Beyond Coping: Libraries Stepping Up to Meet Community Needs During the Pandemic

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Author: Dave Shumaker
Date: Mar. 2021
From: Information Today(Vol. 38, Issue 2)
Publisher: Information Today, Inc.
Document Type: Cover story
Length: 1,777 words
Lexile Measure: 1220L

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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. about a year ago, libraries at first acted to slow the spread of the virus. Many locked their doors and sent staffers to work from home. They stopped circulating books and other physical materials. Some declared themselves "closed." But soon, they came to the realization that, in fact, they didn't have to be. Even if their buildings were locked, they had ways to provide services while mitigating the contagion. They adopted coping strategies. First, they made it easy for new patrons to set up library accounts--virtual library cards. Then, they established contactless curbside pickup services for items requested through their websites. They provided telephone reference services, in many cases re-routing the calls to staff members working from home. They promoted digital resources: ebooks, audiobooks, movie streaming, and online databases. Library leaders established the REopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums (REALM) project, which built a body of scientific evidence on the transmissibility of the coronavirus through the sharing of library materials and spaces and informed practices for processing materials.

These coping strategies were good, but not enough. Dedicated, innovative library workers soon realized that they needed to do more. The pandemic, like any other natural or human-caused disaster, had created new community needs. So, librarians began reaching out to their communities and expanding their services. Here are some of the important actions they took.

MEETING NEW CONNECTIVITY NEEDS

In recent years, internet connectivity has been one of the most important reasons why people visit libraries. When offices, universities, and schools transitioned to working from home and distance learning, the demand for connectivity surged. But libraries were closing their doors too, so going to the library was no longer an option for the professional or student seeking internet access. The solution? Libraries left their access points on even when the building was closed--24/7, in some cases. They boosted signals and moved hotspots so that people could connect from their parking lots. They began, or expanded, the lending of hotspots. They converted bookmobiles to mobile access points. A survey by the Public Library Association (PLA) found that 93% of public libraries provided or planned to provide Wi-Fi access on their grounds, 44% had moved routers to improve access outside the building, and 23% were lending Wi-Fi hotspots. These efforts were rewarded with the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) Digital Opportunity Equity Recognition (DOER) award. ("America's Libraries Receive Inaugural FCC Honor," 2020)

FACILITATING SOCIAL SERVICES

The coronavirus pandemic, like the Great Recession before it, caused widespread increases in demand for existing social services and created entirely new needs. Most obviously, the sudden, dramatic jump in unemployment led to expanded requests for help with...

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