How Public Libraries Are Responding to the Pandemic

Results of broad PLA survey show libraries continue to launch services, expand access

April 9, 2020

PLA survey

On April 9, the Public Library Association (PLA) announced the release of the broadest survey to date—with 2,545 unique responses nationwide, representing 28% of all US public libraries—on how public libraries are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings show that as public libraries close their buildings to the public, staff continue to serve their communities in innovative ways.

For instance, most respondents (98%) reported their buildings were closed to the public but, in many cases, staff continued to expand access to digital resources, launch virtual programs, and coordinate services with local government agencies.

The survey, conducted by PLA between March 24 and April 1, found that libraries are rapidly adapting services. A substantial majority of respondents report they have extended online renewal policies (76%), expanded online services like ebooks and streaming media (74%), and added virtual programming (61%). In open-ended responses, library staffers described a range of new activities ranging from reallocating print collection budgets to digital materials, reaching out by phone to those digitally disconnected, and:

  • Deploying library 3D printers, similar to El Dorado County (Calif.) Library, which has delivered 700 face shields and plans to 3D-print 15,000: “We have a large 3D-print lab, and our lead volunteer is working with the El Dorado Community Foundation to use our printers to print face shields for our local regional hospitals and county facilities.”
  • Coordinating local services and information, like Rochester (Minn.) Public Library: “The library worked with other city partners to open a day shelter for those experiencing homelessness at the city-owned Mayo Civic Center where all programs and events are canceled. Other library administrative team members have also been called up to service the community as part of the overall continuity of operations plan for city services.” Starting this week, county call lines are being routed to library staff for initial intake and referral.
  • Adapting in-person programs for online delivery, such as the virtual storytimes and online knitting group at McArthur Public Library in Biddeford, Maine.
  • Adding or expanding virtual library cards, similar to Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg, Virginia: “We have issued 418 library cards in three weeks (since we closed)! Customers can apply on our website, and their barcode numbers will be emailed to them. We are adding several hundred ebooks and e-audiobooks per week. We fully expect our digital collection to receive heavy use.”

In an April 9 news release, PLA President Ramiro S. Salazar said that as circumstances change every day, public libraries continue to shift popular programs online, “sharing hyperlocal information and resources, and continuing to connect with our communities by chat, text, phone, and email. Additionally, libraries are preparing for even greater need to support unemployed workers and small businesses than we experienced during the Great Recession.”

More than 70% of respondents are leveraging social media to share information related to COVID-19—95% to communicate changes in library services and 89% to promote available library resources. More than 60% report using social media to promote participation in the 2020 Census. Cranston (R.I.) Public Library Director Ed Garcia, for instance, uploaded a video PSA with Cranston Mayor Allan Fung to encourage online self-response.

More than 20 million people lack home broadband access, and public libraries often fill that gap, providing the only source of free access to computers and the internet—hosting nearly 258 million computer sessions in one year. Library building closures widen a chronic digital divide. More than 80% of PLA survey respondents report they left on their public Wi-Fi access when the library building was closed before the COVID-19 crisis, and 12% have added or expanded this service since the crisis began.

Smaller percentages of libraries have expanded the range of their public Wi-Fi, checked out mobile internet hotspots, or used their bookmobiles to provide internet access.

Based on the survey, it is unknown what percentage of library staff is working at home, but 70% of respondents noted that library policy allows staff to work remotely. With a growing number of stay-at-home orders, the number of libraries with staff working onsite has likely declined. Libraries also have begun to report job losses and budgetary concerns.

Said Salazar: “Libraries continue to play essential roles in our communities even as we close our buildings and work remotely to best ensure health and safety.” He noted that in coming months, there will be a need for libraries to safely reopen, support distance learning and telework, and expand economic recovery services for impacted businesses and workers.

“Federal support will be needed for libraries to continue providing vital services,” he said, “such as advancing digital inclusion and facilitating connectivity, as well as keeping our employees working so they can deliver these services.”


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