If I weren’t so busy using library services online and staying in touch with library colleagues across the United States, I might actually be feeling the loss of all that they usually offer onsite—a set of resources, services, and possibilities nicely summarized in the newly released State of America’s Libraries 2020 report from the American Library Association’s American Libraries magazine.
Anyone taking the time to read this wonderful yearly summary of why libraries remain cherished community resources (even when the buildings themselves are closed because of shelter- in-place guidelines designed to fight the spread of the 2019-2020 coronavirus pandemic) can’t help but be impressed by and grateful, as we celebrate National Library Week (April 19-25, 2020), for all that libraries and library staff contribute to our communities—onsite as well as online.
Libraries, those who wrote or otherwise contributed to the report remind us, actively support “learning and parent engagement” in the learning process; they offer wellness and health resources and activities beyond what many of us assume is in place, including “materials on healthy lifestyles, cookbooks that address medical dietary needs, multimedia for physical exercise instruction, and self-help mental health materials. Some libraries take healthy lifestyle services even further by offering walking, hiking, bicycling, or running programs that take place outside the library building. Nearly 23% of public libraries host fitness or yoga classes.” Most offer “digital literacy training programs, through which community members can learn résumé development and job searching and gain new skills to aid in career advancement. Nearly half of the more than 16,000 public libraries in the US provide free services for small businesses and entrepreneurs…”
And there is plenty onsite that goes beyond our traditional views of what libraries provide: “The best proof that public libraries are about more than just books is their evolution into libraries of things, offering nontraditional collections that are community-specific and imaginative. The wide array of items available to check out includes mattresses, dolls, bicycles, binoculars, and accordions. At the Beaverton (Oreg.) City Library, patrons can check out kitchenware, outdoor equipment, and games.”
For me, the “library” is a cohesive blend of onsite and online resources, services, possibilities—and people. (Never forget those wonderful people who make the library what it is—including staff as well as the people who use libraries and interact within and through libraries.) Before shelter-in-place guidelines were imposed here in San Francisco last month in response to the spread of the coronavirus, I was in San Francisco’s Main Library at least once a week; occasionally visited branches throughout the city; and did a substantial amount of my work through library resources (e.g., access to journal articles) online. Those buildings—and the all-important people who make them what they are—created homes away from home for me and the thousands of other people who visited them every day; temporary office and research sites whenever I used my laptop or tablet, through library Wi-Fi access; and cherished community centers where I would unexpectedly run into people I knew or participate in community-based conversations that were of interest to me and those I serve. Above all, they were places where I consistently came across unexpected treasures—a newly-released book by an author I admire, a DVD featuring a movie I wanted to see, or even an art exhibition that temporarily transported me into another world and left me entertained or immersed in thought about a subject or a place to which the exhibition provided access. And the conversations: seeing colleagues who would ask me what I had been doing recently or tell me what they had been exploring so we all grew through those wonderful exchanges of anecdotes and information made those onsite library visits an extremely important part of my training-teaching-learning landscape.
So, the move to a library that existed only online was a bit of a jolt. But one that has been accompanied by pleasant surprises. Never one to spend much time “going to the movies” online, I suddenly found myself enjoying access to kanopy (which gives me access to up to 15 free movies a month) and Hoopla (a streaming service providing access to audio books, comics, e-books, movies, music, and television programs) through my library account. Prompted by a promotion on the library’s home page, I followed a link to virtual storytimes and enjoyed watching San Francisco Mayor London Breed read Dave Egger’s book What Can a Citizen Do?, San Francisco City Librarian Michael Lambert read Alison Farrell’s The Hike, and Librarian Anna Cvitkovic’s continuing additions to the series. And because I am immersed in training-teaching-learning, I’m beginning to explore the free access my library provides to LinkedIn Learning’s Lynda.com, a great resource I have previously paid to use through a private account. Thinking about those wonderful exchanges of information through face-to-face conversations during my onsite visits, I’ve worked to transform them into “face-to-face online” conversations through the use of Zoom and any other videoconferencing tool we can easily use to remain connected to each other.
Circling back to State of America’s Libraries 2020, I once again admire what publication editor Steve Zalusky and our other colleagues at American Libraries have produced, and couldn’t agree more Zalusky’s introductory remarks: “As the State of America’s Libraries report goes to press, the coronavirus pandemic has upended our nation and our profession, so much so that aspects of this report —which provides a snapshot of our industry in 2019—now read like dispatches from a distant era. What hasn’t changed is our belief that service and stewardship to our communities are core to the library profession. We continue to see this every day even as library buildings close to the public but often sustain or grow their virtual services and make their resources freely available to all. Today and everyday, our nation’s libraries are on the front lines, playing an invaluable role in keeping communities connected.”
–N.B.: This is the fifth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences and our continuing interactions online.