The author’s in-depth coverage of libraries and the pandemic in 2020 will appear as a special report in the 66th/2021 edition of Library and Book Trade Almanac (Information Today, Inc., June 2021).
As winter turns to spring turns to summer, hope has been rising that the COVID-19 pandemic will subside before many more months have passed. Everyone is beginning to imagine—and plan for—the post-pandemic future. What will it be like? When it comes to library services, it’s hard to think that we’ll simply return to prepandemic business as usual. Instead of a return to the old normal, or even a new normal, we may experience “the next normal.”
Changes in librarianship will mirror changes in society at large, as they always do. Journalist Carlos Lozada, reviewing three books about the pandemic’s effects on American society, notes a common theme: Changes that were already underway have accelerated (Lozada, 2020). Two of the accelerating trends he cites are particularly relevant to librarians: our increasing reliance on digital technologies and the increasing vulnerability of disadvantaged communities. Other sources concur. In April 2020, a Pew Research Center study found that more than half of Americans considered the internet “essential for them personally during the pandemic” (Vogels et al., 2020). Geoffrey Fowler refers to the pandemic as “an inflection point for nerds and non-nerds alike” (Fowler, 2020). He points out specific activities that have expanded—online shopping, telework, distance learning, telemedicine, and home entertainment. Again, Pew Research Center’s findings concur: In an October 2020 survey, it found that more than half of those working at home during the pandemic would like to continue (Parker et al., 2020). But as the reliance of the “haves” on digital technology increases, the digital divide deepens for the “have-nots.” Their vulnerability to loss of health, educational opportunity, and economic well-being is made worse.
Librarians are likely to feel the impact of these trends on collections, programs, and community needs. We’re also likely to experience shifts in space planning due to heightened awareness of how devastating a pandemic can be. Here’s how each of these impacts could play out.
The use of digital collections, and libraries’ investments in them, had already been increasing relative to physical collections in recent years. In 2020, they set new records. Ebook vendor OverDrive reported a 33% increase, to 430 million digital items borrowed worldwide. It also reported rapid growth in the adoption of its Sora app for schoolchildren, to 43,000 schools worldwide (33% Growth for Digital Books From Public Libraries and Schools in 2020 Sets Records, 2021).
A similar pattern has emerged in higher education. Christopher Cox, Clemson University’s dean of libraries, pronounced circulating physical collections “irrelevant” (Cox, 2020). While that may be an overstatement—the demise of print materials has been predicted before—the digital trend is consistent with the overall shift toward digital activities in our society. The demand for digital content will increase the urgency of overcoming publishers’ limits on library access to ebooks and resolving user privacy concerns as well.
Even before the pandemic, programs and events were becoming increasingly important elements of library services. In academic settings, library instructional initiatives were experiencing similar growth. In the past year, public librarians have learned that virtual programs can overcome transportation and distance barriers and attract attendees from a wider geographic area than programs offered solely in person in a single branch library. Academic librarians, if not already involved in distance learning, have figured out how to adapt their teaching and counseling to the online environment.
Librarians’ own professional development has been affected in the same way. During the pandemic, online conferences and seminars attracted audience numbers that exceeded expectations (Shumaker 2020a, 2020b). Online events have eliminated travel costs and travel time, while enabling attendees to timeshift their viewing of recorded sessions. With such success, it’s hard to imagine that either public library programs or professional conferences will abandon this route. The growth of digital meetings and programs could lead to more professional development opportunities—resulting in better-trained librarians who could offer a more varied menu of programs to their communities.
In recent years, librarians have been strengthening relationships and taking new approaches to engage their communities, with innovations such as “libraries of things,” makerspaces, embedded librarians, teacher librarians, and others. As the pandemic created new needs, they stepped up with an array of services (Shumaker, 2021). Most recently, they have continued by adding services to help community members without access to technology navigate the complex process of getting a vaccination appointment (Jones, 2021). As the digital divide and economic uncertainty worsen, the need for them to keep innovating will not abate.
