Mary Fahndrich and Neeyati Shah

COVID-19 story by Mary Fahndrich and Neeyati Shah, 2020

Mary Fahndrich and Neeyati Shah, librarians for Central Library in Madison, Wisconsin, share their personal and work experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the impact of the pandemic and the library's resulting closure on their library work.

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  • Identifier: covid19-001
    Narrators Names: Mary Fahndrich and Neeyati Shah
    Interviewer Name:Laura Damon-Moore
    Date of interview: March 26, 2020


    [00:00:00] - Start of Interview
    [00:00:47] - Introductions
    [00:02:13] - What the first two weeks of closure were like, in terms of library work and in general
    [00:04:55] - Daily routines right now
    [00:08:12] - Personal grounding moments, finding center, staying connected
    [00:10:57] - Memorable moments in closing the Madison Public Library
    [00:15:52] - Concern for library’s most vulnerable patrons
    [00:20:19] - Final thoughts
    [00:21:24] - Recommended diversions: television, games, books, audiobooks


    Interviewer: Good morning, everyone. This is Laura Damon-Moore. It is Thursday, March 26, 2020. I am here today speaking with two of my library colleagues. I’m going to have them introduce themselves in just a moment. We really appreciate both of them taking the time today to speak with us about what library work, and their own experiences are like during Safer at Home, right now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can we have our first narrator introduce yourself, please?

    Mary Fahndrich: Sure. Good morning. My name is Mary Fahndrich and I am a community engagement librarian at Madison Public Library, Central. I work with Laura and others. We all focus on different areas at the Central library and my focus areas are working with the older adult population. That, specifically for me, means overseeing our home service program, in which we get library materials to individuals and facilities that serve older adults; specifically people who aren’t able to get out to the library on their own. And, I also coordinate social service partnerships at the Central library.

    Interviewer: Thank you. And our other narrator for today, please introduce yourself.

    Neeyati Shah: Hello, I am Neeyati Shah. I am also a community engagement librarian with Laura and Mary, at the Central library. I help plan public events and programs and outreach. I also work with community partners to determine what other services we could be providing. And then I answer questions at the reference desk, and help maintain some of the research databases that we provide. So, most of my job is public facing, as is Mary’s and Laura’s, which means that that has drastically changed in this current situation.

    Interviewer: Thank you both, so much. Neeyati, that’s kind of a good segue into our first, sort of official question for today. I would love to hear from both of you about, thinking back over just the past two weeks; what have those weeks looked like for you, in terms of both your library work, and just in terms of the broader pandemic that is, that we’re all grappling with, in one way or another right now? Mary, we’ll have you go first.

    Mary Fahndrich: Sounds good. I would say, first of all, it’s hard to believe it’s only been two weeks. It’s crazy how, (laughs) the timeline right now is completely messed up, but the thing that is most noticeable to me is we didn’t have a lot of time to plan for this closure. Normally, if you’re going away on vacation, or anticipating that you’re going to be out because you have some sort of medical, surgery, or something like that, you plan for it. But this was, I mean we saw it coming but we didn’t know for sure, and when we found out that we were closing we went from, we were opening and a bustling library to closed, within less than twenty-four hours. So, that’s probably been the biggest adjustment; just trying to scramble and prepare for—how do we notify everyone? What do we do with all of our programs that we had planned, and all of our services that we’re used to offering on a regular basis? The scramble, I would say scramble is probably the best word I can use. The last two weeks have felt like an absolute scramble.

    Interviewer: Thank you. Neeyati?

    Neeyati Shah: Yeah, I would agree. I’m only just getting my bearings even though it has been a full two weeks, or so. It definitely feels like a very clear before and after. We have, the library staff have been working this whole time, but it’s taking us, or I guess I should say me, personally, some time to adjust because this is unprecedented, and we’re having to adapt to completely different forms of service. As Mary said, it was a super quick decision to close, and it’s hard not to feel all the loose ends of canceled and postponed projects nagging at me, even though it’s totally necessary. But, I do feel lucky to have such creative and thoughtful colleagues. We’re meeting online pretty much daily to problem solve and come up with resources that we can offer to the public. We don’t want to leave anyone hanging. I know that we’ve all been thinking a lot about some of our regular library patrons; just hoping they’re okay and that they know that nothing short of a pandemic would close our doors to them.

    Interviewer: Thank you. What does your daily routine look like right now? And I know that, maybe, routine is not even the right word for it yet. But what does your day-to-day look like for both of you right now?

