COVID-19 is a reminder that public libraries are still important

COVID-19 is a reminder that public libraries are still important

The world may be moving online, but public libraries remain invaluable

I first fell in love with public libraries before I could even spell the word “library.” As a kid, I went to the library every weekend and stuffed my backpack with Harry Potter books or the works of Roald Dahl, hoping to learn how to fly a Nimbus 2000 or save the world from the Grand High Witch. It was where I discovered my passion for reading, learning and community. 

The impacts of COVID-19 are far-reaching and extend to public libraries. Public libraries are more than just buildings with books to loan. They provide services from tutoring and tax prep to arts and crafts classes. But most importantly, they are a public space for anyone and everyone to enjoy. Public libraries are our spaces. From the large, ornate buildings of the New York Public Library to smaller, rural libraries, all libraries provide a unique environment for community and collaboration.

Like the vast majority of schools, shops and restaurants in the country, public libraries have had to close their doors in response to the pandemic. On March 12, the Library of Congress became one of the first to close buildings and facilities to the public. Soon after, almost all libraries in the country announced temporary closures. 

Libraries are inherently social spots in almost all communities. They thrive on human interactions, which is why keeping them open during a pandemic is so difficult.

“Part of the reason why libraries aren’t open yet, generally, is that so much of our work doesn’t lend itself to physical distancing,” said Cindy Chadwick, the county librarian for the Alameda County Library (ACL) system.

Learning how to navigate health and safety standards in an institution that functions on sharing materials and providing a venue for social collaboration is hard.

On March 15, the AC Library closed all 10 of its buildings to the public. Since then, a “skeleton crew” of library workers have been coming into the building to work on a myriad of tasks such as paying bills, getting invoices and making deliveries. The buildings are being cleaned out daily as staff comes into work for about four hours a day.

Like so many other libraries, the AC Library is trying to ensure that patrons still hear from and remain connected to the library. It launched “Ask Us,” a live chat room for people to reach out with their questions and concerns.

“Right away, we were responding to questions from the public by having certain online presence every day, Monday through Saturday,” said Blaine Wentworth, the acting library manager and teen services librarian at the AC Library’s Union City branch.

The biggest concern for libraries now is how to operate in a safe and healthy manner for the public and the library staff. With the current stay-at-home orders in California, libraries are seeing an increase in use of electronic resources like eBooks, eAudiobooks and other streaming contents through services such as OverDrive and Libby. In just one month, Alameda County Library saw a 63% increase in usership of OverDrive, a platform for borrowing digital content. This trend isn’t limited to the AC Library system — similarly, the San Francisco Public Library system is seeing a significant change in their e-resource usership.

“[It’s] been a period in which people have taken full advantage of services that they had used before or fallen in love with new e-resources,” said Jaime Wong, the public relations officer at San Francisco Public Library (SFPL).

Many librarians and advocates have been pushing for an increased digital presence in public libraries since the emergence of COVID-19. For Anthony Marx, the president of the New York Public Library (NYPL) — the second largest library system in the U.S. — a strong digital presence is key to ensuring that libraries uphold their commitment to serving the public. For example, the NYPL, along with other libraries such as Alameda County, partnered with Brainfuse to offer free, one-on-one online tutoring for elementary to high school children. These libraries also subscribed and increased access to databases and other important information sources.

“My guess is the world isn’t going to be the same after this,” Marx said in an interview with Yahoo Finance’s Andy Serwer. “People are going to get used to doing things online. People are going to get used to […] meeting online. It’s not going to be the same when this is done.”

Many libraries have moved a great deal of their normal operations online due to the shutdown. SFPL has been working on a 24/7 virtual library, which is now open. It offers services like eBooks, audiobooks, one-on-one tutoring, resume-building workshops and, my personal favorite, Sweet Stories, a virtual storytime led by librarians and occasionally familiar faces like Mayor London Breed

For librarians across the country, now is the time to make long-term, fundamental changes to library operations. Digitizing operations means greater access to library content for those who can’t make it to the building but could otherwise engage with resources from the comfort of their home. With so much information and so many resources available at the ready, an online library is an exciting feat. 

“People have definitely been using more of our electronic resources,” Wentworth said. “I’m hoping that we’ll see the same things with the virtual programs as we offer more.”

But as exciting and progressive as this move to online platforms sounds, there’s an extreme risk in creating a future for public libraries that largely operates online. This is a risk that Marx recognizes in his opinion piece in The New York Times, and one that many librarians are all too aware of.

On May 20, the AC Library began a No Contact Pickup Service at its Fremont, Castro Valley and San Leandro branches. Library members can place a hold on books and other materials either online, by phone or in-person at one of the three sites. Patrons then come to the library and pick up their items at a table outside. The entire process requires no contact between library staff and members.

Making digital what was once physically accessible is not a comprehensive solution to servicing libraries’ communities. Although e-readers and other e-resources are gaining popularity on their own, they aren’t enough to fulfill the needs of all patrons.

“Our emergency in opening up the library door, at least the pick up service, is that those online resources just aren’t reaching everybody,” Chadwick said. “The digital divide is real and is getting bigger, and there are many folks who don’t have either computers or reliable internet to connect to our catalog and online resources.”

