The worldwide calamity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted society beyond anything we might have imagined only months ago. It has likewise had a massive impact on libraries of all types. Libraries have implemented drastic measures to protect their workers and the general public, while still fulfilling their missions to serve their communities with reliable information and collection access to the greatest extent possible.
Closing Physical Facilities
Almost all libraries in the U.S. closed their physical facilities to the public as a result of voluntary or mandatory measures to enforce the social distancing needed to prevent further spread of the virus. During the process of building a resource on public library closures (librarytechnology.org/libraries/covid19), I observed many different patterns. Depending on geographic location and the varying hot spots of outbreaks, public libraries in the U.S. began announcing closures around March 13; by March 20, most of them had physically closed. But even as I write this column on March 22, some remain open, despite great concerns expressed by library workers.
The ability for a public library to close varies according to jurisdiction. Almost all public libraries are governed by local boards that are the final authority in such decisions. In states with governors who have issued orders for the closure of public facilities, libraries have generally complied. But in other states, such as Texas, where no statewide orders have (as of this writing) been issued, local public libraries remain open or not depending on their local city or county policies or at the discretion of their boards. Even in states with mandates for closures of most businesses and facilities, exceptions are made for those considered essential services. A few local authorities classify libraries as essential services that should remain physically open. Public libraries in the U.S. are inherently local institutions, effectively precluding a nationally coordinated response to a crisis such as this one. Even tracking their responses requires a massive effort.
Academic libraries have also seen an uneven response. The vast majority closed, although some remain open with limited service. The status of the library is tied to whether its parent institution has closed entirely, shifted in-person classes to online, or continued classes as usual. Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe and Christine Wolff-Eisenberg are conducting an ongoing study of academic library responses to the crisis with a live dashboard reporting results (tinyurl.com/covidlibrary).
The question of whether or not libraries should remain open during such a public health crisis has proven to be complex and multilayered. Libraries provide essential services that are highly valued by their communities. But the in-person provision of these services cannot necessarily be accomplished while adhering to the mandates related to preventing further transmission of the virus. In many cases, the authority to make decisions to close resides not in the library, but in the institution it serves, civil authorities, or local community boards. Although, in broad terms, stakeholders have responded quickly to close libraries, there have been some exceptions.
Rapid Pivot to All-Digital Services
Fortunately, libraries are generally well-positioned to continue to fulfill their core mission even when their physical facilities are closed. The delivery of digital content and virtual services has been well-established in almost all types of libraries. Academic libraries have the advantage in the pivot to all-digital services due to the already high proportions of electronic materials in their collections. Fulfillment of requests for physical materials may fall within the capacity of campus delivery services or via alternative fulfillment options.
The key challenge for academic libraries lies in supporting instructors as classes make an abrupt shift from an on-campus setting to online teaching. Classes that previously relied on materials provided through library's reserves collections for short-term loans may need to be delivered electronically. Library responses might include expedited acquisition of electronic resources or in-library digitization. The transition to online learning in institutions that are traditionally oriented to face-to-face teaching may need to accelerate activities already underway for ever higher proportions of electronic and digital collections. Research consultations with students and faculty members will likewise shift to chat or videoconferencing.
Public libraries face a more difficult situation. Most public libraries in the U.S. offer ebook lending services, although these typically represent only about 5% of circulation volume. Because of the limitations on the number of simultaneous uses for each ebook and the breadth of titles available for lending through any given public library, ebook lending services are not able to replace the circulation of print materials. Other services that public libraries offer through their physical facilities will likewise go unfulfilled, such as access to public computers, meeting rooms, collaborative study spaces, and in-person reference questions and other consultations.
A number of measures are being taken to mitigate the loss of services when libraries have to close. These include the cessation of fines that would otherwise accumulate, the extension of due dates, and other policies that might reduce the inconvenience to library patrons. Ebook lending providers, publishers, and libraries are working to soften some of the limits on ebook lending options. While such measures will be appreciated, they nonetheless cannot replace the core services that public libraries provide via their physical facilities.
Librarians Working From Home
Library closures caused many to institute flexibility in working from home. Especially in jurisdictions that have enacted stay-at-home orders, working from home serves as a lifeline for ongoing employment. All types of businesses and organizations are facing the logistical, societal, and technical issues involved. For libraries, the need to work from home challenges many previous assumptions and policies of what activities need to be done in the library and what can be done remotely—or even whether remote work is allowed at all. Libraries all over are now identifying tasks and projects that can be done by an all-remote workforce until the crisis subsides and previous work arrangements can resume.
An abrupt shift to working from home raises many technology issues. Providers of internet connectivity are seeing a large-scale increase in residential consumption of bandwidth. Fortunately, the rise of streaming media services has already driven a shift to high-speed internet service, so the additional traffic related to working from home is usually a manageable increment. Shifting to work-from-home arrangements will add to the burden to those who provide technical support in libraries. This change will inevitably mean more effort in supporting VPN connections, issues with remote authentication to resources needed for staff members, supplying equipment, and other tasks.
Working from home necessitates increased use of collaborative communications tools in support of in-person interactions as well as departmental or committee meetings. Videoconferencing environments (such as Zoom, WebEx, Skype, or Microsoft Teams) will become routine infrastructure for online instruction and teaching. The quick adoption of online learning seen in many universities put an enormous strain on the infrastructure of these videoconferencing providers that have had to meet an extraordinary increase in demand with very little warning.
Resetting Ongoing Expectations
The creative efforts born from the necessity of reacting to the pandemic may have a lasting impact. When the crisis subsides, I anticipate that libraries will work to strengthen their ability to respond to other scenarios that may play out in the future. Some of the areas of concern might include the following:
Coordinated crisis planning— Despite the decentralized governance of libraries among diverse institutions and government agencies, can libraries develop a set of best practices or other recommendations to strengthen their positions in a future crisis?
Planning scenarios for continuity of service— Libraries are fortunate in their ability to provide their services both digitally and physically. This crisis accelerated the development of digital capacity when physical facilities were not available. Libraries should also be prepared for the converse scenario. There may be events of widespread technology infrastructure failures that require increased reliance on physical fulfillment of services.
Making adjustments to the workforce— Some libraries may opt to liberalize work-from-home policies permanently, giving employees more flexibility and to ease the impact of daily commutes to the workplace.
Accelerating digitization projects— While comprehensive digitization of library resources remains an elusive goal, projects to provide additional access to collection resources will not only deliver immediate benefits, but they will also help a library strengthen its ability to respond to future crisis events.
Strengthening technical infrastructure— The current crisis serves as a reminder to review and test all disaster prevention and recovery processes. In this case, facilities were simply closed for public use. But other scenarios might involve infrastructure failures that require data and systems to be restored from off-site backup replicas.
Libraries exist in a hybrid reality, spanning physical and digital content and services. I expect libraries to be involved with physical materials and in-person services indefinitely. However, the proportions have been shifting for a long time, although at a different pace among each type of library. The hard work to enhance digital services to accommodate the closure of physical facilities brought on by the current crisis will have a lasting impact. It will be hard to withdraw new digital services, such as expanded licensing of ebooks in public libraries and selective removal of restrictions to scholarly research. Going forward, the new reality of libraries is likely a new balance of digital and physical collections and services.