Information Today, Inc. Corporate Site KMWorld CRM Media Streaming Media Faulkner Speech Technology Unisphere/DBTA
Other ITI Websites
American Library Directory Boardwalk Empire Database Trends and Applications DestinationCRM Faulkner Information Services Fulltext Sources Online InfoToday Europe KMWorld Literary Market Place Plexus Publishing Smart Customer Service Speech Technology Streaming Media Streaming Media Europe Streaming Media Producer Unisphere Research

News & Events > NewsBreaks
Back Index Forward
Twitter RSS Feed

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, Pa., and the co-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. Her writing has been published by Information Today, Inc.; ABC-CLIO/Libraries Unlimited; Library Journal; The Oilfield Journal; and The History Press (which published her book, Hidden History of Northwestern Pennsylvania).

Related Articles

1/30/2020COVID-19 NEWS: Elsevier Introduces Coronavirus Resource
3/5/2020COVID-19 NEWS: EveryLibrary Provides a List of Coronavirus Resources
3/10/2020COVID-19 NEWS: CDC's 'Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Summary'
3/10/2020COVID-19 NEWS: FDA's 'Coronavirus (COVID-19) Supply Chain Update'
3/10/2020COVID-19 NEWS: EveryLibrary's 'Libraries and Accurate Information About the Coronavirus'
3/10/2020COVID-19 NEWS: HBR's 'How Coronavirus Could Impact the Global Supply Chain by Mid-March'
3/10/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'CDC Warns Against Long Plane Trips and Cruises as Coronavirus Cases Mount'
3/10/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'APA Applauds Congress for Funding Efforts to Fight Coronavirus'
3/10/2020COVID-19 NEWS: PW's 'As the New Coronavirus Spreads, Conferences Suffer'
3/10/2020COVID-19 NEWS: PR Daily's 'How Brand Managers Should Address COVID-19'
3/10/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Cancellation of ACS Spring 2020 National Meeting & Expo'
3/17/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'ALA Executive Director Tracie Hall Releases Statement on COVID-19'
3/17/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'PBS Responds to Coronavirus Pandemic With Programming and Online Content to Keep Americans Informed and Support Families and Educators'
3/17/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Coronavirus-Impacted Libraries Get Unlimited Access to Ebook Central Holdings'
3/17/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Resources From Gale on COVID-19'
3/17/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'ASIS&T Authors Examine the Role of Information During a Global Health Crisis'
3/17/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Elsevier Gives Full Access to Its Content on Its COVID-19 Information Center for PubMed Central …'
3/17/2020COVID-19 NEWS: OverDrive's 'No Cost and Low-Cost Ebook and Audiobook Collections for Your Community'
3/17/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Working From Home: Your Common Challenges and How to Tackle Them'
3/17/2020COVID-19 NEWS: '9 Strategies for Working Remotely During the Coronavirus'
3/17/2020COVID-19 NEWS: ByWater Solutions' 'Preparing for Library Closures'
3/17/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'JoVE Offers Free Access to Extensive STEM Education Video Library to Aid Remote Teaching & Learning …'
3/17/2020COVID-19 NEWS: ITI's Computers in Libraries Is Postponed
3/19/2020COVID-19 NEWS: Academic Libraries Compile Lists of Companies Offering Free Resources
3/19/2020COVID-19 NEWS: ARL's 'The Contribution Research Libraries Are Making'
3/19/2020COVID-19 NEWS: PR Daily's 'Why COVID-19 Should Prompt Questions About Cybersecurity'
3/24/2020COVID-19 NEWS: EdSurge's 'How Librarians Continue Their Work Digitally Even as Coronavirus Closes Libraries'
3/24/2020COVID-19 NEWS: American Libraries' 'Fighting Fake News in the Pandemic'
3/24/2020COVID-19 NEWS: ACS's 'Can Soap Really "Kill" the Coronavirus?'
3/24/2020COVID-19 NEWS: IFLA's 'COVID-19 and the Global Library Field'
3/26/2020COVID-19 NEWS: CCC Helps Educators Use No-Cost Materials
3/26/2020COVID-19 NEWS: Instructions for 3D-Printed Masks
3/26/2020COVID-19 NEWS: Internet Archive Creates a National Emergency Library of Non-Waitlisted Titles
