When ‘non-essential’ is anything but

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Demarcations of “essential” versus “non-essential” services should not prevent the growth of creative efforts to leverage “non-essential” services against the pandemic and its rippling consequences. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, most local governments have decided to close their library buildings in order to ensure the safety of library staff and patrons. But libraries should not be put on the bench just because their buildings are closed. 

Historically, librarians have much to offer in response to emergencies. In the days after the Ferguson shooting, the Ferguson Municipal Public Library provided ad-hoc school for students whose schools had closed. In the days after Hurricane Sandy, the Queens Library helped people fill out relief forms and hosted nurses whose medical facilities had been destroyed by the storm to provide outpatient services. In my own work with libraries around the world, I have seen librarians on the front lines of political and natural disasters. In Haiti, after the earthquake in 2010, librarians helped first-responders connect to the information they needed to do their jobs. 

Libraries are offering similarly critical resources in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, even though their buildings are now closed. The Central Library of Arlington in Virginia temporarily converted to a warehouse to receive donations of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for first responders. The Toronto Public Library has turned library branches into food banks to help feed the city’s most vulnerable. The Rochester Public Library in Minnesota has turned one of their buildings into a day-shelter for the homeless. 

Beyond repurposing buildings, several library systems have also re-imagined how library staff can meet urgent needs. The Monterey County Library has re-purposed its 3D printers to produce N95 masks. The DC Public Library is deploying 25 of its staff to take calls for the department of employment services, helping to manage the influx of questions regarding unemployment benefits. 

Though libraries are closed, many librarians are working behind the scenes to entertain, educate and inform families from a distance. One of the most popular new programs is “virtual story time.” In D.C., the library quickly launched a special (and fully virtual) edition of “DC Reads,” a program to spark citywide conversations around a single book, including Internet-based opportunities to talk with the book’s author. 

Libraries are also stepping up to observe and address new challenges that have come up as a result of social-distancing policies, particularly the digital divide that recent weeks have thrown into stark relief. Many libraries have kept their public Wi-Fi turned on for people to use from their cars in the parking lots, or standing outside the library, knowing that families in their communities do not have Wi-Fi at home. Libraries Without Borders has been partnering with local library systems to set up Wi-Fi hotspots in parking lots, and to distribute computers and hotspots to families in need. 

Public libraries are well-positioned to respond to new community needs that have come up as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As trusted information arbiters, they are uniquely positioned to help stop misinformation about COVID-19 in their local communities, and to make sure that people are up-to-date on new policies. As experienced curators of educational resources, they are uniquely positioned to help the many parents who are now at home trying to work and take care of their kids at the same time, and in helping schools redesign their virtual educational programming. Librarians also interact every day with people from all walks of life. They provide local knowledge and long-standing relationships that are invaluable to the COVID-19 response.

By re-purposing their assets, libraries are teaching us how “non-essential” services can offer essential assets to the pandemic response. Like libraries, many closed businesses offer buildings, staff, trusted relationships, hardware/software, and distribution channels that may be helpful to meet urgent community need now. Local communities must decide for themselves what the most strategic (and safest) uses of their community assets will be. Pro-actively re-purposing community resources will be critical for all communities to beat the pandemic. 

Allister Chang is a Robert Bosch Stiftung Fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute. He is on the board of directors of Libraries Without Borders.

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