As the world begins to consider a postpandemic future, library leaders face a host of complex challenges, ranging from the health and safety of library workers and patrons to an unprecedented, politically motivated rise in book challenges. At the recently concluded U.S. Book Show, PW spoke with three library leaders to get their sense of what lies ahead for libraries: Stephanie Chase, executive director of Libraries of Eastern Oregon; R. David Lankes, the Virginia and Charles Bowden Professor of Librarianship at the University of Texas at Austin School of Information, and Roosevelt Weeks, director of the Austin (Tex.) Public Library. The following q&a has been edited for clarity and concision. The full discussion is embedded below and available online here.

Let’s start by tackling something concrete: library buildings. With Covid-19 restrictions now lifted in many places, how does it feel to be back in your buildings?

Stepanie Chase: Libraries in the eastern part of Oregon have basically been open full-service since May 2020, and many of our rural counterparts have been welcoming people back into their spaces for almost two years. But I think there’s a different level of engagement in rural library spaces. Our staff and our public tend to know each other well, and I think that has allowed the transition back into spaces to be smoother. It’s a little different to be fighting with somebody over restrictions when you know them and see them at the grocery store or at school or when you’re out on a walk. In large, urban libraries where you have a large volume of people coming in, it’s harder to have those connections.

What I hear from our libraries on the eastern side of Oregon is that they’re back to prepandemic levels of visits, if not more, and are seeing the same people coming back in. There has not been a drop off. People missed their libraries and were eager to get back to using them in the way that they had been using them before, as part of a small community.

Roosevelt Weeks: We have been in a tough situation here in Texas with the governor not mandating masks in buildings and those types of things. It was difficult for us to work in that environment, but we managed it. We opened fully to the public back in March, with some restrictions, and in April we started allowing our customers to come into the buildings without masks. We waited until after the spring festivals before allowing folks to come into our buildings without masks, because the pandemic is still here.

It feels great to be back in the building. We are a public library and interacting with people is what we do. But we have done several things to address the safety of our staff and our customers. For example, we installed an atomization system within our HVAC system. We still have our plexiglass up, all our staff and customers are still offered PPE, and hand sanitizers are still available. Prior to the pandemic, we were averaging about 100,000 people a month coming into our central library. Now we’re back to about 40,000, and rising. So people are beginning to trickle back into our spaces.

David, you’ve written and talked a lot about finding a “new normal” in libraries. Can you talk a little bit about where we are in terms of that new normal, and what we’ve learned about library work over the last two years?

R. David Lankes: Yes, I’ve been writing and pocasting around this new normal for the last couple of years. Recently we had a symposium where we gathered library leaders and thinkers and we said, “Alright, so what’s the new normal agenda?” And the outcome surprised me—because we didn’t come up with one. And as we were thinking about why, one of the library workers explained it: “Because we’re tired. We are under stress. We are at a point where we still just can’t think about what’s next yet. We need to do a lot of healing within the profession.”

Hearing that—and understanding that—was a clear demonstration that, while a lot of us are seeking to once again think about what libraries can be and how we can serve our communities, what we need most right now is radical empathy for the workers inside the library building—the people who may be struggling with someone who is immunocompromised at home, the person who may be the primary breadwinner, the person who may be all alone if they get sick. We really have to figure out how we can take care of ourselves if we are to take care of those we serve.

Weeks: The pandemic has done a lot to a lot of us mentally, both within the library and in our communities, and that is going to have a long-term impact on us and how we do our work. One of the things this new normal demands of us is flexibility. Because things are changing on a regular basis. For example, since, as a public library, we can’t have the majority of our staff working from home, one of the things that we’ve tried is giving staff breaks in the back office rather than having people work on the desks all the time. One of the things I’m very proud of is that with the measures we’ve put in place in Austin, based on what HR is reporting, no one working in our system has contracted the virus while in our building. And we’re going to continue to work with our staff to keep them safe and to make them feel they are valued.

One positive trend over a very challenging past two years is that reading has picked up sharply. Any thoughts on how libraries can continue to nurture a reading renaissance?

