Conferences- The 5 Stages of Grief

I love conferences. Absolutely love them. And for better or worse, librarianship is full of them! Before I became a librarian, I had rarely traveled outside the northeast corridor/tri-state area. And now, because of libraries and conferences I’ve been all over the country! And I’ve met amazing people I can now call friends. There are people I will invite to my wedding that I would not have met without conferences. I say all this to impress upon you how important conferences are to me.

I can no longer go to them. Well not in person anyway. And honestly? Neither should you. I know that the narrative of COVID and disabled people focuses on those who are completely homebound and need full-time carers, but I had a busy and full life before COVID! While sickle cell meant that I had to be more careful in managing my pain level and activity, I was able to go out to restaurants and movies and theme parks! I had a ”normal” life. But the combination of sickle cell and COVID is deadly. And that is not hyperbole, it is a fact. And honestly, should I be permanently housebound in order to get sympathy?1 Of course not. How quickly all the promises made to ”the vulnerable” at the beginning of COVID have been forgotten.

By continuing to go to conferences that are only in-person, you encourage more conferences that are only in-person. And that is exclusionary to so many different people! It excludes not only disabled and chronically ill library workers, but any and all library workers who have disabled people in their lives! Not to mention parents with children under 5 who don’t have access to a vaccine. I have yet to witness an in-person conference during the pandemic that has not become a super spreader event.

And so as 20,000+ library workers and vendors ready themselves to converge on DC, here are the 5 stages of grief that I’m going through.

Denial- There can’t really be an in-person Annual can there? ALA is one of, if not the biggest, professional organization in the US, and Annual always has at least 20K people attend! The smaller conferences I’ve seen have become super spreader events and that was with 1/10th of the amount of people attending! And yet…

Anger- Do we mean so little to y’all? Sure you say that it’s fine because you as a group have decided networking and seeing people is worth the potential sickness (even though 1 in 52 seems like way too high of a chance for me!), the conference workers and the hotel workers and all of the transportation staff do not have a choice in serving you while you travel from afar and pretend the pandemic is over. There is no world where thousands (tens of thousands!) of people can gather and no one gets COVID. None. And it’s so infuriating to know that now so many people have to choose between their career and their health. There is a library worker out there right now who is on a ticking time bomb regarding their health and bodily autonomy. In a short time, they won’t be able to get out of bed without oxygen or will be unable to recall the simplest things. Their life as they know it will end, all because they made a choice to attend an in-person conference! And we as a field are encouraging this! It’s infuriating!

Bargaining- Everyone is moving on. Maybe I am the one being silly? I might not be able to do ALA, but maybe I can do JCLC? It’s not as big of a conference. And there are more people there I miss and would like to see than at ALA. Maybe there will be a lull! God, if there could just be a lull, I could actually go out into the world without worrying. I would do about anything to be able to go to a conference. My disability means I haven’t even been in a store or restaurant in years, an in-person conference with real people sounds like a dream.

Depression- Lord, why do I even bother staying so safe when no one else bothers to do it? Will I ever be able to do fun things again without anxiety? Perhaps the only field that loves conferences more than libraries is academia, and I’m starting my PhD in the fall! What will my community be considering I can likely only go to virtual conferences and events? Especially if virtual conferences are few and far between compared to in-person events! When I see my friends at these conferences I know I will be sad and envious. The world is passing me by and there’s nothing I can do about it. And whenever disabled people talk about their needs we get shut down like we asked to kick someone’s dog in the face. It’s so hard not to feel despair.

Acceptance(???)– I have to remember my own scholarship and communities! An institution can never love you, especially with how intensely vocational awe underpins the culture. If and when people get sick, the likelihood of their institution supporting them is infinitesimal. And so while I might be sad in the short-term not going to these conferences and events in person, I can know for a fact that I won’t get COVID/Long COVID because of attending one. I have to remember that the truth is often hard to share, but that it’s always important to be heard. I know that I am mostly in a place to share this truth without retaliation, a blessing that other library workers might not have. For my fellow disabled library workers, I hope that this has given y’all some comfort and solidarity. You are not alone! I am here, with you. And for my able-bodied colleagues, I hope that you remember that we exist and that we matter, too.

1- Those who were housebound before and after COVID are a population even more erased and ignored, and their voices have a right to be heard in all of their complexity. And not just be cast as boogeymen or expendable.

2- Recent research shows 1 in every 5 people who get COVID will get Long-COVID.

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