Things I Never Learned in Library School: Librarianing in the Time of a Pandemic
I have been a library worker/librarian serving youth in various public libraries for a little over 26 years now. I believe in the power and importance of public libraries. I have had the privilege of working from home and still serving my patrons for the past five weeks. Yesterday, despite all scientific advice, my governor joined other governors across the nation in announcing that we would start opening ASAP and I, despite my love of libraries, have never been more terrified. I have listened while my peers have had the conversations for weeks now, I’ve been reading the news and the science, and I have been listening to library users and community members talk about what should be happening in our public libraries. Today, I want to share my personal thoughts (not related to my library at all) about librarianing in the time of a pandemic.
A Brief History of Libraries and Why It Matters
Libraries began a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away to provide a means of sharing community resources. What makes a library a library has evolved over the years and it continues to evolve. When you think of a library you probably think about book sharing, and that is a thing that we do. In fact, the word library stems from the Latin root libre, which means books. We are a place where people share books, and that has value. Not because books in and of themselves are important, but because they are a way for us to share stories, to share information, and to learn and to grow. Books are a powerful tool for information access and sharing.
Over time libraries evolved to include things like music, movies, and more. A typical library now provides community access to paper books, audio books, movies in various forms, music in various forms, magazines, newspapers, etc. Every time a new format comes out, libraries have to make space for entirely new categories of materials, most often in the same small buildings. Each new format means everything gets pushed closer together and the building gets more full. Keep in mind, these items are picked up, put down, checked out, and returned by a wide variety of people through out the course of a day. Everything that a library is designed to share access to goes through a lot of hands.
So what you have is a collection of materials browsed by a large number of patrons going in and out of a lot of hands. In the time of a deadly viral pandemic.
In the 1990s libraries started adding public Internet access computers. Remember, this is another way we had to take a new service that required a lot of equipment and put them in already full and growing even more full buildings. When you walk into almost any public library in the United States, you will find a large number of patrons sitting shoulder to shoulder and waiting in line to access public computers. Sometimes, they are even in small enclosed rooms. That’s a lot of people sitting closely and sharing resources. In the time of a deadly viral pandemic.
At this same time, public libraries began to recognize growing community needs and added more seating and group seating for things. They also began hosting small and large group programming for families and various age groups. Children’s storytimes, teen programs, adult book discussions, makerspaces and more. These are events and spaces designed to bring groups of people together in social groups to interact with each other and shared spaces and tools. In the time of a deadly viral pandemic.
Browsing collections. Circulating materials. Public access computers. Small and large group programs. Everything that a library is and is designed to offer is counter to what scientists seem to be suggesting is best practices in the midst of this Covid-19 pandemic. Public libraries are a shared space with shared resources, a viral outbreaks dream. This should give us all pause.
What Happens When Libraries Are Closed
In March, public libraries everywhere closed their doors. But staff didn’t stop working. Public libraries did what they always do and they evolved; they learned, they grew, they pivoted, and they developed best practices to meet the current needs of today’s patrons in a way that ensured the health and safety of their communities, which includes patrons AND staff. Public libraries are long standing institutions because we have become good at adapting.
Most libraries already had digital collections in place through services like OverDrive and Hoopla, and they increased their collections here. They started offering online storytimes, virtual programs, and ways for their patrons to connect to staff via phone, email or Internet to get questions answered. In short, like everyone else, we punted. So while the changes for public libraries are very real, the response has been amazing.
It’s not a perfect solution. Like what we are seeing in our public schools, virtual services are a system that privileges those of means that have a way to virtually connect with libraries. It leaves out some of our most vulnerable, marginalized and oppressed patrons. No library worker I know is happy with this end result, except for the part where we know that we are keeping our staff and patrons safe. In the midst of a deadly viral outbreak, health and safety must be our primary goal. Let’s not kill each other through casual contact is arguably the highest community standard in a time when we can literally be killing one another without even knowing we are doing it. I like not killing my patrons. I like not being killed by my patrons.
So while I don’t think what’s happening right now in our libraries is normal best practices, I think it is best practices in a time that is so far removed from normal there is no real playbook.
What Happens to Libraries in 2020?
The short answer is: I don’t know. I am not a scientist. I am not a politician. I am not in a decision making or leadership position. I am, however, a librarian. I am a citizen. I am a daughter, a wife, a mother, a friend, a human. And I am afraid.
I am afraid of going back to work in a building in which people come in and out and items come in and out. A building which was designed to bring people together and share resources. A building which encourages groups to gather. A building which any staff member will tell you is full of shared germs, close contact, and a lot of human interaction.
Here’s another fun fact about public libraries. We are community funded at some level, either local, county or state. It’s true, your taxes pay our salary. It’s also true that like most publicly funded entities, we are often under funded and don’t have the financial means or access to get the supplies that we would need to keep our buildings virus free for you, our patrons, and for our staff. I mean, I haven’t seen cleaning supplies at my local grocery store since this all began. And if we could get our hands on enough to operate a large building with a ton of foot traffic, that means we would be taking it out of the supply for local hospitals, police, fire, etc. In terms of pandemic prioritizing, I don’t think public libraries comes before hospitals.
