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How Libraries Are Responding to a Global Pandemic
Posted On March 31, 2020
It was 5:22 p.m. on Friday, March 13, when the email blasted into the inboxes of every library director, district consultant, and public librarian on the Pennsylvania Office of Commonwealth Libraries’ listserv. “Libraries to Close Statewide,” the headline announced. Earlier that day, a national emergency was declared and Pennsylvania public schools were closed, yet the library world remained silent. In a matter of hours, we went from assuring the public we would be open on Saturday to being closed effective immediately. From then on, my world, and the world of many other library professionals, was different.

In a few short days, thousands of libraries across the country closed their doors to protect their communities. ALA did not make a statement about library closure until Tuesday, March 17, after swelling online pressure. Many libraries, especially smaller and rural institutions, were and are not fully prepared for a shutdown of such immediacy and magnitude. Most disaster plans account for fires, floods, and other somewhat expected natural disasters—not global pandemics. Without official warning or time to plan, library administrators had to feverishly call their board members, contact staffers, and post about the closure on social media, all while trying to figure out what the path forward looked like. Today, we still do not have a firm grasp on that path—it changes every day.

Questions began to swirl around the library sphere as to what services counted as “essential” or “life-sustaining,” if we were supposed to report to work and lock the public out, and how we would continue to pay employees during the closure. How do we serve our patrons now? How can we do better? I don’t have answers to those questions because we are still in the midst of a crisis of undetermined length. However, I do have some ideas about how we, as information professionals, can help our fellow humans in our collective time of need.

What Is ‘Essential’?

Information is certainly essential, and that is the business we are in. However, there are many ways to deliver information and only one way to get sick: in-person services. Every hour of every day there is a new post on Facebook about a library system that refuses to close, a mayor who does not comprehend the risks, or an administrator who fails to see the flawed logic in doing curbside service (still lots of contact!) or locking the public out and the staff in.

Librarians and library workers should not be asked to sacrifice their lives and the lives of those who share their homes because of the fear of public backlash against using taxpayer money to work from home. Social distancing only protects us if we practice it and encourage others to do the same. Keeping libraries open or forcing staffers to report to work in enclosed areas with possibly infected co-workers does nothing to flatten the curve. We must model the behavior we want to see. Set a good example for your community. Close the library. Send employees home. Save lives.

Serving Digitally—Its Pros and Cons

Many companies have come out during the pandemic to offer free access to their online resources. Others are offering free remote access to library users through secure login, such as and Ancestry Library Edition. The number of digital resources that libraries have been able to provide for their patrons in only about a week’s time has been truly astounding. With kids home from school and parents either working from home, homebound, or needing to find something for their kids to do while they continue in their life-sustaining job, digital resources such as ebooks, e-audiobooks, learning videos, games, and quizzes are essential.

Libraries across the country have created ingenious solutions for a lack of in-person services. Jennifer at the Suffolk Public Library in Virginia posted an at-home cooking tutorial on Facebook. Sydney Krawiec at the Peters Township Public Library in Western Pennsylvania created the Hogwarts Digital Escape Room. Other libraries have expanded on these ideas and more by developing their own escape rooms, video-conferenced mindfulness programs, and other extremely creative concepts. At my library, we have held book club via FaceTime and in a Facebook event, and after copyright for online storytime was determined to be fair use by ALA copyright specialist Carrie Russell, our Facebook Live storytimes have become very popular and are shared across the county.

Not everyone can be served digitally by the library. A significant portion of the population in my rural area has no access to the internet. The same goes for many small and rural libraries across the country. Some community members do not see our Facebook posts. They cannot use Scholastic’s online resources or binge watch a backlog of shows to take their minds off of the pandemic. How do we serve these patrons when we cannot see them in person? This is a question being debated by library workers on social media every day. I wish I had a magic answer to this question that included something other than the internet being an essential utility and calling on the powers that be to invest in fiber internet and rural digital infrastructure. I’m sure it is something we will continue coming back to in the months and years after the pandemic subsides.

Suggestions for the Future

We are still in the thick of a global emergency. With every passing day that appropriate restrictions are not in place, the virus spreads and more people die. It is difficult to plan for the future when the present is so stressful. But it is just as important to remind ourselves that a future in which we are back in our workplaces, serving the people who need us—and will likely need us more than ever—will come. Here are some suggestions for what we can learn from this pandemic and how we can be better information professionals because of it.

  • Revamp disaster plans and/or create pandemic policy. If you do not already have written criteria for closing the library in a disaster or pandemic situation, it’s time to create them. Libraries have often been essential shelters during crises, but pandemics are different. Make sure your policy allows discretion depending on the type of disaster or crisis. Include your policy for pay, leave, social distancing, and cleaning if the library remains open, as well as criteria for program suspension, communication channels, work from home expectations, and public service contingency. ALA has a great bulleted list to refer to when writing your policy. The U.S. National Library of Medicine also has a course for walking you through what to consider when planning continuity of operations.
  • How can we streamline the services we already offer? Does your library or system offer online library card signup? If not, it is something worth looking into. How can we make it so that we can validate addresses, get permissions, and offer services to those who cannot come to the library? This action will be useful in emergency situations and in everyday library service.
  • Advocate for OA. For students of all ages, researchers, and library users, an extended stay at home makes abundantly clear the monopoly private companies have on informational databases. Journal articles, genealogy, and other vital pieces of information are behind paywalls that libraries often do not have the license or budget to offer remotely. While many of these paywalls have been temporarily removed for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, some people will still be homebound and in need of services after the pandemic ends. OA is critical for information equality, and this crisis throws that fact into sharp relief.
  • How can we reach people in isolation? If you do not like the feeling of quarantine or shelter in place, imagine what it feels like for countless people who, on an average day, are unable to leave their homes. Public librarians can use this experience to inspire them to create services for people who are otherwise being forgotten.
  • Advocate for the internet as an essential utility and for the expansion of broadband access. Think about what your utilities are today: electricity, water, sewer, and natural gas. They were not always thought of that way. Many rural areas of the U.S. were not electrified until the 1930s and 1940s. Today, millions of families do not have access to the internet. Even in writing this article, the internet in my home is not strong enough to allow all of us to do our work responsibilities at the same time. That is unacceptable. We are moving into a world where a great percentage of our services are or will be digital. They must be accessible to everyone.

I’m sure there will be many additional lessons learned as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on our world. Major global events change us as human beings. We must come out of this stronger, in support of one another, and ready to serve even better than before.

Jessica Hilburn is the executive director of Benson Memorial Library in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and the CEO of the Crawford County Federated Library System. She enjoys popular culture in libraries, true crime, and audiobooks, and she is passionate about advocating for rural communities and libraries, as well as broadband equity and information access. Hilburn’s writing has been published by Information Today, Inc.; ABC-CLIO/Libraries Unlimited; Library JournalThe Oilfield Journal; and The History Press (which published her book, Hidden History of Northwestern Pennsylvania).

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