Libraries are temporarily closing their doors due to coronavirus—like so many other institutions in the wake of a growing pandemic. (Here is a frequently updated list of closures and other news.)
And like schools and colleges, they are trying to move operations online as much as they can.
But what does it mean for librarians to serve patrons without a library?
To get a sense of what the widespread closure of libraries could mean, and hear some creative ways libraries are reaching out digitally, we talked with Jessamyn West, an educational technologist who runs the librarian.net blog and is author of "Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide."
Listen to this week’s podcast on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player below. Or read the partial transcript, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: You are somebody who has been embracing the digital for a long time. What is your take on how much the digital resources can actually fill in this gap that's left by these sudden COVID-19 closures, and how can people be thinking about this?
Jessamyn West: Well, it's tricky. I try to stay optimistic about what the things are that we can do. And I also study the digital divide a lot, so people who are under-resourced technologically for a variety of reasons. And there's a whole bunch of different reasons why that might happen, and one of the things we see in rural areas is, it's not just our patrons in libraries who are under-resourced. Sometimes it's our staff in libraries who are just maybe not super savvy with technology because there's lots of jobs you can do in libraries and some of them are technology-adjacent, but they're not all working with a computer.
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But the problem is there's not always a path for them to be able to achieve more technological competency, or lead the way for our patrons. [For instance,] in Vermont, when Hurricane Irene came through here and flooded all of our rivers and isolated some of our towns, and in those times people who didn't have access to technology, [libraries helped people who] found themselves less connected to what they needed.
So now it's years later, we are having this situation where people are really told to stay at home for the good of the community as much as physically possible. We don't know enough about the transmission of this virus to be able to ensure safety for people who come into our buildings, which are our love and the core of a lot of our feelings about libraries. And so what we're winding up having to do is see how quickly and how rapidly we can pivot to digital ways of doing some of the stuff that aren't just, "Oh hey, we've got eBooks."
And for a lot of libraries, that's not something you can do on a dime. There's all of these tools that haven't formerly been in our wheelhouse that need to have already been in our wheelhouse. And instead we're scrambling in some ways to find good ways to do content delivery and especially for patrons who are digitally divided, they're under-resourced, they want content, which is a thing that's not a hard problem, but they also want community, which is a hard problem, and one that you can't just start from nowhere, you had to already have it to begin with. And it's challenging for the librarians of the world.
Yeah, libraries are not just about books, as people increasingly understand.
In rural communities, especially, we have the Wi-Fi you don't have at home. We've got a clean bathroom that is available to all genders. We have space for your kids to play safely while you work on your tax forms or whatever the thing is. We're heated in the winter, we're cool in the summer. We have things that either you may not have at home or you don't have comfortable access to at home for a variety of reasons. To be honest, most libraries are leaving their Wi-Fi on, but [for] patrons it's a different experience being in the parking lot [trying to be close enough to get the signal].
What you want is to have some kind of fellowship and community with your neighbors. And historically that has really been the building. A lot of times it's older people who just want to come read the paper and be somewhere where there's traffic and something going on. And that's great. We love that in my community. Because you see, hey, oh, there's the lady that does the puzzles every day and you kind of know her. And man, just having a sense of continuity is actually part, I think, of how you know you're a community, right? You have these regular things that happen. The knitting group is on Monday and people sit around and BS about this, that and the other thing. But I know if I walk to the library and drop off a book on Monday, I'm going to say hi to all the knitter people and like, "Hey, hey." And those things are important to us and they're especially important for our heart.
The library has always been like, "We nurture the brain." And everyone's like, "Well we know that." But you can get your own book from anywhere and nourish your brain yourself. But what you can't really get [with online] is that [feeling of] everybody hanging around in a place where nobody is trying to sell you something, and where you can be part of the community and you're welcome there. And there isn't any other place like that.
What are some of the things you're seeing that libraries are doing to try to address some of the big challenges you're talking about?
It really is library by library. One of the things about libraries that's really interesting is how distributed they are.
I mean, you can do story times with people who have access to the internet through a number of nice streaming platforms. Libraries can help you figure out the copyright implications of that and how much you're likely to receive a take-down notice from YouTube.
