The Biggest Challenges Public Libraries Are Facing

Public libraries are facing big challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.Throughout history, public libraries have been beacons of hope, pillars of education, and gathering places for their communities. And they’ve done this by continuing to adapt to their communities’ ever-changing needs. Now, due to COVID-19, libraries have once again been forced to transform their services. They have risen to the task, but it hasn’t been easy.

We recently surveyed library workers to learn the biggest challenges that public libraries are facing. Here is what they had to say.

Funding

It’s rare that funding isn’t an issue, but with budget freezes, staff furloughs, and increased sanitation resources needed, there is a deep concern over the financial situation for libraries. With over 90% of public library funding coming from the will of local voters and politicians, it’s important, says Library activist Patrick Sweeney, to keep public opinion high and turn that high regard into votes at the polls. Read his tips in “Why You Need to Turn Your Library Advocates into Library Activists.”

Libraries are also turning to state, federal, and other available grants for funding. Demco’s free library and education grants search tool allows users to search for grants that fit their library. Read the following to get tips on grant writing:

New Safety Protocol

Many survey respondents expressed their frustration over trying to navigate changing guidelines and regulations from state officials. The shortage of cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer nationwide has also made it more difficult to execute recommended disinfecting procedures.

Getting library users to actually follow new safety procedures was also cited as a difficulty, and many survey respondents said they were surprised that more people were not following guidelines. While most libraries are not requiring patrons to wear masks, they are posting signage asking them to do so as a courtesy, and some are offering disposable masks for a nominal fee in their entryways.

Mask-wearing has been a trial for library staff as well, as wearing a mask can take some time to get used to, and they can be uncomfortable and even irritating to skin when worn for long periods. Another unexpected issue mask-wearing librarians are having is that their older or hard-of-hearing patrons are having trouble understanding them with masks on. To combat this, some library workers have turned to clear face shields to allow patrons to see their lips moving when they communicate.

Signage has been critical to communicating new policies and making sure they’re followed, but as one respondent noted, visitors can be overwhelmed by lengthy verbiage on signs. These free editable signage templates offer clear, concise wording that you can customize for your library.

Upset Patrons

One of the biggest fears library workers expressed is that when they reopen their doors they will have to deal with angry patrons who aren’t happy with the new rules. Interestingly, although many survey respondents expressed this fear, few who had already opened their doors said they had experienced patrons being noncompliant or combative over new policies and procedures. This may be attributed in part to having a good communication plan, so that both staff and patrons know what to expect when the library reopens.

Unfortunately, there may always be patrons who are unhappy with rules and regulations, and library staff should be armed with talking points and de-escalation techniques and have documented procedures in place to follow. And they should always feel that their leadership and local authorities are there to support them if the episode escalates.

Prepare Your Library for Staff and Patron Safety

Explore products that will help you provide library services to your community while ensuring patron and staff well-being.

Staff Morale 

It’s no secret that this pandemic has caused fear and anxiety and taken a toll on people’s mental health. As libraries expand their services and open their physical buildings, staff are being asked to become comfortable with interacting with the public again.

A solid reopening plan and good communication from leadership that staff health and safety is a priority goes a long way to help calm these fears. Many library leaders are looking at each staff member’s situation and finding the best solution for those who have childcare issues or are high-risk, such as allowing them to continue to work virtually or have less interaction with the public.

Survey respondents also cited sensitivity training as helpful for the entire staff — for those who have fears about contagion and for those that need reminders that everyone copes with stressful situations differently.

Read about other ways library leaders can help their staff members cope in “Tips for Leading Your Library Staff Through a Pandemic.

Programming 

Librarians work so hard to create, promote, and execute programming for all ages, and it shows, with public attendance at library programs going up year after year.

But once again, COVID-19 has thrown librarians for a loop by eliminating the ability to draw people into the library with fun and educational programming. It has also disrupted their ability to run in-person summer reading programs.

However, this is one area where librarians have been able to really take action. Even though some had to face their fears of being on camera, learn how to use new tech equipment, and create virtual summer reading programs from scratch, they rose to the occasion.

Many new virtual programs were born out of social distancing regulations, including storytimes, crafting how-tos, book talks, bedtime stories, drawing lessons, book clubs, online trivia, and more. Librarians also found ways to engage patrons in their summer reading programs with virtual programming, grab-n-go kits, and online tracking tools.

Underserved and Vulnerable Populations

For those in rural or underprivileged communities, the digital divide adds to the challenge of delivering virtual services. To help bridge that gap, some libraries are extending their WiFi to their parking lots and lending out tablets or laptops. Others are lending mobile hotspots or placing them in trailers in hotel parking lots for patrons to access. Read more about how libraries are helping bridge the digital divide here.

Because most libraries will be limiting the time patrons can spend in their facilities, librarians are also concerned for their elderly and homeless patrons, who many times have nowhere else to go for human interaction or basic shelter needs To continue to assist these populations, librarians are making personal calls to their elderly patrons to check in on them and delivering materials directly to their homes. They are also working with their local health and human services departments to figure out the best way to serve their homeless populations.

Library Relevancy

Library leaders and workers across the country have worked hard to create reputations for their  libraries as gathering places for their communities. They are now struggling with how to continue to promote their libraries in this way when they can’t yet allow people to gather in their physical spaces.

The answer for many libraries has been to focus on figuring out new ways to serve patrons remotely and promoting the virtual services they already have in place. Libraries are engaging old and new audiences with digital programs, e-books, and online learning platforms. As one librarian noted, “If the digital library was in the shade, it is in the spotlight now.”

Helping patrons find and understand health information has also always been a critical service public libraries offer. They continue to be essential providers of mental health resources and information for patrons struggling with the added stressors of isolation and anxiety brought on by the pandemic.

Read about more ways libraries have expanded their services and repurposed their spaces in “Libraries Prove They’re More Important Than Ever.”

Looking Toward the Future

One survey respondent summed up the future of librarianship: “We are adaptable and will overcome the obstacles ahead of us with pride and commitment.”

And it’s true; now more than ever, libraries are providing essential services. Local and national media are paying more attention to this critical work, and libraries are doubling their traditional media and social media efforts to ensure their success stories are heard and their importance duly noted. This will only serve to boost their value in the eyes of their community as they look forward to the day they can welcome a steady stream of patrons back through their doors.

Learn How to Design Your Library for a Post-COVID-19 World

Download this guide to discover how you can promote safety while still creating a welcoming library environment. Learn how to choose the right furnishings, and get design solutions that make patrons feel safe while still enabling you to provide essential services.

Author

Liz Bowie

Liz Bowie

Marketing Content Manager at Demco, Inc.
Liz is the Marketing Content Manager for Demco. Her background includes editorial management and product development of innovative and time-saving tools for schools and libraries, with an emphasis on Common Core, literacy and math. The products she and her team have developed, including classroom games, learning centers and professional development resources, have garnered 46 industry awards for excellence in education. Liz is passionate about promoting literacy through her work and the work of others. If you are interested in sharing your ideas and programming tips on Demco’s Ideas and Inspiration blog or have ideas for topics you’d like to see covered, contact Liz at lizb@demco.com