Masks, Plexiglass, and Zoom, Oh My!: Possible Changes to the Future of Library Services
by Andrew Hart, Research Librarian
First of all, library community, how are you doing? Does this Guest Forum article find you well? I hope so. Needless to say---and I’ve been saying it ad nauseum---this nightmare that we have all been living in will be over, eventually. Hopefully soon. But, this leaves us with a predicament: with the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, libraries will be left with the remnants and vestiges of policies and on-the-fly remedies that were implemented when the pandemic began, and subsequently, enforced during the pandemic to its very end.
What will a post-pandemic libraryscape (someone coin that, please) look like, say, in 2022/2023? Will everything go back to normal? I doubt it. It is hard to estimate, especially since we have no idea when the pandemic will end or what other machinations might be put in place from now until then. In this Guest Forum article, I will list some things that might be forever impacted in libraries due to the pandemic. These things were either implemented in response to the pandemic, or they were things that already existed that were heavily beefed-up to meet patron needs during quarantine. This list is by no means exhaustive, and my commentary is strictly conjecture (one step removed from a shot in the dark), but we must start thinking about these things as library professionals to meet community and patron needs.
Library Layout and Access/Barriers
Libraries, already unique in their mission, were put into an even more unique situation when quarantine measures were put into place around the country in 2020. Suddenly, libraries had to shut their doors, stop lending/severely limit physical materials, and cancel in-person library programming. This of course was at the beginning of the quarantine, with most libraries currently offering some form of physical lending and access. Some libraries have chosen to place plexiglass barriers between patron seating, at circulation and reference desks, and around other strategic places in the library, like computer stations, to act as giant shields. Shuffling furniture and stacks has also been a strategy, using what the library already has as a barrier to increase distance between patrons/staff or to guide foot traffic to/from certain areas. Will these barriers remain after the pandemic is over? My guess is that yes, at least in some part. For instance, some libraries might find that the way they’ve arranged their materials and furniture might benefit patrons more than before. Plexiglass though? Perhaps not. As a side note: I’d wager that library architects will incorporate some form of natural barriers in future building designs to seamlessly encourage social distancing without making it obvious (that’s a topic for another article entirely).
There’s not much to say about this, except that I firmly believe that library fines are a done deal. With many libraries banishing library fines pre-2020, the pandemic acted as a catalyst for this issue, putting into stark relief the need for their erasure. My guess is that by 2025 most if not all libraries will be fine-free.
Remember when I used the word “nightmare” at the beginning to describe the last year? Quarantining books has also been its own nightmare. But surprisingly, librarians have had amazing research conducted by OCLC, IMLS, and Batelle that has helped shape library policy and procedure. The REopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums (REALM) project tests materials commonly found in libraries to see how long the SARS-CoV-2 virus lasts on surfaces after being placed into quarantine. This unprecedented research allows librarians to see the impact of quarantining materials---giving us confidence to begin loaning physical items again---and on a larger scale, has brought to the forefront the topic of library materials spreading germs. The big question is if libraries will continue to do some form of quarantining/book cleaning in the future? My guess is no. The main reason is the time involved for quarantining to be effective. To me, it’s not a sustainable, long-term solution. And we know that repeated cleaning of materials can lead to their deterioration, so I think that’s out too. To find out more about REALM and to read the research, please visit REALM project - REopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums | OCLC.
I can say with confidence, virtual programming is here to stay (not that it wasn’t going to stay pre-COVID, or that it wasn’t a ‘thing’ pre-COVID, just that it’s now more of a central aspect of programming services), and it will only get bigger and better. Virtual programming in libraries exploded in 2020 (and is continuing to grow in 2021), being a valuable and entertaining resource for patrons stuck at home. I’m going to make a bold statement and say that library programming has never mattered more than at this present time. For those feeling isolated, bored, mentally drained, fearful, and lonely, virtual library programming has been a boon. Does this mean that in-person library programming and services like STEAM labs/makerspaces are going to go extinct? Absolutely not. Does this mean that in-person programming is less meaningful? Absolutely not. My guess is that both physical and virtual services are going to expand and grow in the future, with virtual services becoming a major component of a library’s offerings to the public. What makes virtual programs awesome is that access to hosting sites like Zoom and WebEx are free (unless you want/need to upgrade), sessions can be recorded for those not able to attend synchronously, and it eliminates the need to physically be present, allowing even more participation and access.
Broadband Internet Access
Broadband Internet access is so integral to our daily lives that it’s hard to image life without it. However, there are some in our communities who do not have access to this valuable resource. This could be due to prohibitive costs and location (i.e. rural areas), among other reasons. Equitable access to the Internet has been a growing mission for libraries, and this will continue to be an important aspect of service as time goes on. For some, the only option that they have for accessing high-speed broadband is at their local public library. When the pandemic first started and libraries temporarily closed their doors, patron access to the library’s Wi-Fi was cutoff. Realizing this, many public libraries boosted their Wi-Fi signals and kept access to the service on longer (beyond normal library operating hours) so that patrons could sit outside the library or in the parking lot to connect. Does that mean that libraries will continue to have their Wi-Fi signals boosted and keep the service on longer for increased patron access post-pandemic? I’m not sure, but I’d like to think so. And I think it goes without saying that Internet hotspot lending, already an established library offering pre-COVID, will expand and grow and continue to make broadband access more equitable to the community.
Everything these days has a curbside pick-up component all thanks to the pandemic. Independent bookstores, grocery stores, fast food chains and restaurants, retailers, and tons of other businesses cater to those who don’t want to leave their cars and risk encountering someone who might be infected by COVID. Another reason why curbside became popular was because it was a way for a business to shut down physical access to their location while at the same time still being able to stay open and make money. In some situations, due to strict ordinances, there was no option in the matter and curbside was the only way a business could remain open and in service. When the pandemic first hit, one of the first solutions that libraries devised was to either ramp-up existing curbside pickup, or for those without curbside pickup, to begin an entirely new curbside program. Will curbside services continue after the pandemic? My guess is that curbside pickup will not disappear post-pandemic and will become a normal part of library services. I think the service will be expected of libraries, just like I think it will be expected of everyone else in the future.
Will things be different for libraries in the future? Of course. Is that a bad thing? Of course not. The pandemic has forced libraries to do things that will ripple into future operations and offerings. Things will change, but as librarians, we’ll be there to manage that change for the better. Keeping an ear to the ground will be important for those in charge of policy decisions for their library. Beneficial things you can do for yourself and your patrons: keep up-to-date with the ongoing REALM project, remain in communication with your state library, state health department, and local health officials, read library science periodicals and blogs, listen to patron feedback (what’s working; what’s not?), attend virtual conferences/webinars, and finally, give yourself a pat on the back. These are hard times and we’re all coping and doing our best.
Copyright 2021 by Andrew Hart.
About the Author: Andrew Hart currently works as a Research Librarian. In previous positions, he has worked in special collections, public libraries, and prison library settings. Andrew has a Master of Science in Library Science degree from Clarion University of Pennsylvania, a Master of Social Science degree from Ohio University, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in criminology from The Ohio State University. He has contributed to Public Libraries Online, American Libraries Magazine, Library History Roundtable News and Notes, and has written chapters for McFarland’s Genealogy and the Librarian: Perspectives on Research, Instruction, Outreach and Management (2018) and Social Justice and Activism in Libraries: Essays on Diversity and Change (2019). All views presented belong to the author alone.