Library's 24/7 hours mean all-nighters for employees, too


It takes dedicated library staff working volunteer overnight shifts to keep Parks Library open 24 hours a day for Dead Week and Finals Week. Photo by Dave Roepke.

Students haven't been the only ones pulling all-nighters lately. Keeping the library open around-the-clock at the end of the semester requires some University Library faculty and staff to work volunteer overnight hours to ensure a safe spot for students to burn the many-hours-after-midnight oil.

The 11-night effort began early Monday during Dead Week, kicking off 280 hours of nonstop operation that ends at 2 a.m. May 10. It's a relatively new practice at Parks Library, instituted every fall and spring semester since spring 2016, after Beth McNeil, dean of library services, began in her role the previous summer. McNeil said the move to a semester-ending 24/7 schedule was prompted by student requests.

"Students want to have more library hours, always, and the idea of 24 hours a day is huge to them," she said. "We do have the occasional request for 'Couldn't you do this all year?' and the answer is 'No.' Traffic wouldn't be enough to justify it."

The number of students using the library after 2 a.m., the normal weeknight closing time, varies from 100 to 800, McNeil said. That's a fraction of the more than 11,000 patrons who use the library daily, but those who do take advantage of the extra hours appreciate it greatly.

"We always get lots of thank yous," said director of access services Dawn Mick, who is managing the all-night staffing this year.

Calling all night owls

The extended hours present obvious scheduling challenges, since multiple people are needed to staff overnight shifts. Volunteers also are needed for earlier shifts and as backups to cover unexpected absences. Depending on the availability of the library's regular night supervisors, staying open all night takes 10-20 volunteers per semester, Mick said -- 15 this semester. 

Picking up three 2 a.m.-7:30 a.m. shifts during Dead Week required Mick to make different plans for day-to-day duties such as getting her children to school.

"A lot of us have to make adjustments. It's not a huge deal, but it's important to realize we're not just doing this for kicks. We're doing it because we're devoted to the students, and we want to help," she said.

McNeil said she's grateful for the flexibility and dedication that library employees exhibit year after year. Though many have other obligations, she's never had to force anyone.

"We do, it turns out, have some night owl librarians who are happy to take it on," she said. "It does get harder the older you get, I can attest to that."

McNeil always volunteers for an overnight shift and not just to lead by example. She values the opportunity to have chance conversations with students.

"I like interacting with students, and I think that's true for lots of our employees who are willing to do this," she said. “During 24/7, we communicate with students who we may not encounter during typical hours at Parks Library.”

Don't forget food and sleep

Wee-hours activity peaks the weekend before finals, but it hardly get chaotic, Mick said in an interview during a Dead Week overnight shift.

"It's nice. It's really peaceful. Someone was playing soft music earlier, and we were enjoying listening to that. If this was a regular time of day, I'd say no. But since it's so quiet, it's not hurting anybody," she said.

Around 2 a.m., most private rooms are locked, which condenses the area to watch. Staff make regular building rounds throughout the evening.

"We just want to be sure everybody feels safe," Mick said. 

It takes food to fuel marathon study sessions, so the library provides free fruit during overnight hours, after Bookends Cafe closes at either 11 p.m. or 2 a.m., depending on the day. McNeil said pizza and sandwich deliveries are common, and other campus partners drop off food on occasion. Jonathan Wickert, senior vice president and provost, sometimes swings by with doughnuts, she said.  

The first semester the library moved to a crunch-time 24/7 schedule, a group of students slept in a tent outside the dean's office every night. That's no longer allowed, and sleeping at the library isn't encouraged. McNeil said her well wishes for students often include a reminder to get some rest. But if need be, students can bring a blanket and pillow for snoozing.

"They're going to be awake somewhere, so why not in a well-lit building with resources they might need?" McNeil said.