One of the things I've seen librarians doing over the last, like, three days is assembling syllabi of access to information about things. I mean they're doing story time, right? But they're also telling other people, teachers especially, but parents, like everybody's kids are at home, what? How to do a story time or what they can do or what tools they can use or how they can figure stuff out.
I'm on a mailing list for a bunch of people who study digital divide issues, and they're creating lists of internet service providers who are offering low-cost [internet] or removing bandwidth caps so that people can get internet access where maybe they never did or they had bad internet access.
I'm part of a Libraries Resist group that has a huge thing that's just about what we call the librarian resistance. After this administration made some nasty remarks several years ago, we [in the library resistance groups] were like, "We need to have a response. We don't just do our own thing and pretend that this isn't a problem. Here are ways." So mutual aid stuff, directing people to local Facebook groups where people are doing their own mutual aid. A lot of what we do, and it's challenging, but a lot of what we do in the absence of the building is help people get other places and help people connect to other things.
You've been a longtime advocate for trying to close the digital divide. How can libraries address that issue while they are physically closed?
I live in Orange County. It's in the middle of Vermont. It's one of the least-connected counties. And so we've got a real concern that we send children home [from school] and they don't have access to the internet, what's their digital experience going to be? And so the concern is really that we're exacerbating inequalities that already exist, whereas schools and libraries were the great leveler of an unequal system that already existed because of not just poverty, which I think is a more obvious one, but this kind of sort of tradition, that there really still is this nobility to say "Oh yeah, I'm not online. That's just where you go get your information stolen."
It’s figuring out how to get people online. And so really trying to think, could we airdrop iPads into the senior center and do some video chat with people while they do stuff like taxes and filling out the census? Can we screen-share? Like we're not allowed to touch their computer, but what if we screen-share and move their mouse from home? It’s really trying to figure out what I call the pain points of where some of this stuff happens for people who are digitally divided.
What about academic libraries? A lot of, like you mentioned, colleges are shuttered at this point and that has been such a hub for life of students and faculty. What are you seeing the academic libraries doing?
Most academic libraries at least have staff that are digitally savvy. They do digital document delivery in all sorts of ways. They have access to lots and lots and lots of digital content. And so for them the content is less the problem. I mean it's a problem, of course, but it's less the problem. But trying to figure out ways to have continuity of experience. I mean in many cases, if the students have been sent home, everything you're doing now is some variety of reference work really. I've got a good friend who works at Houghton Library at Harvard and they had a great thread on Twitter about what does archives work look like when you aren't allowed to touch your own things, right? If you're not going to be there preserving ancient documents, what does it look like to continue to be a librarian for maybe months?
The one thing I do want to mention, which is the downside to some of this, is what we call in the profession “vocational awe.” There’s a sense that we are so special that if we did close our buildings it would cause some heretofore unimaginable negative consequence for our community. And I think there's a sense in which you say libraries are essential and you mean it, but I also think there's a sense in which we're still here if we close the door and we shouldn't think that we are so irreplaceable in the lives of the people we deal with that we should downplay [health] risks because it's so important that people get access to us personally.
I mean it becomes a very complicated critique of the neoliberal agenda if you want to be serious about it. But really the issue is trying to figure out our appropriate place in society. Because if there's a blizzard, we're open. If everybody's power's off? We're open and got the generator going. Libraries are really doing some cool stuff in disasters. And people look to us as places, especially people for whom maybe church isn't an option … that really is welcoming to a wide variety of people.
In librarianship we're not getting a lot of leadership at the organizational level. The American Library Association has been a little slow to respond with [some directive like] "Close your libraries." They’re leaving people to make their individual decisions. But it's really hard to get over yourself.
Because part of vocational awe means you'll work for not-enough money. And part of vocational awe means you'll step in for social service agencies who are supposed to be doing stuff and can't or won't for various reasons. Part of vocational awe is you try to do everything you can, you work more hours than you're getting paid for or you give people supplies that you bought yourself.
And so it’s trying to figure out, what's an appropriate amount of heroism to dive into this with?