One of the marks of the start of a new school year is a shift in hours at the public library. Not all libraries offer Sunday hours, but many do, and those hours show up after Labor Day, often running through early June. They allow more time for students to study and do research for school.
This year is anything but typical. With so many unknowns about schooling broadly—will local schools be all online? all in-person? a hybrid model? for how long?—and many parents electing to home school, the demand for other community public institutions to step up is already growing.
Libraries across the United States have been reopening at varying rates, with varying staff levels to match both what’s acceptable by their state’s reopening guidelines and what the reality of their struggling budgets decides. As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc across the nation and the world, with aid to those struggling in the U.S. lacking, parents, students, teachers, and librarians find themselves wrestling with how to handle the realities of balancing school, work, and access to information and resources. For many, these roles are not interchangeable but interconnected, further hammering home the fears and worries about how to navigate the future.
Public Library and School Partnerships Vary
“I have no idea what our school year services will be yet,” said a Texas librarian, whose library is open at 25% capacity with no study room accessibility, limited computer access, and a skeleton staff which rotates three days in-library with two days working from home. “I think most of the schools in our city have decided to be virtual for the first few months so far, so I have no idea what that will look like here at the library if kids come in for computer use or research.”
As of this writing, schools are still making their plans about learning, sometimes changing their decisions multiple times in a short period of time, leaving communities to scramble. Early-start states like Georgia have already seen the realities of distancing at play as scores of high schoolers crowded hallways and threats of suspension abound for those unwilling to simply go along with the plan to continue on as normal.
Public libraries and schools across the country don’t usually have formal partnerships as organizations, but in many communities they work closely with one another to provide resources and tools for their communities. A lot depends on the logistics, and because those logistics change community by community, even within a single city, some schools and libraries may have a fantastic working relationship while others don’t have one at all.
Which isn’t to say that libraries and schools don’t want to work together. They do, as it’s in their best interest in public stewardship to do so. So with the ever-shifting landscape of fall 2020 education, librarians are preparing themselves the best they can with the tools they do—and do not—have to make their resources as accessible as possible across a wide range of scenarios.
“Right now we’re limited in seating and we’re packed and can’t add more without it being too close. We frequently have teens meet after school to work on group projects and homeschool groups meet at the library during the day for several hours. Our seating limits and distancing can’t hold that capacity. We also do not have our meeting rooms open and while we had initially anticipated opening them in the Fall, that is being discussed as cases are on the rise and we are seeing significant increases in our area,” said a librarian in Missouri. Her library reopened in May, but with precautions in place that include limited study spaces and tables. Patron traffic is half of what it normally is, and the drop in attendance by school-age people is significant.
“If school goes virtual, many of our students do not have access to wifi, especially in some of our more rural branches and communities,” she added. “I am anticipating many patrons choosing virtual school options even if school is in session, so what does that mean for the library? Do we become a place where kids are sent while parents work so the kids can do school for 8 hours? Our policy is ages 10 and up can be alone in the library, so will we be enforcing that more? We have also started seeing more patrons ask about homeschooling resources, which is something we don’t have a lot of. We have books with tips and guidance, but mostly they are looking for curriculum, plans, and what to teach in each grade, which is something we do not have. We can point them to resources to find these things, but we don’t have curriculum in the library for checkout which causes lots of confusion and frustration when patrons are told by their school to ‘go to the library.'”
A librarian in Alaska reported their organization was teaming up with a local non-profit who runs before and after school care programs with hopes to use some of the library’s space for safe childcare and virtual school.
What Libraries Plan—and Want—To Provide
Throughout the summer as public libraries reopened, they reported implementing virtual programming to varying levels of success. The inability to easily track attendance or engagement made for a challenge, and, as many librarians reported, there simply was little interest in such programming. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise, given the increase in screen time as a result of quarantine schooling and work.
Zoom and Facebook live continue to be where and how libraries are presenting programming. Some will continue the programming through fall and even into early 2021, while others will cut back on the amount of virtual programming offered to reflect patron interest.
“We have been doing some live Zoom programs and a lot of pre-recorded programs. Some of us would like to do fewer because we’re feeling burned out and some of the programs don’t get a lot of views. Concentrating efforts on a couple of live Zoom storytimes per week might be more effective than half a dozen pre-recorded storytimes, for example,” said a librarian in Illinois. The library reopened to the public in May, with masks mandated per state guidelines, as well as a limit on the number of patrons allowed inside the building, curbside pickup service, no in-person programming or study room access, and limited furniture to limit lingering. Patrons are allowed to be in the building for no longer than an hour. “We’ve got a survey with our summer reading report asking families whether they’re looking for opportunities to interact with staff or whether pre-recorded is better. A lot of people want physical materials more than anything, whether by browsing themselves or asking us to pull them. We have an online form that we were using to offer e-book and book purchasing suggestions, then suggestions of items to put on hold, and we are now extending that to offer to pull a bag of books (based on what’s available on shelf) for patrons to pick up.”
Some librarians are utilizing this same line of thinking and pivoting to creating more virtual guides, tutorials, and content that helps patrons find the information and materials they seek. In other words, rather than concentrating on community programming, they’re focusing on anticipating needs to what their libraries offer.
A librarian in Virginia who was homeschooled herself says part of the preparation for the new year involves boning up on current homeschool laws and resources to accommodate those who will be trying it for the first time.
