Libraries are in demand as the pandemic spreads — but are they prepared?

The Grand Reading Room, Nashville Public Library, Tennessee (Photo credit: Robert Claypool/Flickr Creative Commons)
The Grand Reading Room, Nashville Public Library, Tennessee (Photo credit: Robert Claypool/Flickr Creative Commons)

Public libraries are community institutions essential to the free flow of information in American society — and they were shuttered abruptly at the beginning of the pandemic.

Now, however, libraries across the country have become more essential than ever thanks to the multitude of online services they offer.

Yet in most cases, they’re struggling. In Cleveland, Ohio, for example, the local library system faces a $6 million budget cut, and other cost-savings measures.

And an altogether different problem besides budget cuts threatens libraries from coast to coast — worker health and safety during the pandemic.

Multitude of resources

Libraries around Miami County, Ohio, have adapted in numerous ways to the pandemic, offering a wide range of resources in virtual form that had previously been accessible inside the facility.

But given that many people lack adequate wireless Internet connections at home, “[patrons] park their car, and sit in front of the building and use our wi-fi…[w]e had an increase of 250 uses of wi-fi when the building was closed for 50 percent of the time,” one library director told the Piqua Daily Call.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, library use has soared as homebound patrons turn to the myriad free resources available for streaming and download, including books, movies, periodicals and music.

This includes in the East Bay’s Alameda County, where libraries’ virtual functions include access to free legal advice, thanks to the Alameda County Bar Association and Legal Access Alameda.

According to WLOS News in North Carolina, some libraries are offering curbside pickup, a “PPE drive-through” program, and referral services for resources ranging from food aid to childcare.

Libraries in Rochester, New York, have seen a sharp rise in ebook borrowing, and have expanded virtual services beyond telephone and email to include a new website chat service.

The library system in Greenwood, South Carolina, is keeping its children’s programming active throughout the pandemic, offering newsletters and book recommendations. The library also hopes to introduce online reading sessions over the summer, as well as try-this-at-home craft programs for families.

And the Burlington County Library in Skagit, Washington, is deepening its services as a public archive, asking locals to share photographs, anecdotes, artwork, poems, and any other type of recorded memory that can create a local history of the pandemic.

Risks, lack of training

Yet the abundance of resources — and the need for library services, especially by lower-income Americans — has increased risk and strained budgets.

Across the country, lack of training and protective gear, and inadequate safety protocols, have many library workers looking for ways to fight for better working conditions.

Librarians are concerned about the cleanliness and safety of handling books, and working in buildings where safety protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are lacking.

Some library systems aren’t even permitting librarians to work from home, but rather are forcing them to come in to work, despite the risks.

In other places, budgets are so tight that county officials are threatening to lay off library workers idled by the lockdowns and shutdowns.

In Minnesota, hundreds of Hennepin County library workers must either take on a limited number of high-risk positions with no hazard pay working in hotels that are providing shelter from the pandemic to homeless people — or burn up their paid time off sitting on their hands at home.

The concern about risk is profound enough that a pro-labor movement with the hashtag #closethelibraries is spreading, calling for library workers to be sent home at full pay until working conditions are improved.

Online privacy concerns

Another challenge faced by libraries is the rapid growth of commercial online services during the pandemic, such as the Zoom video chat platform.

Zoom, along with other commercial services, collect user data and may not have the best security protocols for protecting privacy.

It’s a big enough issue that the American Library Association is staging a national webinar for its membership on May 8, featuring panelists from libraries in New York, California, and elsewhere.

Rachel Via, director of the Troy-Miami County library system in Ohio, told the Piqua Daily Call that “libraries have changed their roles in society over centuries and will continue to adapt to be what our community wants and needs.”

Additional writing by Josh Wilson

Sources: Piqua Daily Call (Ohio), KTVU (San Francisco), San Francisco Chronicle, American Library Association, WLOS (North Carolina), NBC News, IdeaStream (Ohio), WXXI News (Rochester),

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