3/31/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Your Facebook Page Is Your New Public Library Branch'
3/31/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Now Is the Time for Open Access Policies—Here's Why'
3/31/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'FCC: Closed Schools, Libraries Can Still Get E-Rate Funding'
3/31/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Smartphone Data Reveal Which Americans Are Social Distancing (and Not)'
3/31/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Coronavirus Will End Tech Conferences and Events as We Know Them'
3/31/2020Coronavirus Reshapes Law While Reshaping Society
4/2/2020COVID-19 NEWS: Internet Archive's National Emergency Library Draws Backlash
4/2/2020COVID-19 NEWS: OCLC Launches Resource Page for Libraries
4/2/2020COVID-19 NEWS: ProQuest Unveils Coronavirus Research Database for Its Customers
4/2/2020COVID-19 NEWS: EBSCO Creates Portal for Healthcare Info Pros
4/7/2020Celebrating Sunshine Week During the COVID-19 Crisis
4/7/2020COVID-19 NEWS: Internet Archive Defends the Launch of Its National Emergency Library
4/7/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'COVID-19 Information Overload Leads to Simple but Unhelpful Choices'
4/14/2020COVID-19 NEWS: IGI Global's 'What Is the Role of Libraries During the COVID-19 Pandemic?'
4/14/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Q&A: What Do People Ask a Librarian in a Pandemic? L.A. Library's InfoNow Has the Answer'
4/14/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Public Libraries Launch, Expand Services During COVID-19 Pandemic'
4/14/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'How Effective Is Quarantine Alone or in Combination With Other Public Health Measures ... ?'
4/14/2020COVID-19 NEWS: CRP's 'The Psychological Fight of Our Lives'
4/16/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Most Libraries Are Closed. Some Librarians Still Have to Go In.'
4/16/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'IMLS Announces New Stimulus Funding for Communities Across America'
4/16/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'EveryLibrary Creates Fund to Help Library Workers in Need Because of COVID-19 Shutdowns'
4/16/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Library of Congress Cancels Public Events Until July 1'
4/21/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'WHO COVID-19 Database Launches New Search Interface'
4/21/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Libraries Brace for Budget Cuts'
4/21/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Verizon Will Buy Video Conferencing Company BlueJeans'
4/23/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Stanford Law School Creates Free Database of COVID-19 Legal Memos'
4/23/2020COVID-19 NEWS: APA Announces More Free Resources
4/23/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Startling Digital Divides in Distance Learning Emerge'
4/23/2020COVID-19 NEWS: European 'Commission Launches Data Sharing Platform for Researchers'
4/30/2020COVID-19 NEWS: Library Resources From SLA and IFLA
4/30/2020COVID-19 NEWS: CCC Plans a May 5 Virtual Town Hall About Building Digital Resiliency
5/5/2020Going Virtual: Libraries See Challenges and Opportunities in the Pandemic
5/5/2020COVID-19 NEWS: Megaputer Launches Geo-Map for Tracking Cases
5/5/2020COVID-19 NEWS: Kudos Pro Offers Complimentary Access for 60 Days
5/7/2020COVID-19 NEWS: Mendeley Group Offers Studies on the Sex and Gender Dimensions of the Virus
5/12/2020Tips for Working Smart at Home
5/12/2020'The "New Normal" Agenda for Librarianship' by R. David Lankes
5/12/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'BiblioCommons Launches New Features to Support Libraries in an Online-Only Environment'
5/14/2020COVID-19 NEWS: ALA Spearheads a Request to Congress for Library Funding
5/14/2020COVID-19 NEWS: Thomson Reuters and NAMLE Teach How to Spot Misinformation
5/14/2020COVID-19 NEWS: Reopening Libraries in Denmark
5/19/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Reopening Libraries in New Zealand: Slow and Steady Wins the Race'
