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Libraries during the pandemic

This is an atypical time for everyone where we have been asked to change our lives, by staying at home and social distancing, while we wait for a vaccine for the virus. During times of stress in our local communities, libraries have normally stepped in to become a place of refuge. Providing additional services depending on the need, libraries can offer relief from hot summers with air conditioning or provide helpful information about current natural disasters. Currently, that would be on the topic of COVID-19 or the vaccine. The major way libraries offer relief is by the use of their physical space inside the library. Currently libraries are hindered by opening their doors because it is difficult to avoid the "Three Cs" (enclosed spaces, crowded places and close-contact). Even with this constraint, libraries have maintained their role as a "second responder" and I would like to share a few examples with you on how.

Second Meal

Many students in the United States rely on free meals offered by the public school system. Over the years libraries have taken the initiative to offer an additional meal or a snack for the youth.These children can be fed and at the same time form a relationship with the librarian. In St. Louis County, meals have continued to be provided in a pickup format. Another form of providing nutrition to those in need has been the conversion of Little Free Libraries ,which are scattered throughout neighborhoods, into mini pantries. These acts can help individuals who may be suffering from hunger as well as relive some of the burden on food pantries.

Digital Equity

Access to a computer or the internet as been a growing demand year after year. Members use them to access different government services, writing resumes, research health information to even playing online games. Libraries have not just provided internet access for more Americans but they have also have increased our nation's digital literacy through classes and technology help. In a time where it is more important than ever to have access to the internet from online classes for students to working online to entertainment, libraries have begun lending hotpots and laptops to individuals in need. Since staff cannot offer technology help in person, they have increase their telecommunication services where they will help with any technology questions. This outreach is helping minimizing the negative impact that is effecting our lower income communities.


You may not be aware of this but many libraries have been investing in maker space setups at their central or local branches.Tools such as laser cutters, 3D printers or recording studios are some examples. You may think that dust is collecting on 3D printers but they have been used to create PPE for local health workers. From Billings Public Library to Cleveland Public Library to Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. Creating thousands of face shields for local first responders to protect them as they treat patients. This is a great example of showing the great diversity of tools a library has to offer beyond books.

Homeless Shelters

In the help to reduce the spread of the virus, many cities and counties have been purchasing hotel rooms for the unsheltered so that they too can quarantine. This need has arisen due to the crowded homeless shelters. Spokane's library was converted into a temporary shelter for the city's vulnerable population. This has required some modifications such as adding a shower but it shows how quickly a space can be converted for a new purpose when needed.

Library Services

Lastly, libraries are still allowing access to books and media in either a physical or digital form. Many systems have dedicated locations and times to pick up reserved materials. If you prefer not to change out of your pajamas, you can access almost all materials by streaming or obtaining ebooks on your library's online portal. In addition to providing you easy access to reading materials, libraries have started to provide virtual events such as business classes, digital literacy and book clubs (check out your local library system to see what they are offering). This capability of holding classes virtually can increase the potential outreach of who could participate.

Stress on Libraries

Even though libraries have figured out ways to engage with their communities during times of pandemic, there are challenges to what they can offer to the community. If we look at the American Library Association (ALA) 2010 report of what happened during the recession of 2008, we discover that the majority of public libraries reported a budget reduction in 2009 in addition to a 5-10% budget reduction in 2010.This drastically reduces operating hours, staff size, programs and services. Some places like Washoe County (NV) Public Library lost nearly 40% of their operating budget over two years. It is important to see how COVID-19 may impact your local library budget.

Since I live in Seattle, I can share the library's plan stated by Marcellus Turner, Chief Librarian, on how budget cuts will be met. The library has been asked to reduce their budget by $2.8 million due to the city’s budget gap from decreased taxes. The libraries in Seattle will achieve this reduction by delaying proposed increases in library hours and programs, reducing overhead costs (printing, staff training, building maintenance, 3rd party contracts and technology replacements), keeping open positions vacant and utilizing a grant award. More people have become library users across the country but with the decrease in staff and hours it is a very similar story to the 2008 recession.

