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Smarter Libraries through Technology: Impact of the COVID-19 Crisis

Smart Libraries Newsletter [May 2020]

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The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic impact on libraries. Most governmental authorities issued orders to close nonessential services, to restrict gatherings, and to maintain social distancing. Leaving economic forecasts to the experts, it seems reasonable to conclude that the library community will face budget challenges and will need to reshape at least part of their service programs for the next few years. We can also expect longterm or even permanent challenges for libraries after the initial wave of this pandemic abates.

This interruption of economic activity means substantial losses in local tax revenues for municipalities and counties—the primary source for most public library funding. Some libraries may face the need to cut personnel, reduce hours, or close branches as a result. During the crisis there have been many reports of staff furloughs in libraries, though most have allowed staff members to remain in a paid status, working from home when possible. The crisis has also reinforced the need for libraries to develop a high capacity for delivery of digital services. Almost all public libraries have some level of ebook lending services. During the period where physical facilities are closed, libraries have taken measures to expand these offerings.

Academic libraries face similar challenges. Colleges and universities are unlikely to quickly return to the level of prosperity in place prior to this crisis. Any refunds required for housing and food services, tuition, and fees will mean a painful impact for short-term budget prospects. The timeframe in which these institutions are able return to normal residential teaching will be an important factor in the overall financial strength of academic institutions.

The COVID-19 crisis has forced libraries to take drastic measures in their operations and in the way they provide services. A total reliance on electronic resources is a drastic change for some, but only the next step in the continuum toward digital services for others. Programs, research consultations, exhibits, and other services usually provided in person or in physical facilities have shifted to online formats. In recent decades libraries have operated in a hybrid reality of physical and digital content and services. The crisis may permanently shift that balance. Increased pressures for libraries to shift more toward digital services will mean investments in technologies able to extend the reach of a library's digital services. Budget shortfalls will likely limit new spending on physical materials and drive efforts to provide even more efficient fulfillment of these resources. Some libraries have offered limited services during the pandemic, such as curbside service for pick-up of requested items. Offering this service has raised concern because it requires library personnel to work on-site rather than from home and in ways that may not provide adequate protection. These services may require special configuration of the request and hold features of the library's ILS, though they may also be handled through informal measures. Whether it is safe for staff members to handle library materials returned by patrons is another concern. Opinions vary regarding the timeframes in which returned materials can be handled safely. Book sterilization equipment is common in public libraries in Asia. The HKC book sterilizer is an example.1 I am not aware of libraries in North America that have implemented these devices. This current pandemic may prompt the library community to assess what procedures, policies, and equipment that they need for their future crisis management preparations.

Managing Library Closures

In response to these concerns, almost all libraries in the United States closed, though there have been some exceptions. Responses related to the library personnel have varied. Most have been able to work from home, especially in academic libraries. Others have been given paid time off; some have been asked to continue to work on-site. The abrupt actions necessitated by the crisis have implications for the technology systems that support libraries. Major changes must be implemented in loan policy configurations, display of open hours on websites, cancellation or rescheduling of programs, and a host of other tasks to accomplish with little advance planning. Closing a library, especially for an unplanned and indefinite period, requires multiple areas of intervention for the systems that manage lending of physical materials. Although there has been some variation, most libraries have implemented actions to:

  • Broadly suspend circulation of physical materials
  • Extend due dates until after the library re-opens
  • Communicate that re-open dates are indefinite, and closure may be extended
  • Restrain the return of materials because workers will not be available to process
  • Suspend fines during the closure
  • Suspend hold request and fulfillment of holds

Implementation of these actions requires temporary changes in the loan policies of the library's integrated library system as well as batch changes to pending circulation transactions. Some libraries with well-trained ILS administrators may be able to carry out these changes using the policy editors, API tools, or batch change scripts associated with the system. Others may require intervention from the ILS vendor.

All the major ILS vendors have offered customers assistance with these kinds of issues as part of their efforts to provide emergency support during the crisis. This issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter includes some examples of the proactive initiatives library vendors have taken to support their clients in implementing these changes.

Impact on Vendors

The long-term impact on the library technology industry will naturally be tied to the outcome of libraries once the crisis has subsided. Should libraries see persistent budget losses, their ability to continue licensing technology and content services will diminish proportionately. Public and academic libraries are especially concerned that they may face budget challenges for months or years to come.

The fees for software licenses and content resources are scaled according to multiple factors, often including the number of personnel employed by the library and the count of branches or facilities. Should these metrics decline, there would be a downstream negative impact on the revenues paid to technology and content providers. It should also be noted that in time of crisis, many libraries opt to make new investments in technology in order to maintain service levels with fewer human resources.

We can anticipate several trends in response to a general downturn in the economy, some similar to previous events. Libraries will defer or even cancel some planned technology projects. Procurements for major technology products will slow as libraries balance budget priorities for personnel, collections, and infrastructure. Hopefully most technology projects will go forward as budget conditions eventually normalize.

Technology projects best positioned go forward will be those that lower costs for individual libraries and that increase the impact of collection resources. The large-scale shared infrastructure projects and consortial implementations of integrated library systems and library services platforms are consistent with this concern. But even when new shared system arrangements may result in lower overall costs for individual institutions, during times of budget shortages the upfront capital needed for procurement and migration may not be available.

Libraries will need to invest in technologies to support accelerated efforts to improve digital services and to manage and provide easier access to electronic content resources. Examples might include streamlined and scalable authentication, single sign-on, or collaborative tools for patrons to more easily access to resources and services and for staff to work remotely.

California community colleges' Council of Chief Librarians issued a statement highlighting the importance of their recently implemented statewide library services platform as an essential component supporting their ability to cope with the crisis.2 This implementation of Ex Libris Alma enabled the 110 participating institutions to shift to remote work and to continue to deliver access to electronic resources in compliance with California's shelter-in-place order.

Technologies and services for expedited resource sharing, document delivery, interlibrary loan will be in higher demand. When libraries must cut collections budgets, they usually respond by creating alternative methods to provide materials to their patrons. The current crisis may further accelerate the longstanding trend among libraries to enter into collaborative partnerships to share print and electronic collection resources with highly expedited fulfillment mechanisms.

The current crisis underscores some of the benefits of the ongoing trend toward technologies deployed via softwareas- a-service. It can be challenging for libraries to perform local system administration tasks when physical access to computer equipment may not be possible and when many other issues may be competing for the attention of technical personnel.

Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic it is difficult to predict all the ways in which the circumstances of libraries will be altered as the new reality unfolds. Within the scope of technology, we can anticipate some specific needs for strengthening the management and delivery of digital content and services. But the broader question that comes to mind is whether the urgency of this crisis will spark innovation in the technologies that support libraries or whether budget austerity will lead to further stagnation. How these issues play out over time will be one of the important trends covered in future issues.

View Citation
Publication Year:2020
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 40 Number 05
Issue:May 2020
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smarter Libraries through Technology
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
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Record Number:25148
Last Update:2023-01-25 10:44:37
Date Created:2020-05-12 14:25:01