The American public library is alive with activity despite a worldwide pandemic. An example of this can be found in the parking lot of my library, the Conneaut Public Library in Ohio. On any given day, cars will settle into their spots in the morning, its occupants will flip open their laptops, connect to the library Wi-Fi, and begin what will be hours of school, or work. Library employees recognize these regular patrons. One runs a small business out of his home. Two sisters in a blue pick-up truck work on their high school assignments.
There are other patrons gathering in the library parking lot as well. One regular, we'll call him Brice, must file paperwork each Monday to receive his assistance checks. Brice is one of many people around the country reentering society after serving time in a correctional institution. In normal times, he'll sit at one of the library’s eight public computers, battered notebook in hand, following the handwritten instructions that guide him through his mission-critical weekly process. For Brice, no library internet access equals no assistance check. Our staff sees and feels his pain. In his more frustrated moments, he speaks of his desire to return to the place he knows, rather than stay in the world he is now struggling to navigate.
Barrier-free access to information has long been a battle cry of the American public library. And, as the incoming president of the Association for Rural & Small Libraries (ARSL) I can attest that closing the digital divide has long been a top priority for librarians. ARSL members believe deeply in the value of rural and small libraries, and we have long worked to create digital resources and services that address the needs of people in rural communities nationwide. But living under the cloud of Covid-19 has show us the urgent need for a strong national broadband plan. The pandemic has made crystal clear that access to the internet is essential to address basic human needs, and should be treated like other public utilities. The need is real, and as librarians we see it and feel it every single day in the library.
The pandemic has also shown us the need for more equitable access to digital resources, like e-books and other educational resources. While some publishers have offered welcome pricing and access breaks for digital content during the pandemic, it is unclear what the future holds. And, it remains difficult to engage publishers about a more equitable and sustainable digital library market. It’s time for this to change.
What publishers must realize is that the American public library is many things to many people. And despite the spread of Covid-19, we remain open. We are delivering books to homebound patrons, and handing them through car windows. We are rearranging our spaces to provide safe and socially distant in-person learning. We are supporting schools and small businesses, and leading conversations on issues of social and racial justice in communities around the country. We issue passports, and notarize important documents. And given our limited budgets and resources, every extra dollar we are forced to commit to overly expensive, temporary e-book licenses impacts the library’s ability to serve our communities in other ways.
As with many libraries nationwide, a quick look at the data from the Conneaut Public Library shows a significant rise in digital borrowing during the pandemic. The two sisters sitting in the blue truck in our parking each morning represent the growth of OverDrive checkouts of Young Adult and Juvenile nonfiction—up 129% and 141% respectively at our library. How we can afford to continue to serve the growing number of digital users is a pressing question. At the same time, we know these statistics only include patrons fortunate enough to have devices and internet access. How many people in our community are we leaving behind?
We may not know the answer, but we know this for sure: the more barriers to digital access that exist—whether it is a patron's lack of internet access, or the unsustainable high prices of library e-books—the more people will be prevented from connecting to school or work, and the more people will be prevented from developing and nurturing the recreational reading habits we know are vital to creating engaged citizens and sustaining curious minds.
Meanwhile, the growth we’ve seen in e-book usage during the pandemic does not necessarily reflect a broader shift in how people are using our library. Just as consumer print book sales have endured in 2020, the circulation of physical items—despite no in-person programming—remains a steady and predictable number here in Conneaut. Have we added digital content here in Conneaut during the pandemic? Yes, of course. Are we adding Zoom and Facebook live story times? Yes. But what the pandemic has shown us is that this cannot be an either/or conversation, it must be an and conversation. Because we cannot allow the rising demand for digital content to drain resources from other formats and other vital community assistance programs.
For those publishers who have helped libraries during the pandemic by easing prices and restrictions, we see you, and we thank you. And to all publishers, we stand ready to talk about the future of digital access in libraries. There’s nothing like a worldwide pandemic to challenge one’s assumptions and priorities. Now is the time to step up. Let's work together to bring books and equitable, sustainable digital access to every corner of every community in our country.
Kathy Zappitello is executive Director of the Conneaut Public Library in Conneaut, Ohio, and is the 2021 president of the Association for Rural & Small Libraries (ARSL). She has worked for over 17 years in Ohio libraries is a board member for Ohio Library Council’s Small Library Division.