Sustainability at a Social Distance During COVID-19 Pandemic

Unprecedented. Heartbreaking. Heartwarming. These three words have been most prominent in my mind as I observed and consulted with my colleagues, near and far, as they make tough decisions about how to keep their communities and staff healthy in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unprecedented. Heartbreaking. Heartwarming.

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich head shotThese three words have been most prominent in my mind as I observed and consulted with my colleagues, near and far, as they make tough decisions about how to keep their communities and staff healthy in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the reality set in as to what was going to be necessary to “flatten the curve,” I watched library directors go through a fast-paced version of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s “stages of grief”: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Library leaders were listening intently to public health officials, government officials, stakeholders, and their own intuition. First, we had to acknowledge that we all need to pull in the same direction. But close the library? People need the library, they rely on it, we have advocated so hard to help funders understand that libraries are essential in people’s lives. If we close, what message are we sending?



The “ride at dawn” meme started circulating in library circles the week of March 9. It so aptly describes the mind-set of my favorite librarians: We are here for our public; we are going to demonstrate our grit, determination, and worth through this pandemic.

On March 12, the closure of the Seattle Public Library quickly changed the tenor of discussions among library leaders. Things had just gotten very real, very fast. Suddenly, in my region, libraries—each governed by their own local board of trustees—started to close. No mayor, governor, or public health official came knocking on their door—each board had to make a decision about what was best for their local community.

The conversations I have had with library directors over the past week have made me fall in love with my profession all over again. The compassion, empathy, and heartfelt commitment we have to serve has never been more obvious to me.

So I say to you now—as the doors to an unthinkable number of libraries are closing for an undefined amount of time: We are libraries. That doesn’t change with the closure of our physical doors. Libraries are about people, those who serve and those who are served, not the buildings we normally serve from, not the physical stuff we circulate. We still ride at dawn.

If your library is closed, you still have a responsibility to address the knowledge-seeking and social cohesion needs of those you serve. This is not a “coronavirus vacation;” this is where we shine.

Your website, social media channels, and partnerships with other agencies will shift to center stage as the tools of your trade. Get factual information out, connect citizens with the help and resources they need, make sure your more vulnerable citizens are being thought of and checked on. I expect to see the acceleration of the evolution of our profession’s capacity and innovation for online programming and the leveraging of online platforms such as social media for community engagement.



In addition to info about COVID-19 let’s be sure major issues including the 2020 Census, the 2020 election, and the climate crisis are still getting the attention they so desperately need. A few ideas on climate programming from the New York Library Association’s Sustainable Thinking and Action Round Table:

  1. Visit the Earth Day Education Resource Library
  2. Plan an online event with the 2020 Teach-In Toolkit
  3. Register your events on the official Earth Day map
  4. Use the Digital Toolkit to explore programs and sample social media posts.
  5. School libraries can sign up as an Earth Day School to get specialized tools for school events.
  6. Consider your library invited to join this year’s Drawdown Ecochallenge.

Be well. We’re all in this together.

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich is Executive Director, Mid-Hudson Library System, Poughkeepsie, NY; a judge for LJ's 2015 New Landmark Libraries; and a 2010 LJ Mover & Shaker

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