Are Libraries Essential Services? The Answer May Be Complicated.

Are Libraries Essential?

When the lockdowns started in the United States in March 2020, many public libraries resisted closing. States were advising that “essential services” should remain open, and library administrators were eager to advertise that what libraries do is absolutely essential. After all, if libraries closed, indicating that they are not essential, that would surely give policymakers yet another excuse to cut already low and diminishing budgets. Staff lives might be lost in the effort to stay open during a global pandemic, but librarians are here to help, right? At least–that is the messaging some library administrators seemed to be saying.

Most Americans would probably agree that libraries are absolutely important community resources. They promote equal access to knowledge and information. They provide internet and computer access to those without. They provide spaces where people can gather for long periods of time, with no expectation of payment in return, leading many to use the library as a safe space to stay warm, cool, or dry. Librarians help people every day by pointing to credible resources, helping with computer and website navigation, and answering reference questions. But does all this mean that libraries had to stay open during a global pandemic?

Libraries can be “essential” in some ways, but not in others. The directive for essential services to remain open seems to have been meant to include services that are necessary to supporting life or keeping society running relatively smoothly. That is, for example, grocery stores and food kitchens should remain open so people can eat, power plants should continue operating so people have heat and electricity, medical offices should stay open so people do not die, city workers should keep maintaining the roads so people can travel to necessary appointments or jobs, and so on. What libraries do is, again, important. And closing to the public is certainly an inconvenience, at the very least. But closing the building to the public for a few weeks or months is unlikely to endanger anyone’s life or physical well-being. In contrast, opening so large crowds can gather inside and spread a deadly airborne virus probably would endanger lives–and not just staff’s lives.

Accepting that public libraries may have to close to the public in order to protect the community is not saying that the work libraries do does not matter. The public library does matter, very much. The person filling out unemployment forms, or looking for a new job, or studying for school certainly values the library. But there should be a distinction here between “essential to maintaining life” and “important to the community.”

But what of those services that libraries and their supporters love to brag about? The fact that they might provide free lunches to kids during the summer? Or have one of those boxes with canned goods for people experiencing homelessness? The fact that people go there to stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer? These services are actually services that other community organizations already provide, or should be providing. The library is not the only place in town for one to get a free meal–and if it is, that is a problem. Nor is the library the only warming station available. Nor is it meant to act as a homeless shelter in lieu of actual homeless shelters. Many of the life-sustaining activities the library participates in are actually partnerships with other organizations that will continue, just in other places, even if the library must close to the public. These services are essential–but they are not the library’s primary role.

And what of the rest? What about providing internet access and readers’ advisory and books and movies? The stuff about providing equal access that is the public library’s role? Most libraries managed to pivot during the pandemic and offer these services safely through other means, when their buildings were closed. Some libraries bought and distributed additional WiFi hotspots, as well as laptops or Chromebooks. Most started reminding people that their WiFi reaches outside to the parking lot. Some set up laptop stations outside. Most offered some version of curbside pickup, as well as reference services via phone. Their services changed, but they remained. People just had to be willing to pivot along with the libraries.

Closing the libraries during a global pandemic does not mean that their services are not essential to a great many people. They are! But there is a distinction to be made here between the types of buildings that had to remain open for people to survive, and the kinds of buildings that are important but perhaps not in the same way. Using the word “essential” to describe the places that should remain in operation perhaps unfairly made some places feel like they were being told they are not valuable, when that is not the case. This in turn pressured libraries to remain open–thereby endangering not only staff members but also other members of the public.

So are libraries essential? Well, yes. But not quite in the way many administrators wanted to say they are.

18 thoughts on “Are Libraries Essential Services? The Answer May Be Complicated.

