Not A Flip Of A Switch
by Scott C. Jarzombek, Albany Public Library's Executive Director
No, we did not sign up for this. This is a challenge. For many of us this is a test in patience. In the most recent past, libraries have rushed to the front lines of disasters. We have used those experiences to advocate for libraries. Now we are doing what is right, but it is against the very nature of our profession.
In the next year, it is the staff's health and well being, as well as the public’s, that is paramount. Libraries will need redundancy in their operations. We need to do our job as libraries, but as responsibly as possible.
Reopening is not flipping a switch. It will be slowly adjusting a dial, and I say adjusting because there will be times we may need to go back to the previous setting. We turn it up and down, slowly, based on data and expertise. The baseline is closing the library, and then you gradually go from there. Clear protocols and procedures will be necessary. The better we are at following this course, the closer we are to getting ourselves back to promoting a free and informed society.
Some of the most important aspects of what we do for the community, like providing meeting spaces and bridging digital literacy, are on pause and will be limited for a time. Libraries will be moving back to the old-school, transactional model.
For now, all libraries should be planning a phased approach to reopening that is flexible. One that starts with returning staff to the buildings, and ends with getting back to library operations as they were right before we closed (keeping many of the safety, cleaning, and distancing protocols we had in place before closure). This approach must include slowly ramping up hours, opening more locations, allowing additional in-person programs, and so on.
During each phase, libraries will be ironing out details for the next phase. We have learned that the situation is fluid and that any plan you make needs to be flexible. There is no quick return to normal because, for some time, normal will not be static. Nothing is set in stone; what life looks like after the final phase is still a question mark. I do think libraries will, at some point in the future, look like they did in February, but only if we, both our organizations and society as a whole, do this right.
Libraries will need to continue the expanded virtual services and programs. Many libraries have been working on content creation as a way to provide services to those who cannot access our services in the buildings. Even if our doors are open, many in the community will still be sheltering at home due to being immunocompromised or just from the trauma of this pandemic. They still need to be served.
Patron expectations will be our biggest challenge. Some people are going to want life back to normal with the flick of a switch and will be unwilling to accept the temporary new normal. Libraries should be revisiting their behavior policies and procedures and creating a temporary crisis policy, one that reduces loitering in the library and controls the number of people using services at the same time.
I believe these necessary measures will create an in-depth philosophical debate in the profession, and we will struggle to balance being responsible and adhering to our core values. Library leadership needs to be clear that the goal is to get back to being advocates to a free and open society.
There is no way that libraries don't feel a financial impact from this, and it will not be solved by traditional advocacy alone. We have to be very careful about how we frame our story. It also needs to begin now by creating content and connecting with your community. We have to be helpers, not fighters. Boards and administrators should be working on contingency plans and identifying financial headwinds now.
This, too, shall pass. The question is, how long will it take? Our society has been through this before. We may go through it again. Now, more than ever, libraries have to play the long game. If we do it right, we will come out of this more resilient than ever. If we do it wrong, not only will it damage our profession and organizations, but also the health of the people for whom we take responsibility.