    Mary Fahndrich: That’s a really good way of framing it, Laura, because, right now, there is no daily routine. There’s no getting to work at 8:15 and having a normal work day and walking out the door at five o’clock. But, I think the best way for me to frame it is how it’s so different from what it normally is. I’m used to, and both of you are too, we’re used to interacting with so many members of our community everyday, and we’re not doing that anymore, in our personal lives but also at work. Normally at work, everyday, we talk to dozens of individuals, easily. We spend a lot of the time on face to face interactions, but my work, a lot of it is phone based. And that’s been the biggest change for me is I spend a lot of the day on the phone talking to people who are in the home service program; that’s the preferred mode of communication for most of them. And so, I’m used to talking on the phone all day to library customers, and I’m not doing that right now, and that is, that’s kind of crazy. But, it is, as Neeyati mentioned previously, it’s a lot of time coordinating with our colleagues. We are just doing what we can to try to get services up and running again, and continue some of our services. So it’s been a lot of this. It’s a lot of moving into different places in the house, getting on video chat, (laughs) staying up to date on email, and just trying to figure out how we can, how can we be a public library from our homes, basically.

    Interviewer: Thank you. Neeyati?

    Neeyati Shah: Yeah, I’m trying to develop a routine. I’m still sort of in that process. I am still, at least Monday through Friday, still getting going around the same time for work. We’re coming up with ways within library staff to check in with each other regularly, but, I don’t know. It is definitely very different than going into a building and being with your coworkers, and being with the public everyday, and having that, just more fluid interaction. Right now everything feels very choppy. We are trying to respond to questions online and things like that, but it’s just, we’re very aware of not being able to fulfill the role that we usually fill. I do feel like because, as Mary said, we’re trying to get everything up and running again. I do feel like five o’clock comes around pretty quickly, and I’m still working hard, but it’s just a totally different job. I am trying to check in on social media and news for community updates, also podcasts about things going on around Madison. But I’m also being mindful of taking breaks from all of it, ideally outdoors at a healthy distance, just to kind of break up the day, and make sure that I’m working, but then I’m also giving myself time at home. Well, I’m at home all day, but.

    Interviewer: Yeah, actually, to follow up on that, as far as your, sort of, personal grounding moments, if we can call them those: what does that look like for you both? Just in your neighborhood, if you’re getting outside, I don’t know, spaces that you’re finding to just find that little bit of center right now.

    Mary Fahndrich: I think, like a lot of other people in Madison and probably, actually, throughout the country, my daily meditative moment is my walk that I take everyday, or my husband and I take everyday. We call it our mental wellness walk, and we’re doing it everyday regardless of the weather, because March in Wisconsin is, let’s face it, not always the most beautiful month. Yesterday our walk was mostly in the rain, but hey! We were outside, at a safe distance from other people. But we walked by my cousin’s house, and they came out on the porch, and we chatted from across the street. That was (laughs) that was like, Yay! Human interaction! Even if we just got to see their face, and just talk to them for five minutes, that was amazing. The other big thing, of course, is what we’re doing right now, doing a ton of Facetiming with our family and friends. It’s the way that we’re staying in touch. And, normally, we would only Facetime with our nieces and nephews, with the kiddos, but right now we’re Facetiming with everyone. So that’s been, kind of, the two things for me: is getting out, getting movement, and making sure I’m staying connected with friends and family, and colleagues, and anyone that I care about really.

    Interviewer: Thank you. Neeyati?

    Neeyati Shah: Definitely the walks, trying to, I have to remind myself to get out now, especially during a work day. Normally, during a regular work day, when we’re up and running, I do get outside in the middle of the day, almost everyday, but this something I actually have to actually remember to get up and move. But it helps a lot. Also, yeah, just for me, because I, so much of this work is, well, it is virtual so it feels like I’m living in my head a little too much. So things like, I’ve just been cooking more if I can, or anything that’s hands—on I just feel that’s very grounding, otherwise I start to feel floaty and anxious and cooped up. So that’s been good, and then, like Mary said, a ton of Facetiming. I almost feel like I’m being more social (laughs) now, because people are making time for that. So, definitely getting some baby Facetime with my niece, for someone who has no idea what’s going on, that’s kind of grounding as well. Things like Netflix Party, or online board games, or whatever I can do with my friends as well, has been helpful.

    Interviewer: Yes, thank you both. So, my next question is: are there moments or images that have been particularly striking or memorable for you, in the last, you know, two weeks or so? And, if you need a little more structure around that, maybe, related, just going back to that abrupt closure, or like, the last day that the library was open. Or other, you know, certainly if there’s something else you want to mention too, but specifically related to that last day the library was open. I think both of you were there. Some of us were already working from home because schools were closed, and things like that. But, is there anything you can share with us about that?

