Bookstores and libraries have both tried to handle this by promoting a socially-distanced strategy of online engagement, through e-commerce and phone orders for stores and through ebook check outs and other programs for libraries. But it looks like libraries in the States are doing a little more in terms of public engagement. Not sure it’s wise to keep them open, but how do you shut them down given that they act as part of a safety net for a country that doesn’t seem to believe in safety nets? Lots of things being revealed with the rug pulled back, eh? Mostly roaches.
America’s public libraries have led the ranks of “second responders,” stepping up for their communities in times of natural or manmade disasters, like hurricanes, floods, shootings, fires, and big downturns in individual lives.
Throughout all these events, libraries have stayed open, filling in for the kids when their schools closed; offering therapeutic sessions in art or conversation or writing after losses of life; bringing in nurses or social workers when services were unavailable to people; and hiring life-counselors for the homeless, whom they offer shelter and safety during the day.
Today, interventions like those have a ring of simpler days. But libraries have learned from their experience and attention to these previous, pre-pandemic efforts. They are pivoting quickly to new ways of offering services to the public—the core of their mission. When libraries closed their doors abruptly, they immediately opened their digital communications, collaborations, and creative activity to reach their public in ways as novel as the virus that forced them into it.
You can be sure that this is just the beginning. Today libraries are already acting and improvising. Later, they’ll be figuring out what the experience means to their future operations and their role in American communities.