We Will Lose Libraries to COVID-19
Your local public library is likely tied, inextricably, to your local economy. Most public libraries in the United States are paid for by some combination of sales and property tax. As spending halts, so does financial support for the library. We’re already seeing sweeping cuts to local administrations, laying off or furloughing hundreds of workers, library workers along with them. This isn’t false hype or hysteria. It’s happening. It will get worse.
Publicly funded libraries were already facing an uphill battle. Over the past decade, voter support for libraries has tanked. Even as the library is generally perceived favorably, increasing anti-tax sentiment undermines the library’s ability to expand, or even exist.
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Every day of quarantine reinforces new or different habits. Active library users may find new ways to get resources or learn. The break in continuity, this possible behavior change, paired with loss of tax and voter support, will be catastrophic.
Before COVID-19, most Americans searched for work online. Now, at least twenty-two million Americans will need to find employment, will need a computer, Internet access, and maybe a bit of help, as they apply for new positions. While some wireless providers have committed to not cutting off service right now, months of deferred bills will add up, leaving thousands of workers without the means to search and apply for new work. Workers will need the library.
Before COVID-19, summer programming at libraries filled an important education and achievement gap, holding off the “summer slide.” Now, students are heading into this summer with even greater risk. Students with special needs, students that did not have an at-home environment that supported online learning, students that simply did not make progress through a full half term spent out of the classroom. Students will need even more support once the schools re-open. Students will need the library.
Before COVID-19, more people went to the library than went to the movies. Libraries providing workshops, concerts, gardening clubs, cooking classes. Libraries providing simple spaces to be, to read, to connect. We crave social contact. We crave non-commercial spaces. We all will need the library.
And libraries are nothing without library workers. Library workers deserve not only a place to work, but fair pay, good benefits, reasonable hours, and work protections. Libraries are high-tech, physical places that need a skilled and dedicated workforce. To have the library, we all need library workers.
Is it certain libraries will close? Yes, for some. But there are simple actions every citizen can take to try to ensure their library remains. Just like any other cause, the library needs your action and your advocacy. Being a user of the library is wonderful — even commendable — but there is not clear data to suggest that use of a library correlates to financial support of the library (really!). So this is an ask of you: will you be a library advocate? Will you support library workers? Will you be a library voter? If yes, then here’s what’s next:
- Email your state and national representatives, and tell them you care about your library and library workers, and you recognize your library’s importance to your community.
- Research your local library to understand who your local library officials are — could be your city council or a specific elected politician. Write to them. Tell them you care about your library.
- Engage with your local library on social media. Tweet them up, re-post them on Facebook. Get the library in front of your social networks.
- Now find a friend and get them to do all of the above, too.
- If you have the resources, consider a donation to EveryLibrary*. EveryLibrary is the first and only 501c4 action organization dedicated to helping libraries win at the ballot. If your community is voting to de-fund the library, EveryLibrary provides funding, data, and training to help local organizers to campaign, fight back, and win. Your donation helps EveryLibrary do its work pro-bono for libraries in need. (*Full disclosure, I’m married to EveryLibrary’s political director, and I’ve been a member of the advisory board since 2014. I believe in the mission. They do good work.)
Above all, if you believe in your library, if you want it to survive, do not wait to act. If you do a bit of research and it seems like your library is doing alright, still take action. Too many libraries begin the action process when loss is nearly inevitable. With this unprecedented pandemic, with no real shape or center to the crisis, the aftermath is unknown. Your library might be shored up this fiscal year, with cuts coming with the next. Be ahead of it. Act. Do it for your library.