Serving the Public When the Building’s Closed

This past Friday, I was leading a session on Empathy-Driven Customer Service with approximately 20 public library staff members in my county. It had been an interesting day already: I had to scramble to find individually wrapped snacks and hand sanitizer to put out instead of anything shareable, we needed to find more tables so staff could sit more spread out than originally planned, and a few people cancelled their registration because they needed to work on updated policies and procedures. Everyone had coronavirus on their minds. As a ripple went through the class halfway through the session, it wasn’t hard to figure out what had happened: the governor of Pennsylvania had closed all the schools for two weeks and our library system had followed suit.

This is an odd time for public libraries. An institution whose mission typically involves staying open and providing services as often as possible is faced with a situation in which, I believe, we better assist our patrons by limiting their risk of contracting COVID-19. As author and educator Erica Chidi Cohen states, social distancing is a form of communal empathy. Closing our doors, however, does not mean ending services to our community.

Back in my classroom, after we took a break to process the news and then wrapped up the most essential content, I sat down to start a conversation:

What can we, as library staff, still do to serve the public at this time?

Here’s what we came up with.

  • Demonstrate calm. Our communities look to the library as a knowledgeable body. We need to model that we acknowledge the seriousness of the situation we are in without panicking.
  • Provide reliable sources. My library, along with many others across the world, has been updating a resources page regarding the now-pandemic for months. Encourage community members to fact check and refer them to reliable information. Fight misinformation, as covered by Aubrey in the recent post “Facing Coronavirus as an Information Professional—Implications, Misconceptions, Degradations.”
  • Take advantage of our relationships. This may not be the case everywhere, but many of our staff members are friends with regulars of the library on social media. Take advantage of those relationships to check in with community members and share information.
  • Post information. Place fliers about safety, hygiene best practices, and information about social distancing on the doors of the library. In the event someone missed our announcements about closing or didn’t check our website, they will still get information about why we are closed.
  • Provide books. Does your library have a stash of donated books that you were planning to give away anyway? Take this opportunity to place them on a cart outside of your door. If you have staff working inside during your closed time, they can make sure it stays filled with options.
  • Provide a way for non-card holders to sign up. Can individuals in your service area sign up for a library card online and receive immediate access to online resources? If so, promote that. If not, now is the perfect time to figure out if that’s possible.
  • Continue to answer questions. Even from a distance, we can answer phone and email questions from our community. I was able to help a community member reset a password to OverDrive this weekend and was rewarded with the story of a first grader who LOVES her library because we made it possible to get Diary of a Wimpy Kid while she’s home from school.
  • Promote resources. Tell the community about the eBooks you have available, the movies they can stream, the databases you have with recipes or fun science experiments, etc. I’m planning to regularly feature new resources publicly on my own Facebook page to show off some of what we have. Help people fight boredom and the urge to congregate.
  • Online Storytime / Book Clubs. Read books online and provide a place to talk about them. Create events for various books and threads for discussion. If you would like to stream yourself reading books for kids, check this thread in the Programming Librarian Interest Group on Facebook for a (growing) list of authors who have granted their permission.
  • Refer them to other services. Concerned that closing means many of your community members have lost their access to the internet, news sources, meeting spaces, and more? You’re right. Do your best to promote services that companies are providing for free to help during this time. Here’s a list of what I shared with library staff members in my district.
  • Stay healthy. Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too!

What ideas do you have for serving your community even while the building is closed? Let’s expand this list in the comments!

Kerri is an MSI LIS candidate at Drexel University Online. She tweets occasionally (admittedly, more than usual in the next two weeks) at @klmillik.

Photo by Juan Rojas on Unsplash

5 replies

  1. With spring planting right around the corner, the Mass Aggie Seed Library moved to a virtual library with patrons requesting seeds to be sent to their home. A simple form allows patrons to request a number of items. The response and seed requests have been overwhelming, creating a “be careful what you wish for” scenario. We are using this opportunity to connect virtually and hope patrons will someday visit in person. All information, including a link to the request form and short video of the space, can be found at


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