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The socially distanced library: staying connected in a pandemic

The concept of a socially distanced library would be considered the ultimate antithesis of the modern-day library. The past two decades have witnessed the evolution of the library from a mostly traditional space of quiet study and research into a bustling collaborative, social space and technology center. The library has been described as a third place, the home constituting the first place, work as the second place, and then the library—where in addition to research and study, the user can do virtually most things including relax, eat in a library cafe, and even exercise. Public libraries have provided many community benefits, including health and government services, as well as loans of non-traditional items such as tools and equipment.

In 2020, the entire world was thrown into a state of confoundment, as the novel coronavirus ground routine day-to-day activities to a screeching halt. Many organizations, including academic institutions in the United States, made a hasty retreat into an exclusively virtual online environment. Libraries followed suit and most were firmly shut, as was the corresponding access to library stacks, study, and collaborative spaces. This was also the case with public libraries; even the Library of Congress shuttered its physical facilities to the public. How did libraries initially respond to this massive disruption and how would connections to library users be maintained in this new and unprecedented context?

First, with regards to library collections, many libraries have increasingly migrated to online collections over the past two decades. Electronic publications provide a flexibility and ubiquity of access, which is highly attractive to researchers on the move. A persistent challenge, however, has been how to invite traditional print users into the digital world of publishing. The pandemic forced a moment of reckoning; few could have predicted the speed by which electronic publications would be adopted by erstwhile print-only users. Quite suddenly, users married to the print version of materials could no longer access them because of quarantine protocols, shipping delays, and a host of other factors tied to the pandemic. This is not to say that libraries have not made accommodations for delivery and loan of books. While pandemic protocols have impeded the volume and speed of distribution, users have for the first time tapped into take-out services such as curbside delivery of books and the use of remote book lockers. Duke University Libraries’ take-out service enables patrons to request library materials and pick them up with minimal contact—a video promoting the service went viral at the start of the Fall 2020 semester. Library scan and deliver services have also increased exponentially, with users requesting more document delivery by email (and within copyright guidelines). Libraries with means will also ship books to users at their residential addresses. One public library in Virginia even deployed drone delivery of books through a collaboration with Google spin-off, Wing, a drone delivery service.

Once the pandemic hit, research consultations with librarians went completely virtual. Library patrons adapted to the ease of tapping into the library’s knowledge machinery without having to make a physical trip to the library. In some instances, Zoom consultations (similar to telemedicine with doctors) were made available to library users, in addition to already existing text, email, chat, chatbots, and phone services. Library trainings and other modes of instruction also morphed from in person into online or hybrid formats. The Goodson Law Library at Duke Law school promoted a virtual asynchronous legal research bootcamp for students in the summer. In effect, the closure of the law school building did not preclude continuous learning and instruction. Research and scholarly services support also continue in the remote context, for example Duke Law researchers are able to tap into virtual online empirical and data support services. These types of virtual initiatives have become the new normal.

Perhaps, the most challenging change for the more social library users are the severe restrictions on space usage and the ensuing inability to fully engage and collaborate in person, pre-pandemic fashion.  Libraries have slowly reopened in a limited manner and with socially distanced protocols in place—masking, distanced seating and severe restrictions on indoor group gatherings. While various collaborative activities can be conducted online, using new platforms designed to replicate the gathering experience, many users still yearn for the in-person collaborative-style experience. Community engagements have moved online, and, for the first time, the Library of Congress held the 2020 National Book Festival as an online event in September. These novel ways of engagement, while limiting for physical interactions, have ameliorated persistent inequities of access. In a virtual context, library users do not have to face barriers of travel funding or other financial and social limitations. But while it is true that some inequities of access to library resources have been addressed through technology, this new shift has also uncovered the challenges of access in undeserved populations, many without necessary equipment and internet access.

Libraries are critical institutions for facilitating democracy, rule of law, and social justice. In the United States, the summer of 2020 ushered in a painful season of global reckoning for racial injustices, triggered by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers. While many libraries were still physically closed, support for racial justice was swift and strong. Libraries provided online information resources for researchers, protesters, and allies. Virtual exhibits, such as the Stanford Libraries ‘Say their Names’ exhibit, were installed to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

What then will be the future trajectory for library users in a post pandemic context? Technology has been more fully harnessed on an expansive and deeper scale to leverage library services and access to resources. A significant change which will likely persist is the transition of the more traditional user to digital content (and an increasing comfort level with the latter). Overall an acceleration and acceptance of the concept of the online library, not just the library as a physical place, has taken place. While social in person interactions will reemerge, many users will continue to value and expect a continuation of the newly discovered ease of access to the library’s resources facilitated by the expanded availability of virtual collections. More importantly technology access must be expanded as an urgent matter of public policy in undeserved populations to promote equitable access to information, so that none are left behind.


Feature image by Chris Montgomery

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