Close Your Library | Editorial

When I started writing my editorial for the April issue last week, a mere handful of public libraries had closed to contain the spread of COVID-19, though many had canceled public programming. Less than a week later, nearly 500 have closed to the public. But there are more than 9,000 public library systems in the United States—and we should close all of them. Today, not in two weeks when the April issue lands on your desk.

Meredith Schwartz head shotWhen I started writing my editorial for the April issue last week, a mere handful of public libraries had closed to contain the spread of COVID-19, though many had canceled public programming. Less than a week later, nearly 500 have closed to the public. But there are more than 9,000 public library systems in the United States—and we should close all of them. Today, not in two weeks when the April issue lands on your desk.

Hundreds of U.S. colleges—and counting—have shut down in-person classes and gone remote. But not all of those have closed their academic libraries. Too many are keeping the library open to serve those who must stay on campus because they can’t go home—or because their home does not provide digital access.

It’s a worthy goal, as is serving the parents whose kids are out of school and at loose ends, and patrons who don’t have homes to go to. Libraries have a proud history of stepping in to fill the gaps in the social safety net, and the impulse to do so in this instance is strong.

Many library workers, from directors to frontline staff, are rightly questioning whether it is reasonable to endanger the lives of staff to do so. But the tough calculus of staff needs versus patron needs doesn’t apply this time, because, as Brooklyn librarian Katya Schapiro said, "The same populations that are hurt by us closing are at greatest risk from us remaining open."

The library is no less infectious than the classroom—perhaps even more so, given all the shared resources our users touch after one another. And libraries serve a lot of seniors, who are at particularly high risk. Libraries change lives—but right now they can save them.

Library leaders don’t make these calls in a vacuum. They need to convince their boards of trustees, their mayors, their deans and university presidents. Sometimes that process is slow and hard. It can help to use the advocacy techniques honed for the funding fight, including public pressure.

In the meantime, they can cancel programs, pull seats to enforce distancing, step up cleaning protocols—and be transparent about those processes. They can be flexible with employees and policies—let people work from home, and be liberal with paid leave for those who can’t, especially those at higher risk or living with those who are. Once the library is closed to the public, think twice before remaining open to staff. Best practice for containment is to close completely.

Of course, just because the library is closed doesn’t mean we stop working. Start by instituting automatic renewals, extending loan periods, and waiving fines for materials that are already out. Educate the public through your website and emails on methods of coronavirus transmission and why social distancing matters even for the healthy and those at lower risk. Provide information on loans, grants, and other help that many localities are starting to provide for impacted small businesses and workers. Promote electronic services—including chat reference—that can be accessed offsite; a number of vendors are offering free or increased access to meet demand. Some libraries already offer distance programs such as bedtime stories by telephone or streaming story time; this is an opportunity to experiment with or expand such offerings, though be mindful of copyright concerns. In higher ed, the shift to online instruction is catching many professors flatfooted—if instructional librarians and tech teams can support that work remotely, while subject specialists curate links to video content from collections, the library will earn faculty gratitude.

Librarians can, and should, get creative and innovative about providing service at a distance. But we need to make our peace with the fact that for this present, urgent moment libraries won’t be able to reach everyone. Right now, flattening the curve to prevent the healthcare system from overloading is the biggest contribution we can make to the public good.

Meredith Schwartz signature

Author Image
Meredith Schwartz

mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com

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

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.


Sherri Kelly

I was saddened to read this but agree wholeheartedly. Part of the historic premise of a library is to share physical materials, and we just can't do that right now. I run a middle school library which is not in session currently and while I miss my students, we have found ways to share information and circulate materials without f2f contact.

Posted : Mar 19, 2020 03:39


Jeannie Dilger

Meredith,

Thank you for this editorial. In particular, thanks for recommending that staff not be required to work in the buildings. It is our professional instinct, if you will, to try to serve the public as best we can in uncertain times. But I keep remembering what Deidre Brennan, Executive Director of the Reaching Across Illinois Library System, said earlier this week in a webinar for libraries: "It's no longer about public service. It's about public health."

Jeannie Dilger
Executive Director
Palatine Public Library District

Posted : Mar 19, 2020 02:28


Tony Greiner

I disagree. Let's take reasonable steps to protect ourselves and the public, but for computer access alone, public libraries should stay open. As the shut-downs continue, how will those who are laid off or otherwise in financial trouble and do not own a computer file unemployment insurance claims, health insurance, cancel or make travel plans, and file for whatever government relief programs are offered?

Go with volunteers staffing public areas, liberal wipe-down practices, calmness, and service. If we don't provide this service, who will?

Posted : Mar 17, 2020 05:08


Karen Shrewsbury

To get straight to the point, are Librarians any less important than then any other person who works in public? Teachers students and and others who work with the public have taken time during this dangerous time to avoid spreading the virus. These people that work in the public put themselves at risk by staying in their positions. It's not a good Pleasant time for anyone and it's going to change things I'm sure but we need to send our Librarians and people that work at the library home for the same amount of time that everyone else is home. Leaving them in their positions will only endanger them and others that they are around . Please close the libraries for now..

Posted : Mar 17, 2020 01:22


Lin Sommer

Who can we contact to recommend/plead to close the rest of the libraries?
There are way too many people in serious danger!
linpeters1969@aol.com

Posted : Mar 16, 2020 11:07


View More Comments

RELATED 

Get connected. Join our global community of more than 200,000 librarians and educators.

Get access to 8000+ annual reviews of books, ebooks, and more

As low as $13.50/month