After three months of an unprecedented lockdown to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, public libraries across the U.S. are now in the process of reopening. A recent American Library Association membership survey found 37% of respondents expect a phased reopening to begin in June or July, with 47% still unsure when their buildings will reopen to the public. But whenever that happens, the public libraries that will emerge from this historic pause will be changed from the ones that closed their doors in March, librarians tell PW, both in the short term, and into the future.

The most pressing issue facing libraries, of course, is how to reopen safely, for both library staff and the public. For most libraries, that means services like curbside pickup or limits on patron visits to start. It means ensuring library workers have appropriate personal protective equipment, and reconfiguring the library space: less furniture, distance between computer stations, more hand sanitizer stations, spit guards, and plexiglass dividers. It means contactless checkout, new cleaning procedures, and 72-hour materials quarantines.

It also means enormous pressure on library staff, including new rules to enforce, such as physical distancing and wearing masks. None of it will be easy. And all of it will be done under the threat of job cuts, a potential second wave of Covid-19 infections, immense budget pressure, and worsening political dysfunction.

A recent Twitter thread asked library workers to share their biggest fears about reopening, and a common theme quickly emerged among respondents—uncertainty. Uncertainty about their personal safety, about the science behind their safety precautions, about their workload, their managers, their job security, and the risk to their health and the health of their communities. And one of the biggest wild cards: uncertainty about how patrons will behave once services resume.

“I know that patrons will refuse to follow distancing rules and will want to argue politics,” one librarian offered. Even the best reopening plans are still “risk mitigation, not safety assurance,” another poster pointed out.

The Digital Side

“One of the best things libraries ever did was to change our spaces to be social spaces," says Lisa Rosenblum, director of the King County (Wash.) Library System. "And now that’s all being upended.”

Rosenblum is quick to praise the work of the library staff in providing digital programs and services during the closures. But her sense of loss is palpable. “We just finished a 15-year bond project. Our libraries are beautiful. Some have fireplaces and beautiful views of the mountains,” she says. “With the internet and e-books, people don’t have to come into our libraries any more, but they do. And we take pride that people want to come into our buildings and stay. But now, until there’s a vaccine, the whole idea of people coming in and staying is a bad thing.”

On February 29, King County reported what was then believed to be the nation’s first death from Covid-19—a man in his 50s, in Kirkland. That day, Washington governor Jay Inslee called the death “alarming” and declared a state of emergency. Meanwhile, in the White House briefing room, President Trump struck a different tone. He referred to the deceased as “a wonderful woman” and warned “the media and politicians” not to incite panic, “because there’s no reason to panic at all.”

Two weeks later, on March 13, the King County Library System—all 50 libraries, serving some 1.4 million residents in the Seattle area—closed its buildings to the public. And days later, on March 17, the American Library Association, for the first time in its history, recommended all libraries across the nation close to the public.

“Libraries almost never close. We're usually the last to close during a crisis,” Rosenblum says, adding that, at first, the idea of a months-long, indefinite closure was almost unthinkable. “In the beginning, I thought, ‘Okay, maybe we’ll have to close for a week or two,’ which is a long time for a library. But eventually, I had to totally rethink everything. And part of my rethinking was to plan as if we were not going to be open again for a really, really long time—because otherwise, we would keep thinking we were just going to go back to the pre-pandemic model, and that’s just not going to happen. We’re going to provide services, but they’re going to look very different than they did prior to the middle of March.”

In response to the unprecedented stay-at-home orders of the last three months, it’s fair to say that libraries nationwide have done a remarkable job pivoting to digital services. In a May 28 editorial in the New York Times, New York Public Library president Anthony Marx reported an 864% increase in NYPL’s SimplyE digital library card sign-ups since closing, as well as a nearly 200% increase in new users across all its e-reading platforms, and a 236% increase in views of NYPL’s educational resources.

“Our goal has been to replicate, as best we can, the unique experience of being in a library while at home,” Marx wrote, pointing to the library’s online storytimes, virtual book clubs, author talks, and reference services.

A scan of the national headlines on any given day shows libraries across the country reporting similar digital engagement. That includes King County, which was already among the nation’s top lenders of e-books and digital resources before the pandemic. Rosenblum reports that digital library card usage is up 351%. To accommodate the digital shift, King County has shifted money from physical book purchases during the pandemic to digital licenses—roughly $350,000 a month.

“I always wanted more people to discover digital,” Rosenblum says. “I just didn’t want to do it this way.”

But librarians warn that the success of their digital pivot during the crisis belies the complexity of the digital library market. While many publishers and service providers have eased pricing and access restrictions during the pandemic, what happens when the pandemic ends is still very much unsettled.

