The week of March 16th proved to be unlike any other in my working career. Normally changes in large bureaucratic organizations occur over weeks, months, even years, yet the rapidity with which new directives rolled-out proved stunning. By that Friday, I was packing up needed files, paperwork, and other material to begin working from home as my position rating changed from the “essential” category to the decidedly “non-essential.” Would this be a temporary thing? No one could say with any certainty. I have worked in jobs during leadership transitions, labor contract strife, desk audits, furloughs and lay-offs, and in temporary positions – all very tenuous periods in my career and this began to feel just as unsettling.
The library, archive, and museum world is a small, tight, cooperative community, and that is no different here in the borderlands. As the virus began to take hold in New Mexico, communication between institutions regarding how they were responding to the pandemic took place informally. When we heard the Thomas Branigan Memorial Library, the main branch of the city library, had closed its doors on Tuesday, March 17th, we knew that would impact operations at the two NMSU Libraries, Zuhl and Branson. With no other options, the public might head to campus for help with accessing information, to connect online through computer terminals, and to access WIFI. Under normal circumstances, that would be welcomed as our land grant status dictates that we respond to the educational needs of all New Mexicans. During the first NMSU virtual town hall the following day, University President John Floros stated that while the university would not close, as there were still students living on campus needing services, access to most buildings would begin to be restricted the following morning in order to assist with the inevitable contact tracing that might need to take place. If, and when, the infection came to campus, leadership and health officials wanted to know where it had been and respond appropriately. He further stated that in following state guidelines, certain buildings would close per health orders, and that employees needed to begin working from home to help minimize everyone’s presence on campus.
Effective Thursday, the 19th, other than to the campus community, the library doors would close to the public. Archives and Special Collections (ASC) had transitioned to operating by appointment only, so it was easy to deal with the few inquiries we received during this period. For our colleagues in Access Services, the proverbial face of the library, a new set of procedures had to be put in place. New signage directed patrons to keep appropriate social distancing, sanitization of surfaces was stepped-up, and for at least one day, university ID’s were checked and scanned to allow for admittance and to track access. While in the archive we ask our patrons to register, a standard procedure based on the unique and valuable material under our care, this was the first time in my career I’ve seen the general university library be so restrictive. Having directly communicated with the Access Services staff and student employees, I knew serving as gatekeepers was a very awkward position to find themselves. This “new normal” happened so fast that procedures changed rapidly as previously unknown scenarios played out in real time. I did witness one awkward encounter where a member of the public was denied admission after first asking to use a computer terminal and then to use the restroom. Mercifully, by Friday, March 20th, Branson Library closed its doors, although Zuhl Library moved ahead with reduced hours and limiting access to 10 people at a time to the first floor only. Even those changes in operations would not last through the following week.
During this early period, much of the uncertainty of how to respond to the pandemic had to do with little available hard data regarding the infectiousness and severity of the newly emerged coronavirus. Many of my conversations with colleagues revolved around trying to find accessible, peer-reviewed, actionable data – something we information professionals pride ourselves in tracking down – to provide to the campus community, the general public, and our own desire to be educated on the subject. Some online sources I discovered were data mining to provide readers overviews of the pandemic, such as here, here, and here, but I hoped to find broader context for what the numbers meant. I began to worry about friends and family, and their susceptibility to this emerging disease. One report I read that week certainly grabbed my attention. Released on March 16th, the Imperial College (UK) COVID-19 Response Team’s Report 9: Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID-19 mortality and healthcare demand indicated that, “in an unmitigated epidemic, we would predict approximately 510,000 deaths in GB and 2.2 million in the US, not accounting for the potential negative effects of health systems being overwhelmed on mortality.” This report, coupled with the media reports of the overextended Italian healthcare system and resulting mounting death toll, provided truly sobering thoughts on the probable future.
In a small way, the effects of the pandemic had already been felt in the library. A library coworker had recently returned from an overseas vacation and was asked to quarantine for 14 days before returning to work. While visiting family, they had monitored the spread of COVID-19 and felt prompted to return home earlier than planned, a smart move. On the evening of Monday, the 16th I visited my coworker at an appropriate distance, I sitting in a camping chair out in their yard, and they inside their enclosed porch. We discussed their trip and the changes taking place at the university in regards to the pandemic. This visit foreshadowed how our conduct during social interaction would soon become the norm.
As the university leadership began to determine staffing levels, with many already having begun to work from home, in the ASC Department two were deemed essential to remain onsite – the department head and myself. Yet by Thursday we were both told that would be our last day in Branson Library as the university wanted as few people on campus as possible. I had a couple of hours to button up department workspaces and gather materials I might need when working from home. Boxing up office files and making several trips to my car, along with discussing work plans with my supervisor, felt a little surreal. After all, we are creatures of habit and routines guide our daily lives. The patterns of our social interactions provide comfort and stability. I will admit it was hard that afternoon turning out the lights in the archives. It is not only the uncertainty of what might come next, but also the loss of comradery in the department and the sense of purpose that guided our work. I knew this was a first for all of us, but could not help but think when 8 a.m. came the next morning, it will be strange to still be in my apartment, logging into the NMSU servers on my personal PC, and communicating with my colleagues and students at a distance.
Amidst the uncertainty at work, a conversation with my colleague Teddie Moreno sparked an idea. Having worked on a prior reference request that dealt with the Influenza Pandemic of 1918, she thought that doubtlessly in the future people would be similarly interested in COVID-19. I thought it was certainly an idea to consider but in the midst of all the changes, it slipped my mind. She came back to the idea and pushed for ASC to do something to document the moment. I was not sure how we would do it, but in the coming weeks it would become a project to which I would devote much of my time. Thus, from the pandemic, came one of our departmental initiatives during our time working from home.
The workweek closed on Friday afternoon when the New Mexico Department of Health announced the first known positive case in Doña Ana County, a male in his 20s. A new, unwelcome neighbor if there ever was one had arrived.