Institutional Failure and the Undue Burden on Libraries

If you follow the blog, you’ll know I have thoughts about vocational awe. And, as one would expect, Fobazi Ettarh’s concept of vocational awe is playing a large role in libraries during the crazy time in which we live right now, when libraries are having to decide whether or not to continue providing in-person services to their patrons; which could potentially put library employees and patrons at risk of contracting and spreading the virus. Should libraries keep their physical buildings open in order to provide services to the patrons that may need them, despite the risks that it would pose to library staff and other patrons? 

No

“Shuttering public libraries [will put] a strain on communities,” but as much as we value the services and resources found at libraries, they are not as important as the health and wellness of the human beings in the library.

The American Library Association agrees and has recommended libraries to close their physical spaces to the public at this time, but some libraries have continued to stay open. Many of the arguments that I’ve seen for keeping physical library buildings open mainly focus on access to technology/the Internet and shelter for those who may not have anywhere else to go. While these are all essential services that the library provides, we shouldn’t be lamenting libraries’ closures for lack of access to these services. Providing these services is a burden that American libraries have accumulated over time (usually without additional funding, I might add) due to the shortcomings of other institutions.

E-government is an excellent example of this. At one point e-government was an optional service with the goal to make it easier for everyday people to interact with the government, but that is clearly no longer the case. As government resources, like applying for unemployment or Medicare, are moved exclusively online, public libraries have been increasingly asked to pick up the government’s slack when it comes to assisting patrons with these tasks. (Taylor et al., 2014) Just last week, there were over 3 million unemployment claims in the United States due to the coronavirus. For people without access to reliable technology or the Internet at home, the public library would be the only place to complete this task. Unfortunately, most public libraries and their computer stations are closed and, with virtually no way to get information about filing an unemployment claim offline, let alone actually filing said claim; there are likely way more than 3+ million Americans who need to file an unemployment claim and likely have no means by which to do so. Because these types of government services are offered exclusively online, people without access to a device or the internet at home (or at the library, due to closures) will not be able to take advantage of these services while the country is essentially on lockdown. 

Another key example is education and online learning. You can see here how many American K-12 schools have been closed and some of the universities that have suspended in-person classes due to the coronavirus. While some schools are printing and mailing schoolwork to its students, many schools are making the shift to online or blended learning. And, just like with e-government resources, not all students may have access to technology and the internet in their homes, once again exposing the American digital divide. I attend the University of Maryland and, thankfully, the UMD Department of Information Technology offers the option for students to borrow computers or WiFi hotspots during the online learning period should they need it, but I recognize that many schools and universities may not have that option; which may leave students who need that service without a reliable or convenient way to access their online learning environment(s) or school resources without access to a library. One would hope that schools moving to online learning environments would take into account whether all of their students could access online learning and resources and accommodate as necessary, but some students will likely still fall through the cracks.

The last example that I’ve seen has to do with the homeless populations who rely on libraries for shelter, a place to rest, a bathroom, etc. The American Libraries Magazine provides some helpful tips for serving a homeless population during the time of COVID-19, but many of the physical amenities that this population utilizes in the library remain inaccessible. And, again, the inaccessibility of shelter, a bathroom (especially important nowadays for handwashing purposes), and other resources for the homeless population due to library closure is not the library’s fault: there should be official, government institutions to which this population should have access in order to fulfill those needs. Unfortunately, those institutions are failing many, leaving them to rely on libraries.

As librarians and service providers, many of us want to help our vulnerable patrons at this time, and that type of empathy is commendable. But, as our libraries close for the health and safety of ourselves and our patrons, we need to do our best to not blame ourselves for the resources to which our patrons may no longer have access. And, let me be clear: I am also not blaming any of the populations discussed here for not being able to access these resources without a library. There are a multitude of factors and barriers that affect each person’s situation that would lead them to rely on a library for things like access to a device or the Internet. My heart goes out to the folks unable to access much-needed necessities or, let’s be real, entertainment during this trying time. Libraries provide essential services to many people and can be “a lifeline” or a “desperately needed safe place to escape,” but they should not be the only means by which the population can receive these services. There are many institutions that need to have failed for patrons to look to public libraries to fulfill the types of needs discussed here. So, the blame for a lack of access to these services during this period of closure should not fall solely on libraries.

Works Cited:

Taylor, N. G., Jaeger, P. T., Gorham, U., Bertot, J. C., Lincoln, R., & Larson, E. (2014). The circular continuum of agencies, public libraries, and users: A model of e-government in practice. Government Information Quarterly, 31, S18–S25. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.giq.2014.01.004


Jane Behre is an MLIS student at the University of Maryland. At UMD, she is the coordinator for the First Year Book Program and a member of the Research & Teaching Fellowship’s 2021 cohort. She holds a B.A. in Theatre from Barnard College, Columbia University, and worked professionally backstage for two years before deciding to make the switch to library science. Within the field, her interests include academic librarianship (with a focus on the performing arts), research & instruction, and information literacy. In her free time, she enjoys cooking for her friends and family, listening to podcasts, and, of course, going to the theater.

Photo by Siddhant Kumar on Unsplash

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