On Friday, March 13, I received an email from New York Public Library informing me that they were closing until at least March 31 to limit the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Later that same day, I learned that Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL), my former library home, made the same difficult decision to close. And on March 17, the American Library Association issued an unprecedented statement recommending that all libraries close for the first time in its history.
All week long I’ve obsessed on the internet, visiting the websites of public libraries across the country, large and small, as they began to shutter in support of government state-of-emergency and social distancing policies. It has been a true doomsday experience to see our nation’s libraries—the places that provide books and serve as havens for so many citizens—no longer able to serve their essential roles.
Over my career, I’ve typically been a stoic when it comes to closing libraries. Back when I lived in Syracuse, NY, it would take feet (not inches) of snow to shutter the Onondaga County Public Library, though, over my 17 years as director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library, I softened my stance on weather closings.
There have been other disasters, too, of course. On September 11, 2001, I was Deputy Director at Cleveland Public Library. After watching the World Trade Center collapse, I insisted that we close the library immediately. Even though Clevelanders may not have been in imminent danger, the gravity of the situation was clear, and everyone, including our staff needed to be home with their loved ones in their own personal safe havens.
As we deal with this frightening Covid-19 pandemic, I completely support the decision to close public library buildings across the nation for the foreseeable future. Obviously, this is a necessary decision that seeks to protect public health and safety. But it is also a decision of compassion and respect for librarians and library workers everywhere.
Let’s Stay Connected
Here's the good news: the public library today is never truly closed thanks to our digital collections. Can't go out? Well, you can still finally start to learn a new language, take a virtual cooking class, or catch up on those classic books you never had time to read, all thanks to your public library.
Some libraries, such as Brooklyn Public Library here in New York, are streaming storytimes for kids via Facebook Live, among its virtual programming. Many libraries, are maintaining virtual reference services. Online library research tools and resources remain available 24/7 for homeschoolers, distance learners, and those now forced to work from home.
Great stories are essential during times of crisis—and especially a crisis like this one, with millions of Americans forced to stay home. For years, librarians have pushed hard for fair terms and reasonable prices that would allow us to build robust e-book and digital audiobook collections for our communities. We’ve made progress, but we're not where we need to be. But perhaps this crisis—for the public, and for lawmakers—will finally highlight the importance of libraries and schools being able to offer digital content.
Already, we are seeing some small but meaningful changes. Penguin Random House, for example, has stepped up with more flexible terms for digital licensing for public libraries, and they have granted permission for libraries and schools make use of their works for online reading and lessons. In the big news of the week, Macmillan abandoned its e-book embargo, and has promised to temporarily lower prices on some titles. And vendor Overdrive is negotiating for more free and low-cost collections, including thousands of no-cost simultaneous access titles. In addition, OverDrive is waiving all costs for the Instant Digital Card to new library customers.
In the midst of all this, I also urge all of us to think about authors. Authors are in effect small independent businesses—businesses that won’t likely be eligible for a bailout. Libraries are of course the primary gateway for author discovery. And with libraries now closed, I worry about all writers, but especially those with new books who will be missing out on key marketing opportunities. I am especially concerned for first time authors, and the long list of popular midlist writers who are most at risk of being passed over in the coming months.
Last month, I had brunch with the great author Caroline Leavitt, hoping to write about her career and forthcoming book, With or Without You (Algonquin, August 2020). It was a non-stop talkfest, and I certainly came away with much to write about. But the biggest takeaway for me, was learning of her desire to help emerging writers get published, and to promote the work of other authors. I came away from that conversation effectively drawn into her world of supporting new writers and new works as well as energizing readers.
As events and author readings were being shut down amid this pandemic, Leavitt began a campaign with Robin Kall of the Reading with Robin podcast to create the kind of virtual promotion that authors need to make up for cancelled library and bookstore events. Leavitt is now joining with Jenna Blum, author of the The Lost Family, to create “A Mighty Blaze” on Facebook, described as a place where writers can connect with readers in this time of social distancing.
Libraries, let’s pitch in and get involved, too. Check out the facebook page for “A Mighty Blaze,” where authors like Brenda Janowitz, author of the The Grace Kelly Dress, are posting videos for readers. With a March 3 release date, all of Janowitz’s physical book events were shut down, and she is now depending on social media tools to meet readers and promote new books.
Librarians, let’s see what we can do to help Janowitz, and the many authors who now find themselves in the same position, connect with readers.
We Will Get Through This…
As I visualize the end of the Coronavirus and the reopening of public libraries, I have to believe that some good must come from this experience.
For one, I hope this unprecedented health crisis will help more people rediscover reading for entertainment. We are all stakeholders in the reading enterprise. Let’s do all we can to ensure we come back to a postcoronavirus world with more readers reading more books.
I also hope we can come back to a broader discussion about the importance of libraries in the book market. Libraries deserve to sit at the table with publishers, authors, and booksellers—as equals—for a meaningful discussion about books, reading, publishing revenue, author royalties—and, of course, digital access and pricing.
We must also finally address the glaring need for an effective national broadband policy to ensure that every American has the internet and computer access they need in good times as well is in times of crisis. On March 16, I read a Cleveland.com piece “Need WiFI during coronavirus crisis? Libraries offer internet in parking lots.” Libraries may appreciate the shout-out. But this is hardly a good story for the millions of people who desperately need to apply online for unemployment, do online learning with their children, or access web-based healthcare with their doctors.
Most importantly, after this crisis—and we will get through this crisis—stakeholders and funders must recognize what many of us already know: libraries are essential. All libraries. Imagine how much better positioned we’d be to handle this crisis today if every school today had librarians? In the best of times school librarians are indispensable—in a crisis, school librarians are absolute superheroes.
No question, the economic impact of this pandemic will surely force some tough choices in many communities in the coming months. But when our libraries reopen—and we will reopen—we must all resolve to keep them financially secure.
I’m one of the lucky ones. Here in New York City, I can walk to see my children and grandson every day, even as I keep my distance from the rest of the world. But, I can’t help but think about others without their closest family and friends nearby, and now without their local library, and I wonder how they will manage during this unprecedented time.
Please, stay safe everyone. And stay connected.
PW columnist Sari Feldman is the former executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland, Ohio, and a former president of both the Public Library Association (2009–2010) and the American Library Association (2015–2016).