Chase: One of the things that’s really important for us to remember is that when people think of libraries what they usually think about first is books. It’s not the only thing they think about, and it’s not the only thing we do, but there’s really an opportunity here to lean in to what comes to mind first for people—books. I think the way we own this space is with personalized recommendations about what to read. I think the more we can support library staff creating personal connections with readers—whether that is face-to-face, via email, or virtually—the better for libraries. How can we create that space for people to have conversations about books together? With everything going on, I think it’s important to remember that this is something people really want from libraries.

Lankes: One of the changing narratives in the last couple of years is around summer reading programs and trying and get and keep kids reading. It’s almost always from the perspective of reading retention and the idea that there’s a summer slide. But we’re beginning to see a shift toward the importance of early literacy, and that libraries should be fundamental in supporting children as readers.

This is why it is so important that kids see themselves in the material that’s available to them. Without that, it’s a struggle. Everybody wants to see themselves as the hero in a book. That is how we get kids to start reading and really enjoy reading.

When it comes to literacy, we know that if kids aren’t reading at grade level by the third grade their odds of completing high school go way down. And we know that in many populations, once a kid doesn’t get a high school diploma the odds of things like incarceration go way up. Literacy is fundamental to our economy. It’s fundamental to education. It’s fundamental to democracy. And I think more libraries need to take a positive approach to early literacy as opposed to these chocolate-covered broccoli “please read and we’ll give you an iPad at the end of the summer” programs.

Weeks: This is why it is so important that kids see themselves in the material that’s available to them. Without that, it’s a struggle. Everybody wants to see themselves as the hero in a book. That is how we get kids to start reading and really enjoy reading—not by being bribed to read, but by really enjoying it.

It’s important, too, that schools and public libraries partner to support reading. This important work cannot be done by one entity. It must be a collaborative effort. What we do, for example, is we give every kid that’s enrolled in a public school here in Travis County a library card. The only thing required is for the parents or guardian to sign a release form. Then we get the data from the school district and issue the library card. In-school learning is important, but the time that kids are out of school is important too.

During the first two years of the pandemic, use of e-books and digital content rose sharply in libraries. Do you expect strong use of digital content to continue now that physical collections are open again? And is there anything you would say to publishers about the current state of digital pricing and access terms?

Chase: We definitely saw an increase in digital use during the pandemic, and that use has remained high. The burden of meeting that demand remains a huge challenge. The thing I would point out is that the public just doesn’t understand the lending models that we have. I’ve been involved in this issue for 15 years, and it continues to be a huge challenge to explain to people why the wait times for e-books are so significant. Our patrons just don’t understand why they have to wait so long for an e-book. I think publishers really need to remember that we are not the enemy here. We’re here to help publishers get visibility for their materials. We’re here to connect readers and learners with what publishers are putting out. It would be wonderful for libraries to be seen by publishers as partners.

Weeks: Stephanie, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Publishers are in the business of making money, there’s no doubt about that, but I think they are standing on our backs to do it. We can’t keep paying three or four times the consumer price for e-books. That’s not reasonable, and it’s not sustainable. This has to be a partnership. All together, public libraries spend about a billion dollars a year on books. Many studies have shown that public libraries increase sales of books. This should be a win-win, but in terms of digital the only side that’s winning is the publishers. I think libraries need to join forces and say, hey, until the publishers treat us more fairly, let’s just slow down our buying. Because right now our customers are struggling to get e-books in a timely manner and that is going to continue unless we make a stand.

Lankes: I think we also need to look at other ways in which we could partner with the publishing industry, because, quite frankly, e-books are horrible. We’re now what, 30, 40 years into these experiments with e-books, and we’re still trying to make digital work like paper as opposed to everything else it could be?

I long for the day when we can look at e-book readers and dream bigger. Just imagine the idea of libraries and publishers working together to reinvent the idea of what books and reading can be in a community setting. That is what really excites me. But I don’t want to lose the point that was just brought up: that all begins with a reasonable business relationship.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are core values of library work. After the murder of George Floyd, library leaders around the country recognized that we must do better. Can you talk a little about where you see libraries today in terms of our EDI efforts?

