On “Work” Done By “COVID Maximalists”

Today’s Read:
Justin E.H. Smith, Permanent Pandemic, Harper’s (May/June 2022)

I subscribe to the print version of Harper’s magazine. I like to mark up the articles while I read them, and that’s hard to do on a phone or a computer.

The main essay in the most recent issue certainly has a lot of mark-worthy content:

Picture of an open magazine, with the text heavily marked up (including underlines, circles, and notes) in purple and pink ink.

I am actually considering writing a few blog posts on this article because there was so much there.

But I have to start with the author’s description of who a typical “COVID maximalist” is:

“The maximalists typically belong to a distinct social class (my own, incidentally) in which it is financially possible to stay home and ‘work’ (i.e. manipulate the windows on our laptops in various prescribed ways) at a distance from our employers.”


I feel the need to explore why that sentence landed as such an insult to me, and made me feel angry and defensive. To get into that, I have to talk about the public service ethos surrounding librarianship and how that didn’t really go away for any of us despite being stuck at home for months and months.

The thing is, library patrons never stopped needing services. At my place of employment, the entire physical campus was closed to the public for more than a year.

But students and researchers were still learning and researching. This meant doing so many things exclusively online – teaching, answering research questions, and doing research consult meetings. And we had to ramp up and be ready to do this at, essentially, the drop of a hat, and keep doing it, improvising all along, for a very long time.

Does this mean that I spent a lot of time “manipulating the windows on my laptop in various prescribed ways?”

Yes, but those windows also represented people who felt alone and lost while they were trying to get work done and graduate from law school and get ready for the real world and a real job so they could pay back their (real and expensive) student loans in the middle of a pandemic, and there was essentially no one else, other than librarians, who were there, day in and day out, to provide them with expert-level help and encouragement they needed.

Because that’s what we as research librarians provided them for nearly two years, and many of us did this completely remotely, offering reference desk hours and research classes over Zoom.

In other words, not all “work” is created equally, and it’s incorrect to imply otherwise. In fact, how dare you, Harper’s magazine writer, say that this was merely “work” as opposed to the (implied real) work that people whose jobs required them to show up in person had to do? It’s insulting and it’s wrong.

Okay, thank you for allowing me to indulge in that rant. I do feel better now.

I am going to return to this article because there is actually some other really good stuff in it, especially about the nature of digital surveillance and the print/digital divide, which is of great interest to me as a librarian. But I will leave that for another day.

For now, to everyone who labors: I see you and recognize the value of what you are doing.

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