COVID-19 story by Sarah Lawton, 2020

Sarah Lawton describes her experience as a neighborhood library supervisor who opened a brand-new library on Madison's east side just days prior to the Safer at Home social distancing measures in March 2020. Sarah talks about staff and community reactions to the public health situation in Madison, and discusses her hopes for the future of public libraries in a post-pandemic world.

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  • Identifier: covid19-051
    Narrator Name: Sarah Lawton
    Interviewer Name: Danny Atwater
    Date of interview: 5/28/2020

    [00:00:00] - Start of interview
    [00:00:57] - Opening a new library and the closing it down within a few days
    [00:04:42] - What was it like for staff and for the community as COVID became a more common term
    [00:09:14] - What do you envision going forward for libraries
    [00:15:00] - What is your upcoming new role, how will you continue to serve and work alongside communities, what is transition like right now


    Interviewer: My name is Danny Atwater, and I am a library assistant for Madison Public Library. This interview is being recorded as part of the Madison Living History Project’s Stories from a Distance series. Today’s date is Thursday, May 28, 2020, and this interview is being conducted via the videoconferencing software Zoom. Let’s have our storyteller introduce themselves. Please tell us your first and last name and describe your connection to Madison.

    Sarah Lawton: My name is Sarah Lawton, and I’m a neighborhood library supervisor at Madison Public Library. I’ve lived in Madison for, this time around, the past seven years. So, I’ve been library supervisor for that time. I’m currently in my home for the COVID semi-quarantine—we’re starting to open up now—and I am working out of a desk that I set up in my bedroom closet, so (laughs) kind of a funny work space.

    Interviewer: Well thank you, Sarah, for joining us today. Let’s go back. We’re about ten weeks into this now, just to give our listener a sense of that time frame. Could you tell us about your experience, as a manager, opening up a brand-new eastside library for the community, and then completely shutting it down over the course of a few days?

    Sarah Lawton: Yeah, so the new Pinney Library was scheduled to open on Thursday, March twelfth, and, you know, there was a lot of attention focused on that date as, you know, our grand opening, our big day. And, of course, the new Pinney Library project really started, in earnest, in late 2013, with talking with the developers and getting plans in place. There were a lot of starts and stops to that project, so, initially, we’d been looking at opening in 2016, then 2017, then 20—and so delay after delay—ended up being a longer project than we had initially planned. And we were finally getting to the homestretch, and we had been forced to move into a temporary location for the final year before opening the new library. So we had moved from the old Pinney Library to a strip mall across the street, the site of the former Ace Hardware Store, so we had spent about a year in a temporary space—really ready to move into the new library. We did end up opening on March twelfth, you know, and there were a lot of conversations in the days before opening about whether or not we could really go ahead. But that was right when things were starting to look, you know, more and more like quarantine was coming, but we weren’t quite there yet.

    So we did open. We had a bunch of public events leading up to the opening, kind of preview events, and then we had planned a whole weekend of public activities, and art projects, and music, and all sorts of reception kind of things for the public, and we did end up cancelling all of those opening weekend events. At the same time, you know, people in the neighborhood had been waiting for years and years for this beautiful new space to open. And it is just a gorgeous new library, and designed, really, to help facilitate community connection, and really bring people together. So, you know, we ended up opening a space, and over that first three and a half days we had, like, four thousand people come in the doors. And it was amazing, and also unsettling, you know, because we were all starting to really feel concerned about the spread of COVID-19, and, as librarians, we wanted to be there, be present, and be engaged with the community, but we also were concerned about whether we were encouraging people to behave in ways that weren’t safe. And so, you know, we were open Thursday, we opened at noon, and then we were open Friday, Saturday, and a little bit of Sunday, and then we closed on that following Monday morning. We made the decision, ultimately, to shut down. And Pinney was one of the first Madison Public Library locations to close. We closed, kind of, in batches that Monday—gosh, I guess, March sixteenth, I think? (laughs) I’ve got it marked on a calendar. Yeah, so a lot of us really experienced kind of a whiplash, with a lot of long days leading up to the opening, and trying to get everything ready, and welcome people in, to, you know, We really got to shut this down. And it was really hard for staff and for community members who had been so excited to see the new library and to celebrate together.

    Interviewer: What was it like for staff and for the community as COVID, sort of, became a more common term—coronavirus, COVID-19—what was that like? Was it an hour by hour, minute by minute things were changing?

