Public libraries are one of the last free spaces in the United States, and the pandemic has tested their limits as they’ve adapted to the new regulations brought forth to keep their staff and the public safe. Many libraries have found ways to adapt through online channels, proving that even something as challenging as a pandemic can’t keep them from serving the community.
Libraries after the pandemic
According to the March 2020 Public Libraries Respond to COVID-19 Survey, “Virtually all libraries (99 percent) report limited access to the physical building,” but “survey respondents shared leaps in the use of digital content, online learning, and virtual programs,” showing the importance for libraries in meeting the education and technological needs of readers and researchers whether their physical building is open or not.
Given the health risks associated with COVID-19, The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions has provided guidance for libraries and neutral library environments to promote hygiene and limit concentration of users, and have developed in-depth plans for what opening a library during and after the pandemic may look like.While there have, unfortunately, been cases of libraries needing to re-close following some of the re-openings in the beginning of August, 2020, there are still plenty of ways for readers to access books.
Programming librarians, educators, and creative professionals are developing new ways to provide both instruction and a similar library experience through video-conferencing platforms, accommodations for audio/hearing impaired readers, and more. With these additions, libraries can ensure that no reader is left behind as the world continues to change with the pandemic.
Social injustice was exposed but libraries are helping
Throughout the 2020 pandemic, and into 2021, a wave of social and racial injustice arrived along with the pandemic. Throughout the streets in both metropolitan and small cities, from schools to special research libraries; many communities and circles face issues of racial profiling, prejudice, and discrimination.
As a result of the injustice, readers are looking to gain a better understanding of cultural narratives, struggles, and marginalized populations including those who are low-income, experiencing houselessness, LGBTQ+, people of color, and even undocumented individuals.
Fortunately, many libraries provide resources and support for those looking to become more educated about and active in their community. ALA’s Social Responsibilities Round Table held a free afternoon discussion on social justice for librarians and scholars where they presented on a variety of topics including Native American treaty rights, democracy in the time of COVID, and women activism and libraries.
Social justice and public libraries go hand and hand— equity starts with library professionals and institutions, and libraries throughout the country are making stronger commitments to equitable library services. For all.
"Libraries are neutral learning environments that encourage uncensored exploration of cultures, histories, and communities around the world, giving everyone the chance to learn more."
While executing proper social distance practices, it’s also important to avoid the spread of xenophobia. One of the most essential aspects of managing a public health crisis is not about containing the spread of a deadly disease but our collective fear. Both the beginning and the height of the pandemic, shined a light on the racism and racial discrimination in America’s past and present, particularly for the Asian American community.
Luckily, libraries are neutral learning environments that encourage uncensored exploration of cultures, histories, and communities around the world, giving everyone the chance to learn more. At libraries across the country, all readers have a place where something is simply waiting for them on the shelves or at the clip of a mouse.
From virtual programs like Virtual Africana Story Time with the Auburn Avenue Research Library to the San Francisco Public Library’s ¡VIVA! Latino Heritage Month 2020, there is something for you to participate in to learn about communities different from your own. Artists talks, virtual gallery showings and book club meetings via ZOOM are all part of the newest trends that are likely here to stay after the pandemic.
Adapting to the changes is becoming a way of life for libraries, schools, and other community centers. Despite some of the challenges brought forth by the pandemic, libraries remain more important than ever as they adapt to support their communities during these challenging times.