Libraries are constantly working to stay relevant in our ever-changing world. We observe. We analyze. We plan. We implement. Then we plan some more. And to a certain extent, our attempts to continue to meet the needs of our patrons are successful. Eric Klinenberg talks about the manner in which libraries function as social infrastructure, providing a space for those in need and helping to solve the problems that we as a society do not know how to fix. Not only are libraries on the front lines fighting against these problems, but, as Klinenberg explains, when policy makers were asked to address these problems, they came up with the idea of community resilience centers: “[t]hey kept on describing this place, and as I listened it occurred to me that they were essentially describing libraries” (2018). Even with a lack of adequate funding, libraries work to serve everyone who graces their doors. But how do we create new models of service in the middle of a worldwide pandemic? When our doors are closed, and the people we serve—especially those who seek refuge in our physical space—cannot visit? How do we plan for that?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last couple of weeks as we’ve all been asked to shelter in place. To stay home. Feeling both grateful to have a safe place to shelter and anxious for the many people that I know do not. I read that the governor of California is working to house those without homes who may have COVID-19 or be at risk of having it, but the number is a small drop in the bucket compared to the number of people who need shelter—those people have no where to go, and there is no national effort to address this (2020). Food banks are being stretched to the limit, in both rural and urban areas. Record numbers of people have lost their jobs in the last few weeks, and more will in the future, as it seems quite clear that this stay at home order will last well into the summer at a minimum.
People are suffering. But what we librarians know is that people have been suffering for some time now, and the virus is amplifying conditions that were already here: racial disparities, economic disparities, gender disparities, and those related to one’s sexual identity. A stark difference is that the normal justification used by those in power for ignoring those disparities—individual responsibility—is not applicable. They cannot say that the virus is the fault of those suffering. And even if the government response has been sorely lacking when it comes to supporting anyone who isn’t a corporation, libraries are once again stepping in to that void, to be the social infrastructure our communities need in this time of crisis. The ALA conducted a survey of public libraries and the services they are providing during the pandemic. In addition to doing things one might expect, like providing additional service and support for their electronic collections and adding virtual programming, they are also using 3-D printers to make protective equipment for medical staff, working with other local officials to coordinate shelter for the homeless, and maintaining or expanding free Wi-Fi service from their physical locations for use by the public. Furthermore, they are planning to support “expand economic recovery services for impacted businesses and workers” once they can reopen safely (ALA, 2020). Libraries are using the hyperlinked model to connect with each other, to connect with their communities, and to connect their communities with what they need.
My one hope in this unprecedented time is that COVID-19 will help us see just how connected we truly are. How our actions reverberate through the community—both locally and globally. How our consumer-driven world, rooted in the worship of money and profit, is not the only way to live. How by taking care of others, we take care of ourselves. How we can still live a happy and comfortable life without ravaging our planet. Wishful thinking, perhaps. But still, I hope.
American Library Association. (2020). Public libraries launch, expand services during COVID-19 pandemic. Retrieved from: http://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2020/04/public-libraries-launch-expand-services-during-covid-19-pandemic-0.
Levin. M. (2020). Here’s how putting California’s homeless in hotels actually works. CalMatters. Retrieved from: https://calmatters.org/housing/2020/04/california-coronavirus-homeless-hotels-motels-newsom/.
Peet, L. (2018). Eric Klienenberg: Libraries and social infrastructure. Library Journal. Retrieved from: https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=181003-Eric-Klinenberg-QA.