    Sarah Lawton: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting, because I haven’t reflected on it too much, you know, it’s—things have been changing so much since that, that I haven’t fully processed, but I remember we had some public events earlier in the week, and people were starting to do, like, the elbow bump, where instead of shaking hands, you’d elbow bump, or, like, kick someone in the foot to, like, you know, to greet them, and so people had kind of moved from handshakes to these other forms of contact, and then no one was wearing masks yet—kind of, like, people were starting to be more aware of physical proximity, but it was also really different with different people. So I noticed, in those first couple days, when we were open, you know, there were a lot of people who didn’t really seem to realize the severity of the situation or, like, how physical distancing might work, and a lot of people coming really right up to staff and wanting to congratulate them, having not seen them, because we had been closed—we had closed our temporary library, and we had been closed for almost a month, so people were wanting to come in and say, “Oh! I haven’t seen you in so long. How’re you?” And “Congratulations!” And so it was challenging to establish the rules with people when the rules really were changing almost hour to hour, and I think it was really complicated for staff who, certainly, wanted to make people feel welcome, wanted to interact with the public, but also, you know, the rules didn’t seem super consistent and agreed upon.

    So, I think, in some ways—maybe this is true for society as a whole—but we were trying to shift to being more distant in those first couple days that we were open. So we went to giving people—a lot of people to check out materials at the service counters, to saying, Okay, people should only use our self-check machines. And we put out boxes of Kleenex, with the idea that someone could wrap a Kleenex around their finger to touch the screen, and that that way, like, help to protect the next person using, or help protect the person. But, again, you know, this was all just stuff that staff was coming up with, because we didn’t have directives coming from—you know, the Public Health Department was, you know, clearly responding very well, in putting out information, but it didn’t translate into the exact directions on how to do things that we have done every day. Things like public computing, when we have folks coming in to use our public computers, and we don’t clean those machines fully between library patrons. Oftentimes people need assistance on those computers, and that’s in very close proximity. So, you know, someone might not be comfortable operating a mouse, and we might need to, like, help guide them on the screen, and all of these interactions that really do require putting your heads together. Trying to figure out how to adapt while we were still open was really challenging. And I think, in a certain way, closing things down, and then, you know, now as we’re starting the process of building more library services, we’re able to start from zero, and then design it, instead of trying to, like, retrofit the interaction, which was very challenging, trying to make sure we were giving really good service. So it really was hour to hour, and I think it was really important to listen to the voices of the staff working in the libraries, in particular, because I really feel like hearing from those who are, kind of, most impacted. Staff, of course, don’t have a choice about, you know, whether or not they’re going to put themselves, kind of, in that situation—if that’s their job—so making sure to really listen to the level of comfort that staff had with that service. I think that did, right out of the gates, drive a lot of the decision making as staff were seeing some of these challenging situations.

    Interviewer: Obviously, with COVID-19, everything has been upended, and currently, the libraries are closed to the public. What do you envision going forward for libraries? What will those opportunities look like?

    Sarah Lawton: I think there’s some challenges to our imagination with libraries, because I think for a long time, you know, when you ask someone, What do you like about the library? people, kind of, immediately go to books, often, they immediately go to computers, like, things that the library has, and they think about it in terms of, Well we could do more of the things that I associate with libraries. And I think the library has always been a lot more than just the materials in the library, just the space of the library, just the tools inside. I think libraries have always been, in some sense, like a mutual benefit organization, where a collective of people are deciding to put their resources together to share information and to share access to a community or collective narrative. So I think there’s a lot of power in that idea, and libraries haven’t always, and really are still not, spaces that are fully accessible and inclusive. We have a lot of work to do to diversify our profession to bring in a different kind of cultural narrative around, like, who we serve. And even the idea of serving, as opposed to working alongside, I think there’s some shifting to do within libraries. And I think libraries have always been more than materials. But now, as we look at how do we connect with the post-COVID world, I think there’s a lot of opportunity and working with partner organizations, connecting with the community in an embedded way. So using the networks of people and of communities that we have started to create to really think deeply about what it is that we need as a community, and then how can the library be involved in creating a platform for those community needs. So it’s not so much the library as the gatekeeper of stuff, and people coming in and checking—it’s more about providing support and, kind of, connecting the dots to align with platforms and ideas that community organizations and community leaders are developing from the perspective of people most impacted by COVID, I would say.