In the academic and school library sectors, the digital divide will affect students at all levels. Even as schools reopen, hybrid learning that combines in-class instruction with online pedagogy is likely to continue, leading to a “homework gap” for students who lack at-home access to computers and networks (Bonderud, 2021). As they are the technology providers of last resort, in addition to the people’s university in every community, the effort to overcome unequal access to information and technology will continue to be a top priority for librarians. In addition, they are positioned to attack the infodemic—not just the one associated with COVID-19, but the epidemic of misinformation and disinformation on other topics that are plaguing society.
It’s been noted that after every shock to society, we plan how to prevent or mitigate a recurrence. So, it’s no surprise that post-COVID planning is already driving the adaptation of library spaces. As librarians have opened their buildings, they have installed partitions and barriers, moved furniture to allow social distancing, and taken other steps to thwart virus transmission. Fearing a similar pandemic in the future, library architects are now designing libraries with drive-through windows and flexible spaces that can be easily configured to keep people apart if needed. Regrettably, this new imperative runs counter to the library’s mission to be a community hub where people come together. As Karen Kleckner Keefe, the executive director of the Hinsdale Public Library in Illinois, put it to Elizabeth A. Harris at The New York Times, “It’s awful because it’s the opposite of what we normally try to do. We want to be the community living room, we want everyone to stay and get comfortable. And to design service to prevent lingering and talking is so different from everything we’ve been working toward” (Harris, 2020). Nonetheless, it’s likely to be a feature of the next normal.
FUNDING: THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE?
The emergence of libraries’ next normal is taking place in an environment of great financial uncertainty. During the pandemic, budget cuts and staff layoffs affected many public libraries. When, if ever, will the cuts be restored? Will recent federal funding legislation make up the difference? Meanwhile, academic library funding is also in jeopardy. Overall university undergraduate enrollment has declined steadily during the pandemic, and enrollment and financial concerns have been among the most serious worries of college and university presidents in surveys conducted by the American Council on Education (NSC Research Center, 2021; Turk et al., 2020). Library budgets are likely to feel ongoing effects.
Librarians will have to continue advocating for themselves and building on their record of addressing the needs of their communities during the pandemic in order to maintain the benefits of all they have done to cope with it, to innovate, and to contribute to society’s recovery. If they are to be successful, what must remain constant in the next normal is the energy, dedication, and creativity of librarians themselves.
33% Growth for Digital Books From Public Libraries and Schools in 2020 Sets Records. (2021, Jan. 7). Cision PR Newswire.
Bonderud, D. (2021, Feb. 10). What Role Will Hybrid Learning Play in the Future of K–12 Education? EdTech.
Cox, C. (2020, June 5). Changed, Changed Utterly. Inside Higher Ed.
Fowler, G.A. (2020, Dec. 28). In 2020, We Reached Peak Internet. Here’s What Worked—And What Flopped. The Washington Post.
Harris, E.A. (2020, June 11). Libraries Strive to Stay ‘Community Living Rooms’ as They Reopen. The New York Times.
Jones, A. (2021, March 5). Local Libraries in Ga. to Help Register Patients for Vaccination Appointments. WTVM News Leader.
Lozada, C. (2020, Dec. 18). The Great Acceleration. The Washington Post.
washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/12/18/coronavirus-great-acceleration-changes-society (registration required)
NSC Research Center. (2021, March 11). No Quick Turnaround in Sight for Undergraduate Enrollment Decline. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Parker, K., Horowitz, J.M., & Minkin, R. (2020). How the Coronavirus Outbreak Has—and Hasn’t—Changed the Way Americans Work. Pew Research Center.
Shumaker, D. (2020a, September). Law Librarians Take Off Their Masks at Annual Conference. Information Today, 37(6), 10.
Shumaker, D. (2020b, November/December). EveryLibrary’s Library Advocacy and Funding Conference. Information Today, 37(8), 8.
Shumaker, D. (2021, March 2). Beyond Coping: Libraries Stepping Up to Meet Community Needs During the Pandemic. Information Today.
Turk, J., Soler, M.C., Chessman, H., & Gonzalez, A. (2020). College and University Presidents Respond to COVID-19: Fall Term Survey, Part II. American Council on Education.
Vogels, E.A., Perrin, A., Rainie, L., & Anderson, M. (2020). 53% of Americans Say the Internet Has Been Essential During the COVID-19 Outbreak. Pew Research Center.