Adding another layer to the stress, libraries incur huge costs from the licensing of digital materials, predominantly e-books. If a library purchases a physical book the cost is the same as an individual who purchases a book from the bookstore. An individual can purchase an e-book at a similar retail price as a physical book but a library is typically charged three to five times the retail value of the book. Also, for a e-book license for a library is for two years or a certain number of checkouts before the license needs to be renewed. Quite a difference from replacing a book after the binding starts to wear after years and years of use. Amazon has, also, restricted libraries from purchasing certain titles that are available for individual purchase. Amazon is not the only company creating constraints for profit, Macmillan Publishers were planning on restricting libraries to buying only ONE copy of new titles for the first 8 weeks after its release but this has been put on hold due to COVID-19. If this is ever enacted, it would prevent the library from serving their members and could appear as the fault of the library and not the publisher. Now all the above mentioned issues are in my opinion private companies taking advantage of public institutions funds (aka your taxes) and I believe things should change. Lastly, the one restriction that I think is most egregious is not allowing library systems to share their licenses with other systems. The whole premise of the library is to have shared resources for the public to utilize. Even though you may only interact with your local branch, it is part of a large network that extends across the whole country with subdivisions with county and city systems. This network is being disrupted by the legal terms of e-books and you have the ability to sign a petition to help support the changing of these issues.

Future Social Distancing

Could we see changes in library designs that would assist social distancing in the future? Would these changes be permanent or just temporary? Here are my thoughts.

Seattle Street Sink in University District


Besides plexiglass dividers and more hand sanitizing stations, I think libraries may change to having more open spaces, different types of ventilation and more visible hygiene stations. There has been a movement to decreasing stacks which opens up space for sitting areas, atriums, computer stations and more. These less confined spaces help provide distance between individuals (versus aisles in the book stacks). Rooms could use different types of ventilation, mechanical or natural. The mechanical system will allow libraries to be a cooling/warming center during extreme weather and natural ventilation space offers a safer gathering space for the community in times of social distancing. In Seattle, restrooms have been reopened in many public buildings for anyone in need. Five libraries are part of this initiative. This helps in preventing illnesses from spreading. Having hand washing stations at the entrances of public spaces would decrease the necessity of carrying around hand sanitizers (which would decrease plastic waste). These stations could also be located throughout a city, even unattached to buildings. Seattle Street Sink (image above) has designed and constructed public hand washing stations through out the city and this could become more of the norm.

Columbia Park anchored by Columbia Branch Library in Seattle, WA


Not all libraries have access or the ability to integrate exterior space into their plan but the ones that do should take more advantage of this space. In the past, there had been a concern that integrated exterior spaces could promote theft. But the decrease in the cost of books could over time should lessen the of a concern of theft in a library's design. Courtyards and green spaces could become a more integral part of a library and offer diversity in use of space to the public. Libraries could be built adjacent to parks and offer their services in these outdoor spaces. The relationship between a park and library is visible in numerous older buildings from New York Public Library and Bryant Park to Seattle's Columbia Branch Library and Columbia Park (image above). The opportunity that comes with a large diversity of spaces outweighs the downsides of stolen materials (it is pretty much the same as someone not returning a borrowed materials).

What Can You Do?

There are a few things that you can do to help your libraries out during this time. The first and most important thing is to follow CDC guidelines about social distancing, wearing a mask, avoiding crowds and any other information which can be found on their website. The sooner we can control the virus the sooner we can rebuild our economy which will lead to the funding of our libraries through taxes. Another way you can help your local library outside of donating money is to look into volunteering. Many of our library systems in America were built upon the volunteered hours of the community members. Numerous library systems were started by various women’s groups, such as Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who founded them as an alternative to going to the pub for men. Many of the women volunteered there time until their community received grant money from Andrew Carnegie who required funding to pay the employees. Today, you can still volunteer your time from running programs to homework help to anything else that your library asks from you. Check out when your branch is accepting volunteers again and maybe consider it.

Life has been impacted by a virus but over time we have all figured out a way to reestablish our norm from learning how to make our favorite brunch items at home to having virtual dinner parties. We have also acquired new hobbies from gardening to water coloring. This is a opportunity to reestablish your relationship with your local library, maybe you will learn about resources that have always been available to you. Stay safe and strengthen your community.


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