On March 6, 2020, I began making a list of the public libraries that were closing to the public. The list was a trickle at first, then a flood. By March 15th, the exercise was futile as every school and library in the U.S. seemed to be closed indefinitely.
By March 15th, We were all at home trying to make sense of what was happening. Governments at every level were reeling and largely paralyzed with regard to how to proceed.
Public libraries, however, had a different path than most organizations.
By the fourth week of March 2020, libraries all over the world were offering curbside pick-up for books, posting instructional videos showing how to checkout books on devices, offering free WiFi in parking lots, finding all-new ways to deliver programming for children and teens, serving as a resource for Covid information, and much more.
Libraries were coordinating with local food banks and other community organizations to identify and assist people who were most impacted by Covid shutdowns.
As the pandemic wore on, public libraries continued to adapt. They were among the first places to open lobbies and parking lots as testing and vaccine sites, became distribution points for at-home Covid testing kits and much more. While continuing to serve patrons with normal library services.
Now that the pandemic is thawing, we can ask, why? Why were public libraries so quick to pivot and serve communities? Why did public libraries continue to operate in new ways while school districts, governments, large businesses and others remained paralyzed?
The answer is that when the pandemic struck, libraries already had the tools and practices in place to pivot, adapt and serve communities.
Below are four reasons why libraries were able to react and serve communities through the Covid crisis.
1. Independent Governance
More than other public institutions, public libraries generally enjoy a strong measure of independence from state, city or county governments. Librarians have the capacity and latitude to make their own decisions and proceed with planning that meets pressing needs outside of an overly bureaucratic process.
Multi-branch libraries tend to also distribute decision making among managers. Library systems empower branch managers to develop and deploy programing and use library resources to serve a local need. We saw this in how many multi-branch libraries specialized services based on their location and populations served.
If we learned anything in terms of how governments react in a crisis, it’s that a one-size-fits-all approach misses the mark and can cause more problems than it solves.
Libraries were already set up to act independently, which allowed them to identify needs and pivot quickly to serve communities.
2. Collaborative Nature
Libraries have a strong professional community and a culture of cooperation. This culture allows librarians to share ideas, information and resources more quickly and efficiently than other industries.
Just look at Facebook to see this take place. There are multiple groups of librarians that have more than 5,000 members who actively share information and best practices.
During the Covid pandemic, collaboration allowed librarians to see what was going on in other parts of the world to emulate practices that were working for serving patrons.
The industry buzzword for this type of activity is “shared economy”. The concept that sharing information and resources can save people time and money. Working across political and geographic boundaries, public librarians shared information and resources that became vital for patrons regardless of location.
3. Clear Goals
In any emergency, an organization must know what it can and cannot do. Leaders must know and understand core objectives are and how their organization can deliver on these objectives, not matter what.
Public libraries are constantly fighting for resources and are more “fit” than other organizations in terms of what they deliver to their constituencies. Libraires know and execute their role in communities every day.
When the pandemic struck, libraries knew which services they needed to transition from in-person delivery to non-contact or virtual services. With clear objectives, plans were easier to develop and execute than other organizations that have less clarity regarding their goals and limitations.
4. Technology Know-How
Another word for the modern librarian is: technologist.
While so many other industries struggled to learn and identify tools and platforms that would allow them to engage with the public virtually, librarians were already using and knowledgeable about the tools they needed to move services to virtual environments.
A salient example is Zoom. During 2020, most of society was introduced to the new verb “Zoom”. Librarians had been using Zoom and other virtual tools for a long time. These skills that already existed in our libraries benefitted millions of people through Covid shutdowns and beyond.
Preparation is the key
Well before the Covid crisis, public libraries were engaging in the practices and were knowledgeable with the tools that allowed them to thrive and serve through the pandemic. The four principles above can be applied to any industry in readiness for a crisis.
Now that we're hopefully exiting the active pandemic. It's time to reflect and thank public librarians for the amazing work they've accomplished. The work that public libraries carried out in the past two years is amazing and has enhanced the lives of people throughout the world.
Public and private organizations can learn a lot from public libraries about how they can be more flexible, adaptive and capable in a crisis.
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