I’ve been thinking recently about the public library’s role in the post-pandemic era. It’s obvious to me that things can’t simply resume the way they were before the pandemic. Before the pandemic, there was a lot of pressure to be all things to our communities: librarians were providing services well outside of the library’s core mission, and there were increasing calls on library staff time to focus on extra things. For example, I’ve seen librarians notarizing documents as part of their job. The training and time this function takes is not insignificant. And nobody could really argue that such a function is central to the library’s core mission.
The post-pandemic era is an ideal time to refocus. Libraries are having to make difficult decisions regarding staffing and programs, with reduced budgets necessitating an approach of less, not more. In this context, the library can focus more specifically on doing well what is at the core of its mission. These things are what the library does best; they are also what allows the library to serve its community most effectively. From my perspective, here are some things that public libraries should focus on moving past the pandemic.
Grow the collection. For my library, the pandemic was an opportunity to maintain its collections. The collection is the heart of the library, the thing that sets the library apart in a special way. We were able to weed large sections of the collection. We also saw skyrocketing ebook circulation, and we reallocatedcollections funding toward our electronic offerings. It’s the perfect time to ensure that the library’s collections are the very best they can be, including careful subscriptions to useful databases, robust ebook collections, and updated fiction and nonfiction titles for adults and children.
Bridge the digital divide. Libraries occupy a special role in the technology life of our communities. When the library reopens, it will be more critical than ever to provide free access to the internet via computer stations and wi-fi connections. A significant portion of library staff time should be devoted to technology assistance on a variety of levels: from beginners with no computer experience to consumers with a new device, from users looking to access email or sign up for services online to users looking to perform work meetings on Zoom. Many libraries are now lending wi-fi hotspots, a critical difference-maker for families without a wi-ficonnection at home. Closing the digital divide also includes children and teens who may not have the skills to perform virtual research. With so much education transferred online, the library can serve as a critical guide for these users as they navigate their assignments.
Be a welcoming, free public space. There’s no replacement for the role the library plays as a public space to read, study, work, and be. There really aren’t any other options in society where a person can go indoors and spend time for free. It will take some time for libraries to re-establish themselves as public spaces until social distancing and building capacity requirements are eliminated, but libraries should be planning to resume their place in the community as a free public space.
Form strategic partnerships to jump-start library programming. It’s obvious that libraries will have to do less than they would want regarding programming in the post-pandemic world. Strategic partnerships with community organizations and stakeholders have the potential to expand the library’s reach and extend limited programming offerings. Strong partnerships can extend the reach of the library into the community, bringing diverse programs from subject experts whose practical knowledge in a given field can exceed that of the library’s staff. Partnering positions the library as a community hub, combining the library’s resources (as a welcoming space with digital access and a great collection) to connect with the community. Partnerships can multiply the power of library staff, and provide a natural avenue for marketing what the library has to offer.
If our libraries can focus on the above four areas and do them well, we will be taking positive steps toward re-establishing the library in the wake of a worldwide pandemic. These areas of focus make up the heart of the library and underscore its place as a hub of community life. Do you think there are more “core” areas of focus for libraries following the pandemic? Do you have another perspective? Let me know your thoughts by commenting below!