    Mary Fahndrich: Definitely. The thing that I will probably remember the most is, we closed, we found out on Monday shortly before five o’clock that the library would be closed on Tuesday, and that didn’t, we were scrambling, as I mentioned before, so I came into the library on Tuesday morning, and there was nobody in the entire building. Well, I came across one other person, but I came in because I really wanted to make sure I that I could talk to all of my home service patrons, and let them know, “The library is closed, we don’t know when we’re reopening, but I just want to let you know that we’re not going to be able to send your next delivery of books.” People who are enrolled in the home service program get books one of three ways: they either get books by a volunteer coming and picking up books at the library and dropping them off at their house, or they get them because they live in a facility that we serve through our delivery service, or they get books through the mail. And so, I called all those individuals and facilities, and I can’t remember how many people I spoke to, but it was somewhere around a hundred people. And the things that I heard from them ranged everywhere from, they couldn’t believe what’s going on in the world, to they were scared, to they were lonely, to I don’t know what I’m going to do without my library books. And that was pretty heartbreaking for me, but it was a really, really great feeling too, to connect with people and just say “We’re thinking of you. We haven’t forgotten about you. We’re going to be in touch as soon as we know more information.” That was pretty heartwarming. And I had one individual, I called them and let them know, because we send books through the mail, we were able to kind of scramble on Monday in anticipation of possibly closing soon, and, sure enough, it was the next day. We mailed out a bunch of books to people who received their large print books through the mail because they have a visual impairment of some sort. And I spoke to all those folks and one person said, “This is a lifeline to me.” And that made me realize, this is why we do what we do. So that we can help people stay connected in some way, even something as small as receiving a couple library books through the mail every week is so meaningful to folks.

    Interviewer: Thank you.

    Neeyati Shah: So, I was out of town when all of this really ramped up, which I know right now is kind of scary to say. It was for an important family matter, so I’m glad I was able to go, but, at the time, it still felt okay to do that. And then, as I was away, it was becoming more and more clear. Best practices were still kind of confusing and in flux. But, anyway, being away from the library felt surreal checking my email every now and then, and seeing these major changes announced from a distance. One second everything was business as usual and I had multiple public projects going, and then, within two days, all programs and events were cancelled, which is a majority of my work, so that was a big moment. By that point I totally understood the necessity of that, but it was still a shock. Especially services like our free tax filing; we know how much people rely on that service to do a government-mandated task, it’s not an optional thing. And our VITA [Volunteer Income Tax Assistance] volunteers are extremely dedicated, so once that was cancelled it hit home how important it is to socially distance ourselves. We have to protect volunteers and staff, of course, but also, for me, it was an important internal shift to realize this isn’t an act of fear and self-preservation only; it’s an act of care. So, we’re usually, we’re thinking so much about our community, often by bringing people together in the same room but, in this moment, taking care of community means being away from community. Which definitely feels unnatural and uncomfortable, but it was an important call to make.

    Interviewer: Thank you. So, kind of along those lines, now, as you are reflecting on library work, if you’ve had a moment for reflection, and it sounds like both of you maybe have, and work more broadly in Madison, just thinking about this moment; what are your, these are so big, (laughs) what are your concerns, ideas, and questions moving forward? So, if you could just respond to that. You don’t have to go through all of your ideas, and all of your concerns and questions, because I’m sure there are many, but what are your thoughts?

    Mary Fahndrich: There are a lot of concerns, definitely, a lot of questions. I think that the big one, and most people that I talk to share this one, is I think all of us are most concerned about the most vulnerable people in our society. Whether it’s people who are experiencing homelessness, and literally don’t have a roof above their heads, but also just all of the people who are living paycheck to paycheck, and we’re seeing the impact of this virus in all the closings on those people; whether they work in the hospitality industry, or they work at a hotel, or they drive a taxi cab, and we all know people who have been impacted. So that’s my biggest concern is what, immediately, how are those people going to be okay, but also, down the line in three months, in six months, if and when life gets back to normal. What does that mean for those members of our society, and what can the library do to help those folks? I think we’re going to have to focus on workforce development. Think about the recession from ten or eleven years ago and this is going to be just an amplified version of what library workers did back then. We’re just going to see that (snaps fingers) twofold, threefold, fourfold, whatever the numbers were that came out this morning; about three million people filing for unemployment benefits in the last week. We’ve never seen anything like that, so I think the way the library world responds to that is going to be really important, and I have a really good feeling that we’re going to respond as best as we can, but I hope we can all pull together our resources and figure out a way as a community to continue doing the work that we always do at the public library, but maybe in a different way because there’s going to be, it’s going to be a new landscape and we just don’t know what that is. So this is where all my concerns start coming out. I have all these questions. Are we going to be able to be like a normal public library again? Are we going to be able to practice social distancing? Maybe we’re going to need to continue doing that for a long time, forever, who knows? Anyway, at this point there’s a lot of unknowns, but I think my biggest concern is the members of our community who don’t have a safety net, and don’t have a cushion.

