How Libraries Are Adapting to Meet the Needs of Users

Libraries demonstrate continued relevance in the face of rapid change

The global pandemic has had a devastating effect on the daily lives of American citizens. The closure of America’s libraries was one of the changes that were felt most. Seemingly overnight, millions of people lost access to their free source of entertainment, internet services, after-school programs, and so much more.

Some libraries stayed closed for months, while others have still yet to open their doors. However, all libraries are doing what they can to adapt and meet the needs of their users.

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Reopening Adjustments

Many libraries have now reopened in one way or another, some with reduced hours, but all of them with safety standards in place to protect their patrons. The American Library Association has provided guidelines for libraries that wish to reopen and expand their services. They recommend that reopening policies should be reasonable and necessary, as well as consistently enforced.

To accommodate at-risk populations and prevent the further spread of COVID-19, many libraries are implementing temperature and health checks. Patrons entering the library will be screened — anyone who shows COVID-19 symptoms will be turned away for everyone else’s safety. Libraries are also requiring visitors to wear masks while browsing the bookshelves or surfing the web.

Internet Services

Over 20% of the American population lacks access to smartphones or the internet. In the pre-COVID world, libraries provided a free, safe place for community members to access computers. This allowed disadvantaged citizens to find jobs, communicate with friends and family, and even find a free source of entertainment. Internet access is a critical service that required some adaptations in order to continue to provide it to patrons.

In March 2020, the American Library Association recommended that libraries leave their Wi-Fi services on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Customers began to park and access the internet from their car, allowing them to access essential services that they otherwise were lacking. With over 16,000 libraries and counting, American citizens could find Wi-Fi hotspots no matter where they were.

In Massachusetts, the Leominster Public Library went above and beyond in its effort to provide internet to all. They installed mobile hotspots in their local veterans’ center and senior facilities.

Community college libraries in Arizona invested in their students by purchasing Wi-Fi hotspot devices and laptops. Students could then rent these out, free of charge, in order to access the internet and complete school work. Many other schools and libraries around the country provide the same service.

Community Outreach

Libraries are finding new ways to better their communities and improve the health and wellness of the local population.

In April 2020, when the pandemic had shut down most of the country, the Lewis and Clark Library in Helena, Montana decided to start the ”Mail to Our Seniors” program. This initiative gave children the resources to send postcards, drawings, and motivational messages to the residents of assisted living facilities. When seniors were no longer able to access the library, they could still count on their local chapter to enrich their lives in a different way.

Similar programs aimed at seniors have been popping up in libraries around the country. For instance, the Madison County Public Library (Kentucky) organized a virtual karaoke night for local seniors who were stuck in assisted living communities.

Going Virtual

Like most other industries, libraries had to embrace the digital world in order to adapt and connect with users that were under quarantine.

An employee at the Charleston County Public Library (South Carolina) took it upon themselves to construct a virtual library in the popular video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The game involves constructing your own buildings and visiting other players. The Charleston County Library patrons enjoyed meeting up virtually and donating items to the digital space.

In past years, the Florida State University Library had provided stress buster activities for students during the end-of-the-year finals. With classes moved online, the FSU Library staff had to adapt and innovate. Instead of in-person events, they hosted online bingo, escape rooms, craft classes, and more for students. They also made sure to publicize the fact that much of their literary collection was accessible online. They also worked with publishers to expand online access to research material, databases, e-books, and more.

Bridging the Gap

The libraries at the Calvert County Public School System in Maryland made concerted efforts to provide their regular services in an online format. Before COVID, they organized Amazing Race scavenger hunts and National History Day events. These were no longer able to happen in person, but they brought modified versions to children through Zoom, an online video chat platform. The Calvert County librarians even went so far as to call themselves “Zoom-brarians.”

The Summer Slide

Over the long summer breaks, many students experience a loss in academic skills, including reading — this phenomenon is referred to as “the summer slide.” In previous years, libraries would host summer reading programs for young students. Prizes were awarded for reading a certain number of books, giving young students a great incentive to read and prevent the summer slide. Unfortunately, many libraries had to abandon the program over the summer of 2020.

In 2021, the San Diego Public Library adapted its summer reading program, moving most of the activities online. For example, they hosted a virtual Community Read-a-Thon that ended up logging over 250,000 learning experiences, and they allowed students to pick up prizes for reading a certain number of hours. Many other libraries have implemented similar summer programs.

Moving Forward

Libraries around the country have shown resilience in the face of such a stressful, confusing couple of years. While most of them made the safe decision to close entirely at the onset of the pandemic, they have since made adaptations and adjustments to provide needed services to their communities. Going forward, libraries will continue to be symbols of service and reason, providing invaluable opportunities to library users.