I was writing recently to my dear colleague, R. David Lankes, Assistant Dean at the University of South Carolina School of Information, when a line from The Godfather III came to mind: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
I retired as director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library last August, but as the pandemic continues I find myself increasingly drawn back to the library world. And, like the e-book issues of last year, I seem to force the topic into every phone call and Zoom conversation with friends.
No question, this is a difficult time. I can’t escape feeling profound grief over the mounting number of lives lost and families impacted. I worry for those working on the front lines. I bristle at the social and racial disparity we see exposed in the news. And, like everyone else, I am anxious about how much longer we will have to shelter at home, and the lasting impact this crisis will have on the economy, and the future of art, culture, and, of course, libraries.
Through all of it, David Lankes has been a lifeline for me. With an optimism rooted in realism, he has become my library hero.
I have known David for over thirty years. In the fall of 1986 I was an adjunct faculty member at the Syracuse University iSchool. I was teaching an ambitious class on library management, and that year and for years to come I shared an office with a group of graduate students who would go on to become thought leaders in the profession—David, John Bertot, Joe Janes, and Howard Rosenbaum.
It was a heady time at the iSchool. The Internet was new to libraries, and my students challenged my knowledge every week in our discussion sessions. I always credit SU for being early to Pine Mail and distance learning, and for jumpstarting my Internet experience. And in 1986, I had much to learn. John, Joe, David, Howard and their SU professors, including Mike Eisenberg, Liz Liddy and Chuck McClure, were visionary in recognizing the Internet’s importance to the future of libraries.
But I don't think anyone could’ve envisioned the particular future now facing libraries.
Recently, David sponsored a series of online support sessions for librarians through the University of South Carolina, and I organized a session on advocacy after the pandemic with my former CCPL colleague Hallie Rich and consultant Galen Schuerlein, from Ohio-based Roetzel Consulting. Given the state of affairs our conversation easily could have devolved into a “woe is us” session. But David kept us laser focused on what is needed—and what is right. He encouraged us to lean on our library values and to explore how those values can yield opportunities to help our communities in new ways in these unprecedented times.
As librarians begin to face this murky, still-evolving new normal, we need positive visions like David’s. So I’m delighted that David has agreed to take part in what promises to be a lively online discussion to open BookExpo’s virtual conference, at 10:00 a.m. on May 26. Organized by Publishers Weekly, I’ll be leading a conversation about how the Covid-19 crisis is impacting public libraries with David; King County executive director Lisa Rosenblum; San Antonio Public Library director and PLA president Ramiro Salazar; and Euclid Public Library director Kacie Armstrong. More details will come soon. The event is free to all, and I hope you’ll mark your calendars and join us online.
In response to my talking and writing about libraries, I get to hear a variety of opinions about the future of libraries in the wake of this pandemic. Some of my friends in Ohio tell me that Americans have short memories and that they expect library users will be back in their buildings as soon as possible. In fact, some Americans are at the library right now—sitting in the library parking lot using the library’s WiFi to connect to schools, social services, and even their friends. Others, including me, question whether those of us Zooming, and streaming, and downloading e-books in the comfort of our homes will rush back to mingle among strangers at the library any time soon.
But one impact of the crisis is clear: the Internet has become even more central to our lives. And even I find myself these days thinking more about content first, than things like privacy or security. I want my e-books and streaming media, my Zoom pilates and happy hours. I connect with friends via Instagram and Facebook. I FaceTime with my new grandson. And, constantly reminded by the CDC and Governor Andrew Cuomo that I am old, I shop more online, steering clear of stores even during so-called “senior hours.” It pains me to admit that I’ve been using Amazon nearly every week to get groceries, as well as new books and toys for my grandson.
The technology is powerful. And no question, there are already some great minds out there working on harnessing technology to create the next big thing for libraries. In my state of retirement, I recognize that I will not be the mother of invention. But after two months of lockdown, I know this much: I do not want to live in an all-digital world.
Don’t get me wrong—I am delighted to see library e-books and digital audio get an overdue bump in circulation. But I still want to be around real people. And I still want physical books. Print books create lifelong memories. I love the brilliant covers of picture books, and the dog-eared pages of beloved titles read over and over. There’s nothing like the touch and smell of a newly minted book, especially the savored, signed copy scored when a favorite author comes to speak at the library. I was especially privileged as the Executive Director of Cuyahoga County Public Library to spend more than a minute with and to get signed copies from some of my favorite writers— Jerry Pinkney, Nikki Giovanni, Amor Towles, and many, many others.
As the lockdown drags on, I can't help but think of how this love and appreciation for books and authors is nurtured by the public library experience. It begins with the borrowing of, say, Mr. Gumpy’s Outing by John Burningham by your pre-reader. Then you’re borrowing two copies of M.E. Kerr’s Me, Me, Me, Me, Me to read with your tweenage daughter. And then, one day, you’re standing in line thinking about what you’re going to say to Judy Blume, or Billy Collins, or Colson Whitehead.
Now, I realize that when you are sitting in the back of the room at an author event you may as well be watching it on a screen. But in my decades of hosting live author events at the library, I’ve seen close up how important these moments of connection can be to a reader. The talks themselves are often amazing. The live, uncensored questions range from good, to groan-worthy. But the moments before the book signing are perfect—standing in line, starstruck, shoulder-to-shoulder with other readers, is a treasured, intimate experience. And I have seen this in people of all ages—children, with Dav Pilkey and R.L. Stine, teens with Rainbow Rowell and Kate DeCamillo. It is moments like these that I fear may be lost as we begin to rethink libraries and library programming amid this pandemic.
As the stay-at-home orders begin to expire, no one really knows what the future holds. There is and will surely be a lot more guidance to come for libraries on the details of reopening safely. But all the energy in the library world cannot be about translating library programs to the web, building digital collections, and ensuring adequate book sterilization to kill the virus. And as we contemplate reopening our libraries and as we begin the important conversation about what lies ahead for libraries in the age of Covid-19, I hope that we'll try to carry forward the best of what our libraries have come to offer.
It's not like libraries are strangers to change. Every once in a while, a patron will express nostalgia for the quiet, demure libraries of years past. But many, many more patrons today appreciate how libraries successfully transformed in the digital age. Library users today enjoy the lively activity all around them in the library, the laughter of children, the vibrant programming and “making” that has become so popular, and the companionable co-working at computers.
In the wake of Covid-19, another critical transformation now looms for public libraries. And the American public is counting on us. They are putting their faith and trust in librarians to steer the public library through this fraught new era. They need us to get this right. Let’s not let them down.
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).