What is a library if the building is closed?
One response to the coronavirus pandemic has been the closing of libraries around the world. In light of these closures, Don Means – @donmeans – of Gigbit Libraries (GLN) , has been holding weekly video conferences or Webinars on ‘What is a library if the building is closed?’, with support from the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), The Internet Society, and the Partnership for Public Access.
I’ve sat in on a couple of these sessions and have found them uplifting. You can see librarians thinking creatively about how to continue providing the world access to public information, despite these closures. For many, the Internet has been the answer. The focus has been on extending Wifi access to their local communities, whether by leaving it on (many libraries turned their Wifi off when the building was not open, just as they would turn off the lights) so that people could get access in parking lot hot spots or elsewhere outside the building, or extending access in other ways, such as through line of sight microwave towers (one example was on a grain storage bin) to local schools and institutions.
There is little or no handwringing over the closures. Instead, the closures seem to have fostered creative discussions among a community of librarians. They view access to public information as an essential service and emphasize among themselves that they are in a people or information service rather than a book business.
Of course, another service that can be provided online is free access to information. I was impressed and surprised when I saw some of the oldest public libraries in Britain that they were called Free Public Libraries. Chethams is one of the oldest. The early libraries were private, in households, not open free to the public. So the key function of libraries has long been to provide free access to information, just as university libraries enable their students to gain free access to proprietary journals and books. This is still a mission, and an increasingly important mission, as more information is being walled off behind paywalls.
So how can they create a place that has the sense of belonging of a traditional library, and access to public information, when the building is closed. By hearing from librarians around the world, who are developing responses to this existential crisis of the library, I am sure they will come up with a range of best practices. There will not be any single model, given the many different contexts of libraries, but there will be many for particular communities to build upon. In one session, Nicole Umayam presented on state efforts in Arizona and Dr Nkem Osigwe spoke on developments in a number of African libraries.
I grew up wandering through libraries much like I surf through the Internet today, but it will be hard if not impossible for the Internet or conferencing to replicate the feeling of being in a library. I still get goosebumps in many libraries, any yet I spend so much more time online than looking for information in any building. Just like access to the Internet is causing (or should cause) teachers to rethink what they do in the classroom, maybe it will lead librarians to think more about what they use their buildings for, when they do reopen. What can we not do as well online as in a local public library? Surely it is something about building a stronger sense of community.