What the World Needs Now | Sustainability

The massive change in life circumstances over the weeks since my last column have been strange, terrible, and beautiful—often all at once.

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich head shot

Ed. note: this column was originally published in LJ's June print issue, which went to press prior to the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests.

The massive change in life circumstances over the weeks since my last column have been strange, terrible, and beautiful—often all at once.

I have watched my colleagues around the world roll up their sleeves and learn new skills, produce programming they never imagined, nurture new partnerships, and accelerate community-wide implementation of plans they’ve had in the hopper for months, if not years. From early literacy programming, to helping bridge the digital divide, to providing social gathering spaces online—it has been a magnificent thing to watch libraries respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

Libraries are doing immediate, deep work to address social inequalities. Here are a few examples I’ve gathered in the past weeks:

A library in upstate New York that serves a community without access to broadband connectivity opens its doors by appointment to help neighbors use the library’s satellite internet connection to apply for unemployment benefits. A library in Texas reached out to businesses in town to ask them to leave their Wi-Fi on, as the library is doing, to help those who need access.

Libraries are proactively calling members of their communities who are not reachable by email and social media to ensure they have connection. Matthew Bollerman, director of the Hauppauge Public Library, cofounder of the New York Library Association’s Sustainability Initiative, and a 2020 Mover & Shaker, shared that one of those calls made by his staff resulted in connecting with an older resident who was two days away from being out of food and too vulnerable to go to the grocery store. The library staff helped connect her with a local agency, which ensured she’s getting routine food deliveries from now on.

I was in an online meeting with a peer when she got a call from an older resident whose doctor told her it was likely she had COVID-19 and needed to get to the emergency room. She was afraid to incur the cost of an ambulance and couldn’t drive herself. The library director, Dawn Jardine of the Red Hook Public Library, helped her figure out how to get to the hospital that day.

While our facilities may have been deemed nonessential at this time, there is no doubt that libraries as institutions are essential.

This is the acute phase of this crisis. Whiplash decisions need to be made, new pathways to service developed, and herculean efforts made to partner with others to solve massive problems faced by our residents as social distancing becomes the norm.

As we await a vaccine and our economy attempts a comeback, it is clear this crisis is not going away any time soon. But I’d like to suggest that we cannot live in this acute phase of the crisis for the duration. If we’re smart, we will see there is opportunity as well as challenges.

Pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have significantly fallen, wild animals are traipsing through “civilization” as humans retreat from natural habitats, and self-reliance systems are strengthening—from the army of sewers making cloth masks, to the run on yeast and flour as a major spike in baking at home arose, to growing “victory gardens,” bartering for services, and repairing our own stuff—these are all healthy outgrowths of what is an otherwise devastating experience. These healthy patterns need to continue on the largest scale possible.

We now face the secondary crisis of the extreme economic fallout from the unprecedented measures taken to ensure the well-being of a maximum number of our friends, family members, and neighbors. Our response cannot be business as usual, just as our response to the public health crisis has not been.

Consider what the future will look like for yourself, your library, and your community. I urge you to think very hard about what matters most for the long haul, with the “triple bottom line” mindset of balancing social equity, economics, and the environment as your guide. We will never again have such an extraordinary opportunity to retool our thinking, practices and policies. The impacts of this pandemic will shape our lives for years to come and more disruption, on new fronts, will emerge. We have a responsibility to lift up our heads and cast our gazes far into the future—what will be your “long bet” for your library?

I wish you all the best in these difficult times. Please be well.

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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