Public Library Face to Face with COVID-19: Challenges & Opportunities


Fatemeh Pazooki | The spread of COVID-19 has deeply challenged public, cultural, and economic activities and programs worldwide and has become a threat to global health. Since public libraries are a place for community gatherings, and most of their actions are done in groups, many of these institutions’ daily activities have changed, interrupted, postponed, and even disrupted.
Most public libraries have been closed initially by the national or regional administration’s commands. They promoted “stay home” while there was no definite reopening date. Gradually, after around a month (shock period!) Libraries resumed their activities, even though in a new format, new instructor and based on the web. Furthermore, librarians afforded to support the health care process and confront fake news. In most libraries, employees worked from home. However, in some cases where employees were present in the library buildings, it was necessary to keep social distancing and pay attention to health requirements. In large cities where telecommuting infrastructures were proper, librarians respond to their members via email or chat. They also presented book clubs, storytelling, social services, reference services, and book introductions via online social networks.
One of the librarians’ commendable measures in the public libraries in Iran was the preparation of the document of Guidelines for reopening libraries entitle: Iran Public Libraries responding to COVID-19”. To prepare this document, 20 active and interested librarians from all over Iran formed an electronic group and provided some guidelines for reopening public libraries and providing services following health protocols. This document has presented guidelines in 7 parts: Staff, Collection, Areas, Technologies, Programs, Services, Information Dissemination. Fortunately, this document was confirmed in the evaluation by IFLA and placed in the IFLA COVID-19 c.
Let me please, as the last part of my note, let’s take a step back and look at this crisis from a more general perspective.
In my opinion, the most critical effect of the Coronavirus on public libraries is not the use of masks and hand washing and the need to disinfect library resources, but the emphasis on “social distancing”. However, in the last decade, emphasizing the concepts of meeting and “inspiration”, the phrase “library as space” has become popular. However, currently, this strength and emphasis has become the Achilles heel of public libraries during the Corona crisis.
This problem could be even more severe when numerous public library users are children and adolescents. Now, their education and homework have been done online, so they spend (actually waste!!) lots of time on computers, tablets, cell phones and so on, it might be that they or their parents are not pleased to be over online to use the library programs further.
Another issue is “costs”. Of course, I do not know how much the Internet services payments in your country are. But in Iran, you have to pay a considerable charge to use the Internet. When someone registers in a library, s/he pays (often a little) membership fee for one year, which includes all the resources, services, and programs. But in the online space, they have to pay for each minute. so…!
Another difficulty is that the existing platforms have not been built for public library services, so they are not customized for library services. In other words, there is no integrated system for presenting all public library activities online. For example, the user has to use the library database to search for resources, go to the zoom app to use the workshop/training course, go to Instagram for chat-based apps, and so on. This scattering differs from the “organization” nature of the public library (which was even an umbrella for all kinds of civic services) and drives the user away.
But another challenge, I think, is that, in this structure, the number of public library “services” is reduced and such services change into more “programs” or events. As you know, services are provided continuously, with no specific start and end restrictions on a day or a few days a week, and are often provided by staff/librarians. In my opinion, the service gives the user a sense of belonging, security, and support. While the programs are unstable and the user has to coordinate his time with that event and be present at the appointed time, and that’s it! Besides, leave these all matters in addition to extra problems, internet access, low internet speed, filtering restrictions, and so on. And also, most of people do not trust online play, especially in governmental platforms. They have heard many times about digital footprint and afraid about their activities in cyberspace can be tracked.
Evidence anticipate Corona will be with us for a long time or even live with us. The order of current civilization has proved that it has not handled all other human demands in various natural biological conditions, both scientifically and managerially I suppose that the Corona crisis discussion in terms of historical sociology can recognize Corona as a break from the old civilizational order to the novel.
What I mention at this meeting are just the hints to make us think more profoundly. As LIS professionals, especially public library lovers, all of us should consider and think and talk to each other more and more to be the lighthouse of public libraries all around the world in the rough and foggy crisis ocean…

PS. Presented in the IFLA Public Librararies Section Business Meeting; September 30, 2020.


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