“When you think about some of the comments that have been made by publishers, it’s clear that libraries are still not really seen as a player in the market,” says Kelvin Watson, director of the Broward County (Fla.) Public Library. “The emphasis has been on making sure that libraries don’t mess up retail sales. What I think this pandemic has done for some, if not all, publishers is shine a light on the library’s role in the market.”

To Watson’s point, it was less than six months ago, at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia, that Macmillan CEO John Sargent defended the company’s controversial embargo on new release e-books in libraries, telling a room full of librarians that library e-book lending was tipping the publishing ecosystem out of balance. Six weeks later, in the wake of the pandemic, Macmillan abruptly abandoned the embargo. “There are times in life when differences should be put aside,” Sargent offered as an explanation.

This is not one of those times, Watson suggests. “I think the pandemic gave Macmillan the perfect out, but that does not mean libraries should not continue to stand up and speak out,” he says. “I understand that we’re all going to be feeling a financial crunch from this pandemic. But that should not become the premise for us not having the conversation we still need to have on e-books and digital content. Now is not the time to take our foot off the gas. Now is the time to put our foot down even more.”

Rosenblum agrees. “The fact that Macmillan decided to sell to us again, I can take that as a victory,” she says. “But the discussions weren’t done. I hope we can get back to the table.”

Space Odyssey

Observers in recent years have argued that if public libraries didn’t already exist in America, we wouldn’t be able to invent them. Following the Covid-19 crisis, the question now is: Can we reinvent them?

In his editorial, NYPL’s Marx wrote that Covid-19 has exposed a need for “radical” change in libraries. “The digital public library is a piece of necessary public infrastructure that must be built with the same care, collaboration, and adherence to values—including privacy—that we have used to build and run our branches,” Marx argued. “But it would be irresponsible, and dare I say dangerous,” he added, “to declare that the ‘library of the future’ is here, and it’s only online.”

Watson agrees. “We are definitely in a new place,” he says. “But we’re not going to be giving up on physical books. I do think we’ve sped up the digital transition, though. I used to think that maybe in five years we might be at 70/30 [print-to-digital ratio]. Well, we’re probably at 70/30 now.”

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg, author of the acclaimed 2018 book Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, also agrees.

“It’s been amazing to see libraries increase their e-book offerings and other digital services during this crisis, and I think this moment has helped us understand how the library can better serve people, especially those that can’t get to the library,” Klinenberg says. “But digital isn’t a replacement for the physical library. At this moment of crisis, we are asking digital to be a substitute because we have no other option. But I think few librarians would choose to do their storytimes online rather than in the children’s room, and few educators think the Zoom classroom is better than a physical classroom.”

In fact, Klinenberg believes physical libraries will have an important role to play as the nation recovers from the pandemic.

“The shutting down of cities and public spaces has generated incredible challenges, including an economic recession and a social recession. We now have millions of people who are feeling isolated, and stressed, and out of sorts,” he says. “This is a moment in our history where we are going to need public spaces like never before. I think this pandemic has magnified the importance of the public library in American community life. There simply is no other place that has such capacity to bring people together.”

It’s also a moment of great vulnerability for libraries, he concedes, as the extent of the economic damage caused by the pandemic becomes apparent. “Communities will tell you their library is essential, but local governments are going to be cash-strapped,” Klinenberg says. “I’m very nervous that, at the moment when we need libraries more than ever, local officials will instead feel they have to cut, or shut them down.”

No question, with millions of Americans out of work and high national unemployment rates, many municipalities will be facing tough choices, says John Chrastka, executive director of EveryLibrary, a nonprofit national political action committee dedicated to the support of libraries. “Municipal libraries that do not have a dedicated property tax line are the most vulnerable, followed closely by libraries that depend on a significant contribution from a state aid formula, because state aid right now is tenuous,” Chrastka says, pointing to guidance from Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s. In other words: any library that depends heavily on local use taxes and fees for its funding—sales tax or hotel occupancy fees, for example—figures to be hard hit. And that’s a significant percentage of libraries across the country.

One lifeline, of course, is the federal government, which, given the state of our politics, isn’t exactly encouraging. But libraries are popular, and the library community has proven extremely effective in its advocacy efforts over the years, securing increases in federal library funding in each of the first three years of the Trump administration, despite the administration’s proposals to eliminate virtually all federal library support.

In the wake of the pandemic, the advocacy stakes for libraries have leveled up.

“Let’s be clear, when you hear there is a debate in Congress about whether to ‘bail out’ states and cities, that is a debate about whether your local library stays open, or closes. That’s about whether the park system stays open or closes. It’s about schools and teachers. And American voters are going to need to connect the dots, or we could soon find ourselves without many of the institutions that keep us stable.” Klinenberg says. “I would say this is a decisive moment.”