Here’s another fun fact. Books are hard to clean. So are magazines. And there’s a lot of conflicting information out there about how long the virus lives on what types of services, what best practices are, and what safety measures libraries should take. This is new and no one has good, scientific information yet to know what it is we should be doing. Every day what we think we know about Covid-19 and what it does and what it means seems to be changing. To use a popular sports ball metaphor, the goal posts keep moving and we don’t know what we don’t know. This is new.
Many libraries are contemplating curb side service. I have done the thing where I placed an order, drove up to a store and had someone place those items in the trunk of my car. Let me tell you why it’s hard for a library to do this. You’ve probably noticed that right now you can’t return items to a store. Bought the wrong kind of beans? Too bad, they’re yours now. This is to help prevent the flow of items in between people so the virus has less chance to pass between people. This doesn’t work for a public library, we take our items back so that we can lend them to the next person. It’s literally out standard operating procedure. This is not best practices in a viral pandemic that has killed 50,000+ Americans in about 6 weeks.
Grocery stores remained open because eating is a necessary component of survival. Eating food is not something we can stop doing for a bit. Though I love reading and believe strongly that access to information is a great democratic equalizer, I recognize that it’s not essential to survival in the same way as eating is. Although imperfect, we do have virtual ways to meet a large number of community needs without endangering them. I’m a book and pop culture nerd so outside of a pandemic I would tell you books are essential; inside of a pandemic, surviving takes precedence. I’m voting for survival every time.
I think it is dangerous for public libraries to re-open their building without more information and lowering death toll numbers. Our numbers in the United States are not going down, not yet. That matters. This is important data for decision making.
Even when the numbers start going down, this virus won’t be done. Most scientists are saying this will come in waves and cycles, possibly for the next 12 to 18 months. Fun fact: More Americans died in the Flu epidemic in the second wave when everything “went back to normal”, in part because they tried to go back to normal too early. We can learn from history and science and make different decisions for our communities. Opening too early will cost many more lives than necessary.
When I hear my peers talking about what this year will look like, I hear things like:
- We will have to no longer allow patrons to browse our physical collections until we know a lot more. I know libraries who are planning on opening later in the summer or fall once more data is known who plan on allowing patrons to place holds and do pick up only.
- At first, we will have to do curbside pick up, but not too early. Again, we need more information to adopt best practices to keep our patrons and staff safe. The biggest issue we will have is when is it safe to accept returns.
- We’ll have to figure out how and when we can begin to accept return items. This means we need to know when and how to clean and sanitize items. This also means we need to know when we can safely buy the materials we need to do this without taking them away from the first responders who need them more immediately.
- Eventually, we’ll have to rethink public computer access. If we provide it in 2020, we should spread them out a lot more and clean them with extreme vigilance between each patron.
- Programming should continue to be virtual for all of 2020 or until we have more facts. When in person programming does resume, we’ll need to have smaller groups, more space, and less shared tools. I’ve read recommendations that say no programming in 2020.
- After virtual programming but before we go to full in-person programming, some libraries might and should provide things like make and take kits that DO NOT RETURN. Think craft kits where staff provide all of the supplies that get consumed by the patron provided in bags that we don’t want back.
I think like the rest of the world, you will see permanent changes in public libraries moving forward way beyond when this pandemic is over. Which, again, is not going to be in the year 2020. I think public libraries will have to re-think their spaces and hygiene practices. I think they will have to re-evaluate what types of materials they offer, how much, and how much floor spaces they will dedicate to them. I imagine there will be a lot of discussion about creating more open spaces for more social distancing as a general practice.
I also think many libraries will realize the benefit of virtual services and create and maintain dedicated teams to reach library users and supporters who will engage with us online but never step foot into our buildings. Digital collections will continue to be areas of focus, as will virtual programming. In an ideal world, public libraries would have both an in-house and virtual programming team. They would be separate teams that coordinate and communicate but have the time and resources dedicated to reaching their intended audience in effective and meaningful ways.
I don’t think physical buildings will permanently close. When this is over, people will be in more need than ever and we know through data that when the economy grows worse, public library use goes up. And after months of isolation and quarantine, people will need affordable places to be social, and this is something that libraries have always excelled at. There will come a time once again when our doors will safely open and what we have to offer will be exactly what our communities need. This may not be that time, but it is coming.
Libraries are always evolving and changing and we are witnessing that happening right now in very real ways. This is not the end of libraries, but the beginning of our next evolution. I don’t know what happens next. I do think that for now, it’s best that our doors remain closed and we do the thing we do best: seek out and find authoritative and reliable data to help us make best practices decisions to keep our patrons and staff healthy and safe while doing our best to serve our communities. The rules are changing right now, and it feels terrifying. Pandemic planning was not covered in library school
As I write this, public libraries everywhere are laying off staff. We know that budgets are being slashed because tax revenues have fallen way short due to sheltering in place. This is an overwhelming moment to be in a profession designed to do everything that seems to make this virus thrive. I hope that everyone out there making decisions about our health and safety will do so with the gravitas this moment requires.
In this moment, everything is changing. None of us were prepared and none of us know what comes next. But libraries will do what we always do best, change to fit the changing world. And thrive.
*Please note, this blog is not associated with any current or former employer and represents no one’s opinion but mine. Also, I do know that librarianing is not a real word.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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