5/19/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Libraries Around the World Prepare for a New Normal'
5/19/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'FlatWorld Announces Textbooks Will Include COVID-19 Updates for Fall Semester'
5/19/2020COVID-19 NEWS: Inside Higher Ed's 'What It's Gonna Take'
5/19/2020COVID-19 NEWS: Inside Higher Ed's 'Open-Access Publishing and the Coronavirus'
6/2/2020Closing and Reopening: COVID-19's Impact on Law Library Services
6/2/2020Libraries Making the Most of Their Resources: A Roundup
5/28/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'More Harm Than Good? Twitter Struggles to Label Misleading COVID-19 Tweets'
5/28/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Public Libraries Innovate to Serve Vulnerable Populations on the Front Lines of COVID-19'
6/2/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Exact Editions Freezes Institutional Subscription Prices for 2020/2021'
6/2/2020COVID-19 NEWS: Patron Point Is 'Helping Libraries Configure Notices as They Re-open Their Locations'
6/9/2020COVID-19 NEWS: Digital Science Studies 'How COVID-19 Is Changing Research Culture'
6/16/2020COVID-19 NEWS: Academic Libraries Will Be 'Changed, Changed Utterly'
6/16/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Libraries Are Needed More Than Ever. But Many Aren't Sure How to Reopen …'
6/16/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Google Maps Rolls Out COVID-19 Transit Alerts'
6/18/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Libraries Get Creative About Reopening as Budget Cuts Loom'
6/18/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'While Library Buildings Are Closed, Collaborative Digital Library Ensures Access to Books for Research, Study'
6/23/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Research Shows Virus Undetectable on Five Highly Circulated Library Materials After Three Days'
6/23/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Data Reveals 60 Percent of People Want to Stay at Home After COVID-19'
6/30/2020University Students Create a Good-News Website
6/30/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'How COVID-19 Has Changed Americans' Comfort Levels, Behaviors and Outlooks'
7/7/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'The Black Lives Matter Protests Have Taught Us More About the Coronavirus'
7/2/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'The MIT Press and UC Berkeley Launch Rapid Reviews: COVID-19'
7/9/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'ALA Summons Support for Library Stabilization Fund Act'
7/9/2020COVID-19 NEWS: Wiley's COVID-19 Research Update
7/9/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'COVID-19 to Accelerate Transition to Open Access Publishing'
7/16/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Librarians Turned Google Forms Into the Unlikely Platform for Virtual Escape Rooms' by Aliya Chaudhry
7/28/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Contact Tracing: How Ireland Built Its App and What It's Doing Next'
7/28/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'School Librarians Lead During Pandemic Learning Conditions'
7/30/2020COVID-19 NEWS: APA Releases Latest Survey Results About Stress in America
7/30/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Librarians Alarmed About Coronavirus Safety at D.C.'s Reopened Public Libraries'
8/4/2020COVID-19 NEWS: SirsiDynix Webinar Covers Coping With Isolation
8/4/2020COVID-19 NEWS: Libraries Take Different Approaches to Reopening
8/11/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'Penguin Random House Extends Temporary E-Book, Digital Audio Terms for Libraries'
8/11/2020The Medical Library Association Is Working to Conquer COVID-19
8/18/2020COVID-19 NEWS: OverDrive Shares '4 Ways to Keep Promoting Your Digital Library'
9/3/2020COVID-19 NEWS: 'AASL Offers COVID Recovery Grants'
9/22/2020A Double Helping of Challenges During the Pandemic
12/1/2020A Roundup of COVID-19's Impact on Higher Education
3/2/2021Beyond Coping: Libraries Stepping Up to Meet Community Needs During the Pandemic
11/1/2023Three Years of Pandemic Life: A Roundup of Information Today's COVID-19 Content

Comments Add A Comment

              Back to top