    Interviewer: Thank you, Mary.

    Neeyati Shah: Yeah, on the one hand it is really heartening to see. There seems to be this collective push for anyone who has access to the online world, there’s so many ways that people are trying to connect with each other, and even waiving fees for things if they can, of course people also need to be compensated so there’s a push and pull there. So that’s great, but it’s also just kind of widening that gap; it’s a reminder that not everyone has access to the same resources. Which we do think about all the time, but seeing—it’s just more apparent than ever, the consequences of that. So, I think, as Mary alluded to, there’s a lot of shifts happening in policy and safety nets just so we can better take care of each other. And it is temporary right now; we’re just kind of adapting but I think we’ll really have to examine the changes that we saw fit to make during this time, during a time of crisis and how we can integrate or adapt those to our everyday so that we don’t have to scramble the next time. Yeah, I don’t know, I’m being very abstract. I haven’t quite been able to define what I mean just yet, but we know that health and safety are not ever a given, and there will be ups and downs, so how can we as the library, as the city of Madison as a whole, how can we strengthen our foundation so that we’re as ready as we can be for these moments?

    [00: 20:19]
    Interviewer: Thank you. I think abstract right now is just, you know, just fine. We have to grapple with those things. Is there anything I did not ask you about, or that we didn’t cover that you would like to make sure to mention at this point?

    Mary Fahndrich: I can’t think of anything off the top of my head, but I know what will happen is, as soon as we end this interview I’ll think five things I didn’t mention.

    Neeyati Shah: Yeah, same. I guess the only thing I would say is, again, as people who have access to the internet, online resources are available for you: audiobooks to help you escape the doom of the news, unless, or also access to the news if you want more of that. But I have found that personally helpful, to just lose myself in audiobooks and have noise around, in my apartment, since I live alone.

    Interviewer: Actually, to follow up on that: can both of you share an audiobook, or a podcast recommendation, or both? Anything that you’ve really been enjoying right now.

    Mary Fahndrich: The strange thing for me is I’m normally, well not shockingly, I’m a librarian; I’m normally a big reader and I’ve found that I don’t have the attention span right now to read. And, I think Neeyati alluded to it earlier, and I think it’s because we’re spending all day doing so much with our brains, and we’re trying to process all this information, and we’re seeing the news come in, and we’re checking our news feeds, and we’re contacting our patrons, and we’re talking with our coworkers; and by the end of the day I think the idea of sitting down with a book, I just can’t even handle it. So, something that I don’t do a lot of but I have been doing a lot more of now is watching TV. So, instead of a podcast I’m going to say that I’ve absolutely gotten hooked on Schitt’s Creek on Netflix. (laughs) So that’s my recommendation. It’s funny, and it’s silly, and it’s just a good way to unwind at the end of the day.

    Interviewer: Thank you.

    Mary Fahndrich : Oh! And my other recommendation is the New York Times Spelling Bee: it’s a fun word game that I’m absolutely addicted to, and it’s a good way to do something with my brain but not actually read a book.

    Interviewer: (laughs) Nice. Thank you, Mary. How about you, Neeyati?

    Neeyati Shah: Yeah, that being said, Mary, the last day we were in the library I did grab a few books thinking this is the apocalypse I need to have things to read, and I have not taken them out of my bag. Those are books in print. Like I said I’ve been doing a lot of audio because I can kind of multitask and don’t have to sit down and focus as much. So, I would say I’ve been keeping it light. I usually do a mix of more intense reading and light, but right now I can’t handle anything more intense, so. I don’t know if this is funny, but I recently listened to Anne of Green Gables. (laughs) Which is super cozy, and there’s nothing bad that happens, so it’s nice. Also, I have a Harry Potter audiobook going right now. I would say one recommendation that is one of our Lucky Day offerings right now, which means that it is available more often than some of the books that have longer holds, is Age of Miracles, if you are looking for something that’s a little bit more relevant to what’s happening right now. It’s not a pandemic, but it is a sci-fi where the rotation of the earth is slowing and people have to respond to sort of a, more of a climate change kind of thing, that also keeps them indoors sometimes, so. It is Age of Miracles by, I actually cannot remember the author’s name. Sorry.

    Interviewer: Sounds good. Thank you both so much for your time and your thoughtful, thoughtful thoughts. (laughs) We really appreciate it, and we’ll check in again soon.

    Mary Fahndrich: Sounds great. Thank you, Laura.