Libraries Are More Important Than Ever in North America’s Hardest-Hit Cities

The initial reaction when COVID-19 hit was to close all in-person services, helping to reduce the spread of a dangerous disease. But then libraries, typically a place open to all, were required to close their doors.

In numerous neighbourhoods, the mandate of a library has expanded in the past decades beyond simply lending out books and materials. Now they’re community spaces dedicated to information-sharing, but also act as community centres — a place to see a movie screening, get help with taxes, learn to dance, start a business and even learn to cook. The library has become an ad-hoc ‘third-place’ because of its integral role in community building and engagement, being located in a central space, accessible to all and neutral.

A reason public libraries are such important institutions is because the responsibility of a librarian has expanded. They are ad-hoc social workers in some communities, providing help ranging to healthcare to housing and digital access. For institutions that remains largely underfunded, they’re required to consistently do more with less, especially during economic recession when their usage surges.

This is the case, especially in North America, as libraries are grappling with an increased demand for virtual materials, requiring them to adapt an on-the-go mentality.

The digital divide

For The New York Public Library, the ability to connect with patrons wasn’t lost when branches closed — Ask NYPL has existed for decades, helping to provide an all-in-one reference desk for patron’s needs.

“Ask NYPL has been doing that since 1967,” explains Rosa Caballero-Li, Associate Director of Patron Support at NYPL. “We’ve been there for our patrons in New York State, helping them on the telephone in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s and then providing help via email, chat and later on social media.”

But with branches closed, residents without a library card were essentially locked out of accessing their services.

“We quickly realised [a challenge] was something as simple as getting a library card,” says Caballero-Li. NYPL introduced the SimplyE app to help residents get a library card, but “there are a lot of people that may not have a smartphone, so they helped us create an online library card application, which is something we didn’t have before.”

The in-branch browsing experience is difficult to replicate online — librarians are able to come up with recommendations based on personal preferences, often more accurate than an online algorithm.

“Our reader services team came up with ‘Shelf Help’. Call us and say ‘hey, I read that book, or I like this type of book or genre’ and there’ll be a package of books waiting [at the branch].”

And, alongside numerous others peers, The New York Public Library took to lending out WiFi hotspots, leaving WiFi service turned at night and lending out computers.

More than information-sharing

When the libraries in Halifax and the surrounding area temporarily shuttered their doors, that didn’t mean turning off the lights.

“There’s a number of branches we’ve identified a high need around hunger,” says Ken Williment, a Manager of Programming & Community Engagement at Halifax Public Libraries. “We’ve worked closely with employees and volunteers to put together lunches which are distributed, either through curbside pickup or when branches are open.”

In addition more than twenty thousand meals distributed since last October, branches have snacks available to provide patrons, explains Williment, who is also a lead manager on portfolios for social isolation, poverty reduction, climate change and food security. Providing a granola bar, yogurt or banana helps quench people’s appetites, leading to more positive interactions — an estimated two-hundred-thousand snacks have been distributed since the effort began, available for any patron to grab.

The Halifax Regional Municipality covers a uniquely large swath of land — roughly the same size as Prince Edward Island, or 5,490 kilometres, making the branches more important community-oriented social services than in other places. There’s branches in downtown Halifax and Dartmouth, but also in rural communities like Musquodoboit Harbour and Hubbards.

“We worked with our municipality and partners to bring in portable washrooms,” Williment says. “Sackville [branch] has a shower, I’ve worked with the Emergency Management Office to ensure community members that are high-need have access to showers.”

With funding from the Canadian Medical Association and municipal government, Halifax Public Libraries was able to boost the WiFi signal at their branches — enabling patrons to use the internet when nearby, or residents living in proximity to use the connection. And with a number of Chromebooks sitting unused, HPL was able to lend them to homeless shelters in the area.

Find people where they are

A nationwide result of the pandemic has been the elimination of late fees, From Toronto to Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Columbus, numerous cities have either partially or completely become ‘fine-free’.

“There’s a lot of momentum across the country that really helped political, elected officials go ‘that is a smart thing to do’,” notes Ed Cuddy, Manager of Library Services at the Winnipeg Public Library. “You look at how people still return materials and still use the library, what’s the argument for penalising them with an economic barrier?”

There’s been an uptick in the number of people accessing virtual services, it’s likely there’ll still be high demand for in-person programming and services. While libraries have historically been about books, in the past few decades they’ve began to offer children’s programming, book groups, workshops and more. Virtual services will likely be an extension of programming, rather than replace it altogether.

“[It] would be great to be able to still continue some of these services that we started during the pandemic, because I think they add value,” Caballero-Li says, highlighting virtual cards, online tutoring and language classes. “It’s more accessible to people that may not be able to come into physical spaces.”

For Winnipeg an overwhelming response has been that in-person services are valued, with people primarily interested in being able to resume the experience of going into a branch. The services and method have changed, but by keeping an open line with the community, the library has been able to find its footing.

“The lessons of the last few years have really taught us that engaging with the community is a really positive thing,” Cuddy says. “If we’re really in touch with the community on a regular basis, we’re going to go in the right direction.”