Libraries

I decided to get my hair cut yesterday. Like many others, I’ve been sporting a lockdown look for quite a while. My wife did help me by trimming some of my hair and I have to admit that my covid look isn’t quite as dramatic as those who can actually grow hair on the top of their heads. Nonetheless, the place where I usually get my hair cut has been open for more than a week and I figured that they might have worked out the bugs in the system. I knew in advance that I would still have to deal with my own beard. There is just no way to trim a beard with a face mask on. I was impressed with the organization and care taken by the salon. I was able to set up my appointment online, so I didn’t have to wait. I was greeted outside of the building by an employee who had me wait for just a minute until they were ready. Inside there were only about half of the usual number of people working, with plastic shields between the stations. Everyone was wearing a mask and there was a display of certificates from a training program that certified the employees were all trained in proper infection control procedures. I got a fresh drape and the haircut was completed efficiently by an attendant wearing mask and gloves.

I can see how we could safely proceed with those careful procedures for many months if the pandemic continues. I’ve read some articles that suggest that we need to learn to live with the new precautions even after a vaccine is developed. At any rate, we are in the circumstances we have right now and I was pleased at the precautions taken by the salon. It feels good to have my hair cut.

As the father of a librarian, I’ve been paying attention to news stories about libraries and how they have been fairing during the pandemic. Many have been closed, often because of a shortage of city funding. As a few are beginning to reopen, they are re-thinking how they can provide their services. Like many other places, there has been significant fear of surface contamination. In reality, the virus does not do well outside of human bodies. Although they make special ovens for heating books to kill viruses, simply quarantining books upon return will make them safe. Many public libraries simply carefully date books when they are returned and hold them for a a specific amount of time before returning them to the shelves.

Libraries are, however, more than just books. Keeping the books safe is important, but libraries are places where people gather. Parents bring their toddlers for story time. People come to use computers, Book groups meet. Public libraries provide a lot of service for homeless people. If you don’t have a computer, you can’t file for unemployment. The public library used to be the answer. When libraries closed, people lost access to basic services far beyond the books.

When it comes to books, however, there are some innovative ideas and programs being explored. Libraries are offering curbside services. Reserve online or over the phone and pick up the book curbside. Bookmobiles are being transformed so that readers can select books without entering the mobile library. Libraries are delivering books. There are bicycle delivery systems and even drone delivery systems being put into place by some libraries. Libraries are exploring tiny branch locations with no public reading rooms and no places to sit, but access to Wi-Fi as well as a place to pick up resources to take home.

Libraries are expanding their online services, offering virtual story times, virtual book clubs, author interviews and much more. Even when the libraries were closed, many had plenty of cars in the parking areas where people were using the free Wi-Fi to connect with loved ones, complete school work, apply for assistance and do distance work. New York public libraries reported over 500 visits a day when they were officially closed and the city was under a mandatory lock down. There are many library services that are deemed to be essential to the public. Libraries are usually a small portion of a city’s budget, but often times they are the city agency with the most direct contact with people. Compare a library to a fire department. No one is saying we don’t need fire departments, but firemen come into contact with a tiny fraction of the number of people served by libraries each day.

Librarians are masters of research, and they have been working hard to figure out the best ways to reorganize for opening safely. Furniture is being put into storage to open up spaces. Research into the ways people move in public places is being conducted. People are studying the essential services needed by the most vulnerable populations in communities. Computer monitors are being moved to make distance between work stations. Shelving is being re-thought. Some libraries plan not to allow public browsing in the stacks, but rather patrons will browse online and make a request and staff will get the needed books and resources. There will be a lot of innovation as libraries get back to business in a much-changed environment.

Part of the change will be a radical re-working of public library budgets. While corporations and individuals have received substantial economic support during the pandemic, no one has rushed to bail out local governments. Reduced tax revenues and a general slowing of the economy including record-setting unemployment has forced cities to cut funding at the same time as demand for library services is growing exponentially. Libraries across the nation are struggling to expand services with fewer employees. The stress is significant. The creativity is impressive.

When I consider all that is occurring in our public libraries, a haircut seems trivial by comparison. No one really cares what my hair looks like. But there are a lot of people who need the services our libraries provide. It may be a long time before libraries can return to being gathering places for our communities. In the meantime, they will continue to strive to serve. They deserve our support.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!