Column Description: Libraries and librarians are adapting, always in motion particularly as the 21st century has extended the mammoth reach of technology and digital communication. Then, this year, we said thank you for the ability to stay home and still be able to communicate with our colleagues. As many librarians wondered how new responsibilities would play out when ‘normality’ returned, it was a daily challenge to prioritize decisions. Technology helped, but the goal remained how to meet user needs and anticipate patron requests. This fall, as libraries slowly reopen, we move into a hybrid world. Administrators and librarians have worked overtime and collaborated fiercely to match estimated demand with physical distancing and health-related constraints. 

What are some of their stories and how do we understand future changes?  Libraries have always held the key for knowledge query. Whether for the scholar, the schoolchild, life-long learner, jobseeker or browser, libraries and librarians have adapted to keep their doors open and their users and patrons satisfied. How do individual librarians go about their roles and what suggestions do they have moving forward? What has helped?

This column will consider several library environments (public, private, corporate, academic, online and special) and using a combination of interviews, historic perspective, anecdotes and a sprinkling of stats, examine the commonalities and differences. A fun exploration of how libraries remain relevant and beloved.

It is easy to reminisce about libraries now that they are beginning to open.  As I’m a person that can describe a neighborhood by its proximity to the nearest library, I am a frequent and multi-locational library visitor.  Though many libraries are still appropriately cautious and continue to mandate individualized health and safety rules, we have outdistanced the fervor of the pandemic lockdown (though it may be repeated) and the freedom of walking through a library just to browse is back.

Of course, the romance of libraries re-opening their doors is tempered when you know minimum hour requirements for New York State public libraries went into effect in June 2020. Libraries had to comply.

Here are some observations based on a wanderer’s visit to several libraries in Dutchess, Westchester, New York, and Kings counties.

A few libraries had to delay reopening celebrations because of revamping or other major overhaul projects.  These libraries are experiencing a distinct shelving problem for the patron. Understood, the massive movement of thousands of books and subsequent realigning into alternative space is a gargantuan chore.  But methodical procedures are super important. It is really disappointing when signage is inconsistent and call numbers do not follow sequentially around shelf space. If 746.43M is the last book on the bottom shelf, then 746.43N should be the first book on the next top shelf, not three stacks away.

Also, a bit eerie is the emptiness as libraries slowly begin to fill with patrons and researchers. Libraries should have a bit of a bustle about them even if subdued.  At a safe distance of six feet, there is still room for more people to share in the space. It’s always nice to mingle with the expanded community, those who are just curious (or need to use the bathroom).

Librarians and circulation staff wearing masks behind plastic desk shields amplifies the impression of unapproachability.  There is nothing we can do about safety precautions, but it adds to the myth of aloofness modern library culture has tried to dispel.

Small local libraries are still cozy.  Staff members are happy to be working and friendly to patrons.  Browsing tables are no longer hidden or marked to keep people away. It is nice to see local libraries almost at business as usual.

There are two kinds of staff I have encountered.  Mostly in the very large central libraries, there are those just glad to have a job and kind of cranky about all the provisions set in place for a safe reopening. I wonder what goes on at the administrative level that everyone is so tense and guarded.  But there are always others who are excited to be back, doing their jobs and interacting with people. It is a pleasure to interact with them.  

The information industry and technology growth has forced libraries to confront the image of being a dusty relic.  Libraries have had to re-identify, embracing the fast pace of a digital commons as well as providing books and programs for the communities they serve. After the closures of 2020 libraries re-emerge again.

A July New York Times article quickly condensed the 2500-year history of public libraries and voiced the opinion that public libraries are a beacon of light. Yes, they are. Libraries bring hope and knowledge and community interactivity. We need to maintain what we do well and not let our guard down.

Rajene Hardeman, MSLIS, is a committed community and library advocate with experience serving community groups throughout metropolitan NYC and the Hudson Valley. A graduate of Pratt Institute School of Information, Rajene currently works as an independent archivist while continuing to develop programs and raise awareness regarding the need for balance between digital and non-digital activities. She is a trained mediator for Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. Rajene has partnered with the Mozilla Foundation and Tactical Technology Collective to bring workshops and supportive dialogue around the issues of online privacy and security, and, as a current trustee for the Mid-Hudson Library System, Rajene enthusiastically supports engagement and sustainability for all libraries and their patrons. She is a Metropolitan Museum of Art Library volunteer.  Rajene serves on the board of Wikimedia New York City and as a member of the Wikimedia and Libraries User Group steering committee. In a non-pandemic world, she coaches in-person Wikipedia edit-a-thons.