“We have revamped our children’s website page with more learning resources and are planning on a homeschool resource day to give patrons an idea of what we offer to help with home learning. We will offer Zoom classes on how to access and use our resources and anticipate higher use of our computers, STEM kits, and nonfiction collections,” she said. Her library has been impacted by layoffs and furloughs at neighboring library systems, as well as challenged by the fact many families in the community do not have wireless access at home.
Still others don’t plan on addressing children’s services at all due to state mandates, safety, and lack of staff.
“We simply don’t have the resources. We are in a hotspot so we won’t be offering programming or even access to the children’s department,” said a librarian in Pennsylvania. The library has been closed for months, reopening with limited services in early August. As it stands, protective equipment is lacking, as is access to hand sanitizer and other necessary supplies for staff.
“All of our free space is being used to quarantine items so we don’t have any study or meeting rooms available,” she said, adding that despite the challenges, one of the goals is to continue offering Chromebooks and Hotspots for patron check out, as well as virtual tech support via a chat client.
A librarian in Cincinnati, which just furloughed 58 people from their Main Library, noted that because of time restrictions for in-person library visits, worries about how those in the community without wireless internet to access virtual schooling will adjust.
“We will have over 125 families in our school district with no wifi. They will need to use our spaces and we are probably going to have to tell them no, or that they can only stay for an hour. I’m trying to partner with teachers early so I’ll know when kiddos need certain books and I can reserve them,” they said.
Concerns and Limitations of Libraries as Resources for Education
“How can we support kids and parents through this totally unprecedented time? How do we keep relevant when families aren’t coming to the physical building like they normally would? How can we communicate the need for the library in our community?” asks a New York librarian. The hours at their library are back to pre-COVID levels, but staffing structures have changed, and patrons are encouraged to “grab and go,” and must leave after an hour. “We’re going to try to provide as many call-in services as we can—curbside books pick up, call-in to request materials.”
For many, the public library serves as a third space/place: a freely accessible community building where you’re welcome to show up as you are, without any expectation of financial/goods exchange. Libraries are seen not only in that capacity, but also as places that are simply safe. This means adults feel okay allowing their children to be there alone or with minimal supervision (where age-appropriate). But in an era where there are not places to congregate within the library, things become even more precarious.
“We have three study rooms available to reserve. Our wifi reaches the parking lot for anyone willing to study in a car. Our tables and chairs are distanced as much as possible, so we have room for maybe twenty people at a time to study at the regular tables,” said a Michigan librarian, whose library returned to normal hours and staffing levels. They noted an increase in tension and frustration from patrons being told to follow guidelines for masks and physical distancing, and many have taken it out on staff members. “[I’m worried] if schools open—crowds of unsupervised children and teens hanging out after school. If schools go virtual—crowds of students trying to study in the library and parents getting upset that we won’t babysit.”
“I’m now dreading coming to work for the first time since I started working in libraries,” they added.
Librarians worry, too, about the demands placed upon their by schools to fill in for the roles that are played by school staff as well.
“The school district eliminated school librarians this year so we anticipate we’ll have to deal with the slack. We’re looking at creating tutorials to explain our digital services such as Tutor.com and Mango Languages. This is one reason we wanted to do passive programming since we recognize that we’ll be the support to the schools this year,” said a California librarian. The facility has been closed to the public but open for curbside pickup, with no Sunday hours. Those hours will likely not return with the school year, either.
Of course, these challenges impact marginalized communities, as well as the libraries that serve them, even harder.
“[I’m concerned about] risk to staff and customers if we open the doors instead of doing curbside—we are a predominantly Black and Latinx community and have been hit incredibly hard—1 out of 20 have had or have COVID, lots of deaths,” said a Maryland librarian. The county in which the library operates has been among the hardest in the state by several thousand cases.
Not to mention the challenges of being a working parent.
“My biggest concerns are more personal, as I’m a single foster parent with a 12-year-old child who will almost certainly be learning remotely. I’ve been told I’m not allowed to bring him to work with me. I’m stressing about how I’m supposed to shepherd him through a full middle school course-load with a bunch of Zoom meetings if I’m expected to commit to working specific shifts at the physical library. I foresee even more stress and possible burnout. Many other librarians in my department are in a similar situation, albeit with younger children and two-parent households,” said an Illinois librarian.
“We get to invent a new way to be a library. That’s terrifying and exciting,” said an Alaskan librarian.
And indeed, while there are uncharted waters to navigate and unforeseeable challenges that lie ahead, librarians continue to do what it is they always do: address their concerns openly and frankly while also utilizing their intellect and creativity to best serve their communities with the resources available to them.
May every community remember that libraries are trying better than their best and that those libraries are filled with a wide range of people—young, old, healthy, disabled, scared, worried, and hopeful that they’re doing everything they can for themselves and those for whom they work.
Because the state of public education in the U.S. remains in constant flux, it’s impossible to offer a roadmap or toolkit for developing a plan for libraries to safely meet the needs of students and parents. But, perhaps, seeing the insights, worries, and anticipation other libraries have can be valuable.
Thirty librarians from across the United States, representing rural, suburban, and urban institutions self-selected to partake in a survey from mid-July to early August for this piece. The anonymized insights can be accessed here.