Public libraries are nothing if not resourceful. We’ve done it for centuries, moving from a space which required a membership to being a place for everyone, from serving only the elite to focusing on where the need is greatest, from physical books to electronic content, shifting budgets, shifting community interests, shifting skills, etc. The pivot is where we live and nothing has proved that more than COVID-19.
Libraries have long prided themselves on being a community’s third place, a physical location for people to recharge their souls, ignite their interests, and escape from their reality. The pandemic took that from us. Overnight, public libraries across the nation shut their doors and now had to figure out how to serve their patrons in an unknown and unfamiliar world.
I’ve only been working with Virginia public libraries for a few months now, having moved here from another state just as the pandemic shut down began, and let me tell you, I’ve watched, listened to, and been amazed by the rapid way that the public library staff have worked to continue to be of service to every single community across the state.
Public librarians redesigned their offerings: pivoting storytimes to be online for parents now sheltering at home; placing wellness calls to high risk community members; sewing masks and re-purposing 3-D printers for shields and ear-guards for the medical folks in their community. Some re-positioned WiFi hubs to exterior walls, trying to extend the network reach for those who don’t have access to the internet at home. Others took the internet on the road, stationing library bookmobiles and vans in parking lots with WiFi hubs inside, further increasing their outreach.
They also pivoted their fiscal priorities, shifting funds from physical books to e-books to up the content available. Reassessing their work priorities, they shifted to projects which allowed staff to work safely from home. Stepping outside their comfort zones, they offered staff assistance to other departments within their localities.
They’ve had hundreds of conversations about safety and security, sharing endless ideas of how to create socially distanced programming for kids and adults alike. They’ve worked hundreds of hours on questions like “How do we re-open?” and “Can we re-open?” They’ve spent hundreds of moments worrying over their staff and the community’s well-being. They’ve altered hundreds of plans with every new rule, order, or report that’s come in. They’ve responded hundreds of times to frustrated patrons who want their library back to its original service model.
And they do all this with very little recognition. They quickly and quietly rise to meet the needs in their community in this, the craziest of times, the way they’ve always done. I said earlier that I was amazed by the public libraries in this state, but honestly I shouldn’t be. Public libraries are used to the pivot and used to rising to the challenge, and that’s exactly what they did.
-Reagen Thalacker, Public Library Consultant