  1. Janette says:

    I would agree. I definitely think that libraries are essential and should be supported and properly funded by governments. However, in terms of a health lockdown, it was probably the right thing to do to close them along with many other community spaces. I’m so glad that they are open again.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I missed going in the library, too, but the reality is that sacrifices had to be made to save lives, and my ability to browse the shelves in person isn’t really equal to someone’s life…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Books Teacup and Reviews says:

    That is well said and I agree with your thoughts. Libraries being public means more gathering more chance of spread and it sure can be avoided by closing the building but that doesn’t mean services should be closed. Like you said there are other alternatives and people can easily get them. There is no use of arguing about something that can risk lives when there is perfect alternative that both save lives and help community.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I think what really bothers me about the situation is that it’s usually the admin making these decisions–but the admin typically isn’t working with the public and so they’re not willing to face the risk they’re asking their staff to face.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. ireadthatinabook says:

    I disagree. If libraries are not needed when people are confined to their homes for months and parents are home schooling their kids with poor resources, or the kids are homeschooling themselves, I’m not sure when it is needed. Of course, if the libraries are able to provide their most essential services to those most needing it in alternate forms, e.g. through curbside pick up, that is fine, but I believe closing completely for any substantial period would be a mistake. Not so that I can browse the shelves, I have well-stocked shelves at home and can afford to buy books instead, but for those without that privilege. I’m working in higher education, another “almost essential” field, and have been teaching on site for most of the pandemic, so I’m not asking others to take risks I wouldn’t be willing to take myself, but I consider libraries, and education in general, to be a fundamental part of a democratic society.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      The initial directive was to close the buildings for two weeks, and most schools were also closed during that time. So it seemed odd to me that library administrators (who usually aren’t working with the public) were so insistent that their (lesser paid) staff needed to be working during a pandemic. After that, most libraries managed to pivot more or less to curbside services.

      The public at my library does tend to gather–there are people who seem to spend all day watching YouTube or playing Roblox–so I can see why public librarians might be hesitant to be in a building full of people with no sort of restrictions/appointment times (pre vaccine availability, especially). I view the Georgia Tech risk assessment tool periodically and the library was open during times when the map suggested that there was an almost 100% chance of someone in the building carrying covid.

      I do think, though, that the irony is that the library tends to be especially necessary in times of crisis.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ireadthatinabook says:

        Closing everything for two weeks while figuring out the situation is certainly reasonable, I was thinking beyond that. I’m glad that many libraries managed to keep some of their activity during most of the pandemic, I’m not arguing that they should operate normally, just that they should keep providing their core services when they are needed the most.

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          Well, my library did stay closed to the public for a few months, I believe. And I was okay with that. They eventually started offering virtual services, then curbside and then appointments for computers. It wasn’t the same, of course–it still isn’t.

          But I would also support them if they felt they needed to close to the public again. We’re in a situation where no one really seems to know what to do, so I guess I can’t fault them for fumbling around trying to figure it out.

          Liked by 1 person

          • ireadthatinabook says:

            For my sake it is also ok if my library is closed for a few months, I have other options. The question is what happens to those who depend on libraries that don’t have other options. Especially during a crisis when a library might be especially important for both mental health and educational reasons. I do believe that for some people a library is not just something that is really nice to have but an actual lifeline, in that case closing them will do real harm. A library that can close for a few months with no great harm done to anyone isn’t really that important to its community.

            Like

            • Krysta says:

              I guess I should have clarified that “closed to the public” doesn’t mean the library was not operational. There was WiFi available outside in the parking lot. Chairs were offered to people to sit outside and use the WiFi. Programming went virtual. Additional hotspots were offered to extend WiFi access to people at home. Curbside pickup was offered for books and reference services were available over the phone. The two main things people couldn’t do when the library was “closed” was sit inside on the computer all day or physically browse the bookshelves.

              Liked by 1 person

              • ireadthatinabook says:

                That sounds very reasonable, I have no objections to libraries finding safer ways to provide their services when needed. It is the library services, not the building itself, that I consider essential.

                Like

              • Krysta says:

                Oh, I like that idea! It’s the services that are important, yes!

                I did feel like my library could have rolled out more of the features a little faster–that would have been nice. But I don’t know all the logistics behind a system-wide move like that so maybe they had their reasons. It just seemed to me that some other libraries were virtual almost overnight and mine…wasn’t.

                Liked by 1 person

  4. Jessica @ Storytime in the Stacks says:

    Thank you for bringing more nuance to this conversation! This is why I say “when library buildings closed” instead of “libraries closed.” Library staff such as myself were very much working and providing services to our community the entire time, such as virtual storytime and curbside pickup.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply! We'd love to read your thoughts!

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.