LJ Survey: U.S. Public Libraries Mostly Closed, But No Consensus on Who Works and Where

Deciding whether—and when—to close doors to the public is merely the first of countless decisions that librarians have had to make during the COVID-19 outbreak. Library Journal’s survey of public library responses to COVID-19 captures the myriad behind-the-scenes choices, such as whether or not staff will continue to report to work in person after libraries are closed, that public libraries are facing as they handle the crisis.

Deciding whether—and when—to close doors to the public is merely the first of countless decisions that librarians have had to make during the COVID-19 outbreak. Library Journal’s survey of public library responses to COVID-19 captures the myriad behind-the-scenes choices, such as whether or not staff will continue to report to work in person after libraries are closed, that public libraries are facing as they handle the crisis.

Library Journal received responses from 777 U.S. public libraries serving urban (17 percent), suburban (33 percent), small town (36 percent), and rural (30 percent) areas, and a broad range of population sizes. The average number of COVID-19 cases in the states surveyed was 260.

Most libraries are closed, for now

The vast majority—94 percent—of libraries surveyed are currently closed due to COVID-19, while 2 percent are working towards closing. Just 4 percent are not planning on closing as of March 23. Of the libraries not planning to close, all have cancelled public programs, 75 percent have increased the frequency of site cleaning, 71 percent have suspended meeting room usage, 61 percent are cleaning their circulated materials, and 39 percent have allowed their higher risk staff to work remotely.

Of the closed libraries, 37 percent are tentatively scheduled to reopen at the end of March. 17 percent plan to reopen after one or two months and 1 percent plan to reopen after more than two months. 40 percent have no set plan of when to reopen. Five percent of respondents were not sure of their library’s timeline for reopening.

More than half staff still working, most still on-site

Closing to the public can lead to any number of different outcomes for library staff. Of closed libraries, 29 percent report that they will continue to have all staff members work during the closure. Only 6 percent will have no staff working. An average of 57.1 percent of staff members continue to work across closed libraries. What role one plays may partially determine whether or not that individual will continue to work. Nearly all—97 percent—of libraries surveyed report that administrative staff will work during the closure, while 73 percent report that public services staff will continue working, and 69 percent report that behind the scenes staff will work.

Library staff working during their library’s closure may do so on site, remotely, or a combination of both. According to the survey data, only a small percentage of employees will be able to work exclusively from home: 17 percent of libraries surveyed will have their administrative staff work remotely, 21 percent will have their public services staff work remotely, and 16 percent will have their behind the scenes staff work remotely. Most staff members will be working entirely on site or doing a combination of on-site and remote work.


Who is Working and Where?


% of Staff Working During the Closure

Where will staff work during the closure?

On site


Mix of both

Administrative staff





Public services staff





Behind the scenes staff





Source: Library Journal Public Library COVID-19 Response Survey


Most, But Not All, Pay Those Who Cannot Work

A crucial question library staff currently face is whether or not those who cannot work during their library’s closure will continue to be paid. Some 6 percent of surveyed libraries will not be paying their full time staff who cannot work during closure, and 14 percent will not be paying their part time/hourly staff who cannot work. A majority of responding libraries will pay both their full time and part time staff who cannot work; however, 16 percent of libraries will require full time staff who cannot work during the closure to use vacation or sick time to get paid. Staff members in closed urban libraries are most likely to be required to use sick time. Several survey respondents expressed concern over employees losing income. One individual wrote, “Please encourage all libraries clearly and succinctly that all staff members, part-timers included, deserve to work from home with pay.”

Staff face hard choices

Some librarians are currently wrestling with the choice between either putting themselves at risk by working in person, or taking unpaid leave. One respondent wrote: “Our staff's mental health is incredibly low at this time. Panic attacks are frequent. Our HR's policy won't allow us to use sick time just to ‘avoid coming into work’ and risk being exposed. We can use sick time if we do get COVID, and if we use up our sick time we go into ‘negative hours’ that we'll work off at a later date. I've never felt less taken care of by an establishment.”

Several respondents urged libraries which are still open to close, and those whose staff are still on site to move to fully remote work. One wrote, “Please encourage your library director, town/city manager to shut down your building and to send all employees home—nobody needs to be working in a closed building with each other during the uptick of COVID-19 in our country.”

Going digital, distance delivery?

To continue to serve patrons while buildings are closed, 90 percent of libraries surveyed will  increase promotion of their digital collections via marketing. Nearly half (49 percent) will dedicate more of the library’s budget to ebooks, audiobooks, and streaming services; 47 percent are offering new or expanded virtual programming. Some 43 percent will offer digital-only library cards, Less common responses include increasing chat reference (22 percent) and increasing distance learning tools for students (21 percent).

The majority of closed libraries—roughly 70 percent—are not offering any form of physical delivery, such as curbside, drive through, or books by mail. About 18 percent are, and 12 percent are considering it. Suburban libraries are least likely to offer physical materials delivery (about 8 percent) and rural libraries the most likely (about 27 percent).


Physical Delivery in Closed Libraries

If closed, does your library offer physical delivery of materials?




Library Location



Small Town














Considering Offering






Source: Library Journal Public Library COVID-19 Response Survey


Communication is key

The vast majority of libraries surveyed (94 percent) communicate with staff about COVID-19 response plans between once a week to more than once per day. Urban and suburban libraries communicate with staff less often than small town or rural ones.   Among the six percent that communicate about COVID-19 plans less often, lack of clear communication can be a source of stress for staff. One individual reported: “Administration does not provide adequate information, instead, we're left waiting to see if new information will be shared.” One respondent recommended, “You may have to change plans multiple times a day! Communicate with your public in a prompt manner, and keep your staff firmly in the loop every step of the way. Try not to inundate, but don't leave anyone wondering.”

Many respondents expressed feeling unprepared for the COVID-19 outbreak. One wrote, “Libraries need to have a plan for a pandemic! We had none and were waiting for direction from the city; after a week of closure to the public but staff still coming in, admin made the decision for staff to work from home if they could, but it was all really rushed and intensely stressful.”

Several respondents offered words of encouragement to other librarians. One wrote, “[I’ve] been in public libraries 30+ years, through layoffs, natural disasters, you name it.  This is the most difficult time I've ever seen. We can make it through!”


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