By Carol Ziese
Imagine waking up to a world without libraries. Unfortunately, for most Illinoisans, this was not an academic exercise, when in mid-March of this year over 600 public libraries were, in fact, shuttered due to the appearance of COVID-19. Our larger libraries found staff working from home, remotely connecting to services such as OCLC for cataloging and Zoom for meetings. Smaller, more rural libraries, which make up about a third of Illinois’ public libraries may have done well just to get the bills paid. The library as a meeting place was replaced with services via cyberspace.
In a small, informal survey conducted in early June, I heard from staff whose libraries serve populations as small as 1500 to as large as 80,000. Two things stand out to me: Illinois has dedicated and resourceful people who took up the challenge of continuing to serve the community without reservation; and, the public library will likely be re-tooled and reimagined as a result of this challenge which further highlighted and exacerbated unmet community needs, such as internet access and technology training.
By the time you read this article, about six months will have passed since the arrival of Coronavirus. We will be reflecting on how well our virtual summer reading programs went with the aid of apps such as Beanstack. We will be reflecting on how well our curbside-service was received and if it is now, in fact, a permanent fixture. Are our online book clubs thriving and have we come to terms with virtual programming as a way to stay engaged with our patrons? The challenges before us are kind of exciting. We get to solve problems and learn new skills. Challenges are always opportunities, and, as Joan Young from Germantown Public Library says, “If you keep the idea of service in the front of your mind, I feel you can adapt and make the best of the situation.”
When the numbers come in, what will we find in terms of online resource use? Did it skyrocket or just gradually increase? Was it because of dire need or because people suddenly discovered all the resources we had all along. The virus sweeping the nation has given us an opportunity to rethink how we deliver services. For example, hardly anyone was talking about how to instruct patrons in technology use via Zoom earlier this year. Now, it is a viable option for getting our patrons up to speed on everything from filling out an online application to operating an iPad.
One thing we cannot lose sight of in our race to the technological solution is the fact that a significant number of Illinoisans do not have adequate access to the internet or the devices needed to connect to it. Libraries have stood in that gap. For those that have devices but no connectivity, circulating hotspots and expanded wi-fi signals have certainly been helpful. Some libraries put themselves on the map of internet services available throughout the state.
Mary Aylmer, Director of Chilicothe Public Library says, “I think we can do more to make access as ubiquitous as the internet.” As the profession that, more than any other, values getting information into the people’s hands, I couldn’t agree more.
And then there are the device have-nots. In my survey I heard from one librarian who loaned her personal laptop to a patron. I talked to another one who photocopied hospital documents for a patron whose partner was seriously ill and later came back to get a copy of the death certificate. These are things librarians did while closed to the public. None of us in this profession wanted to be unavailable to our communities. While state orders mandated our closing–and it was the right thing to do–we have been given an unprecedented opportunity (there’s that word again!) to be creative and think outside the box about what libraries become in our, undeniably, changed landscape. Let’s keep the conversation going.