moments in the library and information world. I said this in my presentation to Madhya Pradesh Library Association but I have since seen it repeat by others…and we truly are in this together.

 

 

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