Like many people throughout the country, I am spending too much of my quarantine life obsessing about the future. What will our world look like once we are finally past this Covid-19 health crisis? Like everyone else, I long for a return to normal. But when we finally do step out from our “stay-at-home” orders, we will surely be stepping into a new normal, and one that will hold major implications for many institutions, including public libraries.
In a previous column, I wrote about the unprecedented library closures around the country in the wake of the pandemic. The value of public libraries is rarely questioned in times of crisis—think of the New Orleans Public Library after Hurricane Katrina, or the Ferguson Municipal Public Library during the unrest there. But this crisis—more specifically, the social distancing required to address this crisis—strikes at the very foundation on which the modern public library rests. And as the days go by, I find myself increasingly concerned about how libraries come back from these closures.
For one, I suspect that Covid-19 will change some people’s perspective on what can and should be shared. I fear many people will begin to overthink materials handling and the circulation of physical library collections, including books. It’s a reasonable assumption that people will emerge from this public health crisis with a heightened sense of risk related to germ exposure. How many of our patrons—particularly those with means—will begin to question the safety of borrowing books and other items from the library?
In terms of our buildings, open access for everyone has long been a celebrated library value. Public libraries have evolved, survived, and have even managed to thrive through a digital transformation by reconfiguring our spaces to be more social, more functional, and by offering more programs and classes. Can we maintain that in an age of social distancing? Will libraries need to supply gloves for shared keyboards? Will parents and caregivers still want to bring their children to a “Baby and Me” program? Will seniors still find respite in a library community?
I question, above all, what this crisis will mean for the library/publisher relationship. With library buildings closed, and many librarians furloughed, how will public libraries continue to lead on book and author discovery? A number of librarians have taken to hosting Zoom chats. But with many library websites being refreshed less frequently, combined with canceled author tours and a diluted publishing schedule during the crisis, it is increasingly challenging for librarians to get out front about new books and authors.
Discovery of new books and authors will be also be impacted by the cancellations of the ALA Annual Conference, and BookExpo. These events have become premier opportunities for publishers to reach book-savvy librarians to encourage displays, hand-selling, social media, online reviews and author visits at local libraries around the country, in hopes that excited librarians will contribute to the making of a bestseller. In fact, my first book of the New York City lockdown was Weather by Jenny Offill—a galley I collected at the ALA Midwinter Meeting. I am recommending it as widely as I can, but it’s not the same being stuck here in physical isolation.
In terms of maintaining strong collections, many libraries have suspended purchases of print titles while they are closed during the crisis. This could have major implications going forward. How many libraries will be able to double back at some point to buy copies of print books published during the crisis for their collections? And, of course, without the proper logistic systems in place, some titles might not even appear in a library's catalog.
Predictably, e-books, digital audio, and other streaming services have become essential during this crisis. OverDrive has reported a surge in the number of libraries now offering instant library cards, and a massive increase in books borrowed. In the last week of March, after stay-at-home orders went in place around the country, an astonishing 250,000 readers installed OverDrive’s Libby app.
That growth trajectory is an opportunity, and is encouraging news for libraries that have tried for years to get more traction for their digital collections. However, the digital library market has been tenuous in the best of times, marked by high prices, lend limits, and other restrictions. And this sudden shift to digital now presents a whole new set of potential concerns, not the least of which is that this increase in digital usage does not automatically come with additional support for public library budgets. And, of course, users without good access to cell and Internet service are excluded.
Beyond cost and access, this new way of doing business could also impact a library’s relationship with their local community. What if readers begin to identify more with the brand delivering their service—for example, the Libby app—and less with their local public library?
The shift to digital may also blur the boundaries of public library systems. After all, if your e-books and digital audio comes through an app, why does it matter where you live? Will the sudden digital switch entice more libraries to merge collection development dollars in an effort to provide more access and shorter wait times? These are the kinds of questions that could further complicate an already tense relationship between the library and publishing communities.
Meanwhile, as individual libraries (and librarians) grapple with the pandemic, the American Library Association is dealing with its own challenges: an association-wide reorganization, and a serious cash shortfall. But whatever organizational changes follow, ALA has a critical role to play in support of America’s libraries as we emerge from this crisis.
For example, rallying support for universal broadband. If nothing else, the Covid-19 crisis has laid bare the need for the Internet to be treated as an essential utility. Online education should also be a new rallying cry for professional librarians. We need librarians to curate and present content as well as support students of all ages at school, at home, and in their communities. And at some point soon we must take up the question of equal access—all content, all providers, all available to libraries. Congress has much on its plate, but demanding action for the people must be at the top of the ALA agenda.
Some observers have dubbed this crisis “The Great Pause.” But I believe librarians cannot pause. Librarians cannot sit back and wait to unlock the library doors again. We must take this time to begin thinking about how public libraries will function in a society that will certainly be changed for the short term, and may be changed forever.
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).