The digital divide exists throughout the U.S. but is especially pronounced in rural areas and has been exacerbated by the pandemic. It refers to inequitable access to digital resources: access that is often linked to one’s socioeconomic status.

“When schools are closed and libraries are closed and schools expect students to learn online — it’s a problem,” said Jennifer Pearson, the president of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries and director of the Marshall County Memorial Library, via email. “It’s a problem for students who can’t afford internet at home. It’s a problem for students who CAN afford internet at home but don’t have access to a service that is reliable.”

Many libraries have been working on solutions to the digital divide for some time now. In 2016, the Seattle Public Library, with funding from Google and the city, launched a program offering 50 WiFi hotspots for two to three months at a time using a library card. But solutions can’t be confined to just geographical concerns. The digital divide greatly impacts minority and low-income individuals. Now that so much of teaching, learning and business operations have moved online, the digital divide has only become more pronounced. Even closed, public libraries can, and are, helping with the problem of internet access in meaningful ways.

“What libraries can do, and many are trying to do, is to help by extending wifi so that it can be used in a bigger range outside the building,” Pearson said via email. “We are also purchasing more wifi hotspots and tablets for circulation.”

Libraries are important public institutions in economic downturns, like the recession we’re currently in. A 2010 report from the American Library Association (ALA) found that during the Great Recession, library usership increased significantly. Libraries offer critical assistance to those seeking employment, like resume-building and job seeking workshops, and help patrons complete online job applications and provide them with e-resources. But a recession can also spell financial trouble for libraries at a time when they are most needed. 

“At this point, this is the dilemma we face — libraries are being more heavily used than ever,” said Keith Michael Fiels, the former Executive Director of the ALA, according to an ALA report. “At the same time, library budgets are more threatened than ever.” 

This is partly what makes witnessing public library closures across the country so incredibly difficult. Libraries are open spaces for all members of the public to access the resources and help that they need.

“Rural areas are less likely to have strong social service networks,” Pearson said via email. “The library is often the only place that provides services to the socio-economically challenged of the community.”

The CARES Act allocated $50 million to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. This money is being used to preserve library jobs and operations and to prepare for the changes associated with COVID-19. But each library’s financial situation is different. The Alameda County Library system receives funding primarily through the county, most of which comes from property tax revenue and isn’t as severely impacted as other sources of state funding during an economic downturn. But in other library systems, the pandemic has induced staff layoffs and budget cuts

Libraries are very active and dynamic community centers, even during a pandemic. At the SFPL, library buildings were initially used as childcare centers for children of essential workers. The SFPL also has library staff working as disaster service workers. Some staffers are working with the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank or taking on other essential duties as contact tracers and site moniters at hotels. At Alameda County, about 10 to 15 staff members have been deployed as disaster service workers.

 “Some of our folks have been doing phone banking for the Census to get folks to take the Census,” Chadwick said. “Some folks have worked for homeless shelters and emergency shelters that have been set up for folks who are facing homelessness and may or may not be showing COVID symptoms.”

Then there are specific projects that libraries are working on in order to directly help out their communities. For example, the Fremont branch of AC Library is using 3D printers to make mask extenders. Alameda County is working on potentially making hygiene kits to distribute at the library for anyone who needs them. Before the pandemic, such hygiene kits were first being distributed at AC Library to assist those experiencing homelessness.

“One of the things that I’ve loved about the library in particular is that we can supplement needs that the community is lacking,” Wentworth said. “We don’t have a curriculum we have to abide by. We just need a need in the community and we try to partner to help in any way we can.”

Although public libraries are closed, they remain an important community center for information and resources. Every time there is a county update, the Alameda County Library receives more “Ask Us” questions about what is going on.

“It’s good to see that the public knows to think of the library as a place to get the answers about the status of the information they’re seeking,” Wentworth said.

  At SFPL, patrons are calling in to ask a number of questions on library operations to independent research, or even as a central source for general information.

“There are folks who are calling in to find out about where I can find my local bike repair shop,” Wong said. “If they don’t have the Internet, there are no phone books out there anymore, how do you find out that information? Folks actually have been calling in the library and getting that information.”

This is the first summer in which I won’t get to spend my time at my local library, which is sad but necessary to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Some libraries have already opened with strict guidelines in consideration of health and safety. Many libraries like Alameda County and San Francisco Public are determining how to best reopen at an appropriate time with appropriate health and safety measures. 

“I think having the PPE, personal protective equipment, having face masks, having hand sanitizer, all of that will definitely happen,” Chadwick said. 

It’s been a difficult few months, but libraries are doing their best to overcome an unfathomable situation. Yet it’s uplifting to see how libraries across the country are working to serve and fulfill their commitment to their communities. People are connecting to and relying on libraries in ways they never did before. Libraries have been essential to local communities in the past, and the pandemic has only proved their importance. 

Libraries provide books, but they also offer job workshops, child developmental resources, tutoring programs and, in times like this, 3D-printed mask extenders, hygiene kits and answers to basic questions from the community, like where to find the local bike shop. 

“Libraries are doing our best,” Pearson said via email. “We are concerned for the health and well-being of our patrons, many of whom are also our friends in small communities. We are working toward the best solution for everyone. Just be patient with us as we get to those solutions.”

Written by: Simran Kalkat — skkalkat@ucdavis.edu