Chase: I think we still need to recognize that a lot of our service models are based on oppressive systems, and we need to be listening to the people in our profession who have, if we’re being honest, for a long time told us the changes that we need to make. If we are to be reflections of our communities, if we are to be reflections of our global community, we need to have a diversity of voices, a diversity of experiences, and a diversity of backgrounds. And I think those of us who make up the majority of this profession—white women—need to recognize the learning that we have to undertake. We have to be willing to adopt a growth mindset, to be vulnerable, to learn about what needs to be changed, and then make those changes and not shift that burden entirely to our staff of color and our colleagues of color.

Lankes: I learned a lot during my time at the University of South Carolina from a fabulous colleague, Nicole A. Cooke, who taught me a lot and really guided me through a lot of this thinking. We have many structural issues we need to address. One I’d point out is that library science education needs to be more accessible not only in terms of delivering it online but in terms of making it cheaper, too. We have to build communities and mentorship networks. The University of Texas, for example, is a historically Hispanic-serving university and it really matters that you have a cohort of peers across the institution you can speak to.

We also need to look at the cracks around the MLIS. We need to look at the people who are becoming librarians and building these learning networks. When I look at the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, for example, they are not simply talking about the profession but about their lives within the profession, about supporting each other, about showing up. That’s extraordinarily powerful.

Weeks: When I got to Austin, one of my first goals was to make EDI one of our top priorities, and we wanted to look at a few things. First was hiring. We have African American and Hispanic representation—it is about 40% in the organization. But where in the organization is what matters. There was no one of color on the executive team, for example. So we’re looking at our hiring practices to make sure that our hiring panels are equitable across the board and diverse in every aspect.

We are also looking at our collection development. About 40% of our population is Hispanic, but only 7% of our collection is in Spanish. We’re looking at our services, too, making sure that our cultural programming is on point for these communities and addressing their needs. And we’ve started looking at our policies, because a lot of our policies had issues that excluded people. We’re looking to make sure that we can address everybody in our communities. What I tell my staff is that when we say the library is for all, we have to mean it. We’re the most public of public institutions. We have to be prepared to serve everybody. We’re not there yet, but I think we’re making strides.

At a time when book banning and misinformation are on the rise, the bedrock values of libraries are more important than ever. To close, any thoughts about the future of libraries and librarianship in these complex times?

Lankes: In library science programs we’re seeing growing numbers, and we’re seeing stronger programs. But the trend I’d point out in library science education is what’s going on around community engagement. We’re no longer looking at library science and saying, “Here’s cataloging, here’s information-seeking, these are the hard skills, and then, oh, soft skills are nice, but we don’t know how to deal with that.” We’re now starting with the idea of how do you work with your community? How you identify the needs and aspirations of the community? How do you facilitate conversations, gather data, and then transform that into programs?

And I will tell you, having just had a class on community engagement, the number one topic among library science students was banned and challenged materials. And that’s not just because it’s Texas. This is a major concern. The things students used to be really worried about were how do I pick which book to buy, and what happens if someone asks me a question I don’t know the answer to? Now, it’s what happens when someone declares a First Amendment audit, starts recording what people are doing on their computers and reading, and starts a shouting match with librarians. This is a different world.

I was talking with a great library director recently and I asked what I, as an academic, could do in this book-banning environment. He said, “Please don’t stand up and give a lovely speech. That’s great, but what we really need is for you fight so that we can pay librarians what they’re worth.” We need to pay frontline workers that are in essence bringing our communities together in, as Roosevelt said, this most public of public institutions. Library workers need to know we understand the traumatic portions of their jobs and that we support them. If you really want to help libraries around banned books, support that.

Chase: I think I would just like to leave it with that. And, to remind us, as the most public of public institutions, that we have a responsibility to really listen to our communities and find ways to support their needs.

Weeks: I truly believe that libraries are one of the central pillars of democracy, that democracy is being attacked, and that we must stand together not only for the people we serve in our communities but for democracy as a whole in this country.

Watch the full discussion here: