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Community Asset: How Libraries are Adapting to COVID

Throughout the pandemic, library facilities have continued serving their customers. While many library buildings remain closed to patron use, most provide at least limited services to the degree community leaders and staff feel is appropriate and safe. Especially in these times, where there’s a high reliance on technology and electronic resources, libraries are providing a crucial resource for educators, students and the community.

What is the right balance between maintaining the highest level of service and material access and keeping patrons and staff safe? As with offices, hospitality spaces, and schools, libraries are going through a design revolution in this moment. What we change now should be easily un-doable, but we may also find that some of our new approaches are worth considering as a new standard.

ACCESS IS KEY!

Many of us take for granted how fortunate we are to have access to multiple forms of technology in our homes, to virtually maintain work and personal communication, and to readily access information. But access varies widely across communities. The Associated Press recently reported that approximately 17 percent of US students don’t have computers at home and 18 percent do not have access to the internet.

For many, the library is their only source for on-going, updated and reliable communication and information, phone access, and online assistance with research, technology support, job search and unemployment resources and application help, as well as navigating virtual medical services.

Whether physically open or not, libraries continue offering a variety of services to meet their patrons’ needs. Some have expanded their materials available for check-out to include Chromebooks and other technology. Many are offering curbside pick-up and drop-off, and others offer computer and printing access by appointment, or have limited open hours, with special time slots for higher risk groups such as seniors.

FLEXIBILITY AND ADAPTABILITY

The importance of being able to adapt to new situations and environments can’t be overstated. With limited space and funds, libraries have understood for a long time that their spaces need to be designed for multiple uses, to flex and be nimble so that areas can be reconfigured as collections grow or become obsolete – constantly balancing the needs for printed materials and “people space.” As advances in technology change how we work and study, so will our need to reimagine our libraries, so will our need to plan around new needs and opportunities.

This approach of designing for flexibility is more relevant than ever now. New types of space requirements have also emerged, including an area where physical materials can be quarantined for several days prior to processing and reshelving. Many libraries are repurposing meeting and study rooms, as well as offices, to store these quarantined materials. Sanitation or handwashing stations need to be accommodated, as well as storage for removed furniture to be reinstalled in the future.

Some communities are relying on large library meeting spaces as a quite different resource, serving as operations centers for emergency response teams or for providing community health services, such as testing and vaccinations. Many schools will be repurposing their libraries, art and music rooms, auditoriums and gyms as classroom space to provide the required social distancing for students.

This pandemic has radically raised our understanding of contagion, health and wellness, and the many different ways we can gather and serve each other. It is important that all of us who design for and oversee libraries think not only in terms of how to cope in this current situation, but how to plan for future library facilities that will serve new needs we can’t even predict today.

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