    So I think there are a lot of skills that librarians have that we can contribute in that building (laughs) and rebuilding. And I think part of the challenge is that if the expectation is kind of fully encapsulated by materials, or by the things we’ve done in the past, we don’t have as much capacity to really engage with what we can do in the future. And hopefully there is a vaccine that comes, that we do get to return to more in-person services, and there’s some ways that within the library we’ve seen staff at many different levels and at different locations able to collaborate in new ways. And I think there’s something to be learned and gained through that experience that can actually transform how we work in the future in our libraries and in our communities, where we are listening more and really thinking about what is the impact of the services we are offering. I think there’s a real opportunity to work with community to design new library services. I think there’s going to be a lot of pressure to provide, kind of, traditional library services. And I think it’s important to make sure that we’re supporting literacy, and that we’re supporting some of the more traditional functions of a library, but I think it’s also really important to save some space to let the library be informed and guided by the needs and the aspirations of the community.

    And I think MPL has some really impressive leadership within our organization, in that regard. I think we do have some folks who are really working hard to develop relationships, community organizations, and working hard to create some systems and structures that allow our bureaucracy to be more responsive. It’s a big organization, and of course we want to make sure that we’re providing service to everyone, but we also want to make sure that we’re designing our services so that they are accessible to those who face the most barriers. So I think there’s a huge opportunity to align with the platforms that are coming out of communities most impacted. What is needed around housing? What is needed around food assistance? What is needed around education? And ways for the library to be part of those conversations, as an institution that people connect to and trust. And we are tapped into information, a lot of experience and helping connect dots. And so I think that’ll be a really important role for our staff, and I see examples of it all over the organization already.

    Interviewer: You’ve mentioned a lot of work with the community, and I know that this is a time of transition coming up for you, because you mentioned prior to the interview starting that you are moving into a new role, and I’m curious if you could tell us what that new role is, and how you will continue to serve the communities and work alongside of the communities you have been working with, and also just what the transition is like right now in a very strange time.

    Sarah Lawton: Yeah, I am actually in the process of leaving Madison Public Library and taking a new role as the Midwest Regional Manager for the Government Alliance on Race and Equity. It’s an organization that focuses on helping local and regional governments to advance racial equity through normalizing conversations around race and racism, developing a shared language, and really committing to action at the institutional and sectoral level to disrupt racism and the structural pieces that lead to disparities within communities. And then really to design tools and processes to hold government more accountable to community outcomes and impacts. So it is a new, kind of, growth role for me, and I’ve been somewhat involved with GARE and with the conversations around racial equity in libraries through GARE, and then through the Public Library Association, for a number of years, and involved here in Madison with the City of Madison’s Racial Equity and Social Justice Initiative. But this is really an opportunity for me to learn a lot and focus more specifically on that work as my full-time job. So it was kind of the only thing that could pull me away from Madison Public Library and librarianship. But I feel like the skills that I have in helping to connect dots and to really, like, build networks will be really useful to this growing network of government jurisdictions and I think it’s a huge—like right now, with COVID, with the pandemic really highlighting the existing disparities and inequities on the health front, but then also economic disparities, and educational access disparities, digital connectivity. You know, in every element of our society, we look at the legacy of centuries of racism and oppression. This is an opportunity to really dig in and rebuild framing equity as a key core value, so I’m really excited to move into that work.

    It is really hard to leave Madison Public Library, and to leave in the midst of a time of uncertainty is hard. And I feel like if I were making this move in a time when I were going to work every day and seeing people and, kind of, processing it would be a different experience. So I think the whole experience of changing jobs during the pandemic is strange. And I think the process of letting go of some of the projects and pieces that I’ve been really connected to and then moving into a new team and getting to know people during this time is definitely different from anything I ever have done before. (laughs) And certainly there are a lot of people who are struggling with unemployment, with layoff, with furlough, so I say that and I’m also really aware of what an incredible thing it is to be moving into something new during a time like this. And I feel very grateful and just, like, really humbled by it. I think as a white woman in the Midwest working to advance and lift up racial equity within institutions, there’s a lot of work that I have to do to just really make sure I’m navigating it respectfully and really looking at what I can contribute and what I can elevate. And I have a lot to learn, but I am really excited to join that team, and I am just so passionate about the organization and the work that is being done. And I think that government has a real opportunity to live out the ideal of government for the people that hasn’t been the reality for a large segment of our population. And so my hope is that the spotlight that the pandemic has shone on existing disparities will help us to get even more serious about moving from, kind of, learning the language of racial equity, learning about how to talk about racism, to really creating some tools and some strategies for changing the way that our institutions operate.

    Interviewer: Well, Sarah, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today, and certainly want to thank you for your time with MPL and also wish you good luck in your new job.

    Sarah Lawton: Thank you so much! It was really a great thing to just, kind of, process some of this experience of the past few months. I really appreciate it.