Act Locally, Lobby Nationally| Editorial

Libraries can and should continue to apply creative problem-solving to mitigate the worst impacts of this pandemic on staff and users. There is a limit to what even the most nimble, inventive, and dedicated libraries—or even consortia or associations—can fix. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing we can do. We need to think bigger and to throw the collective power of our profession toward advocacy for large-scale solutions.

Meredith Schwartz head shotWhen I first addressed COVID-19 in this space, I worried that the time lag between writing and mailing would make my words obsolete because the United States would have already shut down community transmission.

That seems naïve now. Most states’ per capita case counts are still rising, yet reopening seems unstoppable, despite poll after poll finding that the majority of Americans don’t want it, and public health experts continuing to raise concerns about the consequences.

The engine driving reopening is economic pressure. While many have made a convincing case that the economy will suffer more from premature reopening in the long run, without enough support from the federal government, individuals, institutions, and even cities and states feel their fiscal survival leaves them no choice.

Library workers, like others, lose eligibility for unemployment benefits when their workplaces reopen. Too many must choose between protecting their health—and that of the people they live with—and paying their rent. States and municipalities, faced with declining tax revenues and escalating community needs, have little recourse but to cut budgets, which often means layoffs at public libraries. The drive to minimize those cuts by being visibly essential adds urgency to libraries’ reopening plans.

Many universities are seeing diminished public funding even as they must spend more to retool their campuses to reduce infection risks and their students need more financial aid. While the most prestigious and well-endowed, such as Harvard, can afford to stay fully remote, others competing for scarcer tuition dollars may not survive the loss of housing and other on-campus fees or the loss of students who want an in-person experience.

Libraries can and should continue to apply creative problem-solving to mitigate the worst impacts on staff and users. But there is a limit to what even the most nimble, inventive, and dedicated libraries—or even consortia or associations—can fix. Ultimately, the ability to cut this Gordian knot rests with the Federal government.

But that doesn’t mean there is nothing we can do. We need to think bigger and to throw the collective power of our profession toward advocacy for large-scale solutions.

Sen. Jack Reed and Rep. Andy Levin introduced a bill that would establish a $2 billion Library Stabilization Fund to help public libraries respond to and accelerate the recovery from the pandemic. The American Library Association’s (ALA) Washington Office is mobilizing support from the field, and we need to raise our voices even louder than usual to get the story of libraries’ crucial role in community resilience heard.

But we shouldn’t stop at advocating for legislation that works through libraries. While libraries as institutions may face legal or political limitations on the stances they can take, library workers can and should advocate for federal action with sufficient speed and scope to aid the cities and states, schools and universities of which libraries are an integral part—and to directly relieve the populations who comprise our most vulnerable and underserved patrons.

The often-posed choice between economic hardship and COVID-19 risk is a false equivalence. We can’t fix the latter until researchers invent and test a safe and effective vaccine, treatment, or both. But we could start to fix the former today, if we, as a country, found the political will. Library workers and leaders can help, not only through advocacy, but through redoubling efforts to get patrons counted by the census and increasing voter education and registration—especially among the young and formerly imprisoned patrons.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams have both stressed the importance of having an "inside game"—elected and appointed officials committed to change—and an "outside game"—protesters in the streets to attract news coverage, convey urgency, demonstrate support, and shift the public’s perception of what seems reasonable and possible.

Librarianship, I believe, needs a similar approach: local and national strategies working in tandem. The profession has a long, successful history of doing just that on funding. It’s time to broaden that work to benefit everyone we serve.

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Meredith Schwartz

mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-in-Chief of Library Journal.

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