Coronavirus Tests the Limits of America’s Public Libraries

In April, a Johns Hopkins University report for governors on reopening drew such fierce backlash from librarians that the authors eventually revised their guidance. The report had initially deemed libraries a low-risk environment, meaning contact with other people is brief, “fairly distant” and with a few people. But “the study tainted the view of people at the state level,” said Callan Bignoli, the director of the library at Olin College of Engineering, in Needham, Massachusetts. “They’re thinking libraries are quiet and chill, with airy reading rooms where people just grab books off the shelves and don’t interact with each other. That is absolutely not the case.” The amended guidance noted that libraries could be medium to high risk when they function as “community centers.” 

Public libraries are, in fact, one of the last free spaces in the U.S. where vulnerable populations can seek out unemployment assistance, internet and computer access, and daytime shelter from the streets; for some, they’re also de facto child-care centers.  “Libraries aren’t in the business of books — they’re in the business of communities,” said Curtis Rogers at the Urban Library Council. That means workers in major public systems can interact with hundreds of patrons daily in an enclosed space, where people share everything from books to furniture and computers to printing machines. 

Now, as states begin to reopen, libraries are figuring out how to safely serve their communities again, amid the threat of an ongoing pandemic in which person-to-person transmission is riskiest in indoor spaces where people linger for a long time. Some smaller libraries have started allowing the public back inside their buildings in a limited capacity, which worries Bignoli. She has been an outspoken advocate for the rights and safety of library workers, and helped start a nationwide petition calling for governments and employers to allow workers to make demands for protection. 

In other cities like Toledo, Ohio, library employees are going back to work, but setting up no-contact services like curbside pickup, book drops and printing services, while preparing to adapt their space for future phases when patrons will be allowed back inside. They’re also continuing virtual programming like online book clubs and the Ask-A-Librarian hotline.

Meanwhile, there’s another set of challenges in the reopening process: Extended school closures and massive unemployment mean that communities depend on their local libraries now more than ever for internet access and assistance in job searches. A 2010 survey by the American Library Association found that in the wake of the 2008 recession, libraries were crucial in helping the unemployed navigate the job market online and learn new skills to boost their resumes. At the same time, social distancing and an economic downturn that’s cut into state and city budgets — including into funds reserved for public libraries — mean that few, if any, institutions can operate at full capacity over the next few months.

That means libraries will have to prioritize their resources, adapt existing programs to what people need most and possibly even cut the ones that benefit the community the least. “We have such a broad mission to serve everyone in the community, and it’s incredibly difficult, but we want to be great at everything we do,” John Szabo said of the Los Angeles Public Library’s 73 branches, which he oversees. “As we move into the fall, we do have to look at what the issues and needs are, and align our major initiatives around them.” 

In Ohio, Jason Kucsma, director of the Toledo Lucas County Public Library, says one of his libraries hopes to deploy a fleet of mobile vehicles equipped with Wi-Fi hotspots to communities that need them most, but hasn’t done so because the program is costly to maintain. The library system is facing a projected $4.5 million deficit for the rest of 2020, with possibly more revenue loss next year. So far, operating hours and other expenses have been reduced at all 20 locations to address the shortfall; staff members, including Kucsma himself, have taken pay cuts to keep the library open.

In the long term, libraries will have to reevaluate their roles in the communities, and how much of society’s inequities they can reasonably shoulder as the pandemic wears on, he said. “Libraries have picked up a lot of the work to fill the gaps, but what I think we will see on the other side of this is that communities will realize that there are very big gaps in how we meet the basic needs of our community members,” Kucsma said. “We are here to serve our communities in ways that make sense but we cannot be everything to everyone.”

In Los Angeles, Szabo isn’t anticipating a significant financial challenge, but says the LAPL and other libraries should focus their resources on key issues that the pandemic blew wide open like unemployment and disparities in health and digital access. It wouldn’t be an unfamiliar undertaking for the LAPL, which hosts digital programs like career online high school to help residents earn their diploma, and initiatives around distributing health information and providing free health exams. 

Right before the pandemic, LAPL was on the cusp of launching its “Street Fleet” — three vans equipped with computers and a maker studio, with tools like 3-D printers and sewing machines. Initially, it would park at different schools to promote STEAM education. Now it could be used to address the digital divide by providing those computers and internet to people who need it for school or to apply for jobs. “I think it’s going to take new forms going forward,” Szabo said. “We could also imagine taking those vehicles into homeless encampments or to senior centers to provide some mobile services. What that will look like I don’t know.”

In the next phase of reopening, some of these now-closed libraries will alleviate several pressing needs by admitting a limited number of people inside, to allow for things like access to the library’s computers for up to an hour at a time. They’ll address some of their everyday infection challenges with fixes like “quarantining” returned items for up to 72 hours before re-lending them. 

Returning patrons can expect to see a lot of social distancing reminders, Kucsma said: “I spent a lot of time with my team last year trying to remove unnecessary signage in our building, and right now we are bringing a lot of those visual cues back.” The signs will encourage patrons to wear masks, but stop short of requiring them as they are not mandated by the state of Ohio.

With the course of the pandemic constantly changing, Kucsma is also focused on ramping up the library’s virtual offerings for the foreseeable future, and taking advantage of the outdoors while he can. “Summer is upon us so there are some very innovative ways to potentially move some things outside, even on our own property, whether that’s a makeshift computer lab or story time on the front lawn.”

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