health library technology

The Return to Normal (or the lack thereof)

This week began the next phase of reopening for my library, and thus a return to what everyone would love to be some kind of normal.

Of course, it’s far from.

COVID-19 went from a mild inconvenience (none for me, really–working at home was RAD) to a months-long uncertainty. The economy tanked, jobs were lost, people are struggling not only financially but mentally…all while trying to make sure they don’t catch this deadly virus.

(The last statement was for the folx who are actively social distancing and wearing masks in public. The rest of you can rot. >o>)

No matter your stance on reopening and “business as usual,” it’s clear that libraries are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The pandemic is far from over. Just this past week, Columbia County schools in my area opened up shop for in-person learning only to send home notices to parents a day later that their child may have been exposed to the virus. Schools in other jurisdictions are faced with crowding in hallways with minimal mask wearing. How in the world are libraries–one of the germiest institutions around–deemed okay for reopening?

I’m not downplaying their importance, of course. Far from it. Libraries are crucial to their communities and their absence impacts those who utilize their resources. Patrons left behind by the Digital Divide found themselves abandoned when learning and other activities were shifted online. From school assignments to learning how to use Zoom, there were many who reached out to their libraries in hopes that there was some way to bridge that gap–broadband Internet access. A device to consistently access that Internet. Instruction or classes meant to teach users how to use those devices.

It continues to be a very real problem.

Reopening libraries involved major shifts in policies to accommodate social distancing measures. But is this enough to make a difference in the ever increasing positive cases happening in many states?

I doubt it. While my own library has added sanitizing wipes stations and hand sanitizer dispensers all around, it’s hard to say if these measures are enough to stave off a potential coronavirus infection. Tall Plexiglas dividers were erected at the front desk, and all book returns must be made in our outdoor book drops. Those books are quarantined for 72 hours, less time than the REALM test results recommend (4 days, btw, pending further testing). That means that books held over the summer due to extended return dates will be piled up and unable to be shelved for at least a few days. Additionally, there is no feasible way to disinfect furniture/surfaces all day, everyday. Computers needed to be sectioned off, reducing available machines by half. There is no doubt that students will congregate as they please–despite the signage discouraging them not to. Contagion from co-workers are also a very real possibility. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) will be hard to come by.

I find myself somewhat lucky. I was able to be approved for teleworking accommodations (part-time, because it is impossible for me to perform all of my job duties from home). But many library workers, especially staff members, can’t and don’t have these same opportunities.

Libraries should not be open right now. This is my stance. In my explanation why, I hope to at least sway some of you to consider the same (& advocate in favor of the library workers in your area).

When libraries needed to go virtual, there was a lot of trial-and-error. It was a new concept for many. Sure, libraries offer a lot of services online already. But going 100% virtual? It worked. Here’s how:

  • Librarians and library staff were available virtually around the clock to respond to patron concerns, reference questions, and general information. Chat sessions can coincide with nontraditional library hours, which assists in accommodating those who can’t access chat during an 8-5 time frame.
  • Checking in & out materials is still a learning process, but it’s getting better. Patrons can request books and arrange appointment days and times to pick up those books. This still requires library workers on staff, but this option greatly reduces person-to-person contact (if proper PPE is worn) while still allowing the community to contribute to library circulation numbers (you know they STILL matter). Longer loan time periods should be considered–and there’s still a need to reevaluate how long books (and other materials) should be quarantined to limit/eliminate risk of exposure to COVID-19.
  • A lot of materials are online now, anyway. Okay so this is a blanket statement and your mileage may vary depending on where you are. But many libraries already offer a lot of ebooks, electronic journals, and databases online for free with qualifying membership (which is usually just your library card). Do you know how many people don’t know you could check out books online? I know it’s not the same everywhere and there may be some limitations (that’s a rant for another day), but in general many patrons may find this useful and more convenient.
  • Libraries have adapted to programming snafus by going virtual. Zoom, Discord, Twitch, YouTube–these are only some of the platforms being used to help carry out programs in an online format! Prerecorded or live, each platform has its own advantages for specific uses. Finding what works for you may take a little testing, but it’s worth the trial period to be able to still connect to the community in meaningful ways.

Of course, this doesn’t answer all the questions or address all library use problems. There is still a lack of Internet-accessible devices in disadvantaged communities that many libraries cannot account for. Broadband Internet access issues are still abound, with many families unable to afford access and rural patrons unable to simply have access due to their location.

Collaboration is key. Discussing what’s important to your community with local lawmakers and school districts is a start. The library should not shoulder the burden of providing the answers to all of the pandemic’s questions. Libraries should utilize the resources they have, adapt to change, and embrace new ways to connect with their locality. Library workers should not have to be made to work, risking their lives for the sake of returning to “normal.”

COVID-19 is not normal.

A pandemic is not normal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *