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How Libraries Are Stepping Up as a Front Line of Resilience

They're reimagining the ways they can continue to serve their communities during the pandemic and for the years beyond, taking action to survive, adapt and grow as vital local institutions.

Signs outside the main branch of the Palm Beach County library to let families know the library now provides free meals.
Signs outside the main branch of the Palm Beach County library to let families know the library now provides free meals.
TNS/Damon Higgins/
As the doors of public libraries have been shuttered in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, library leaders are finding new ways to continue serving their communities. From shifting how they provide traditional core services to reimagining ways they connect with residents to redeploying staff to serve in emergency-management roles, libraries are displaying the qualities of a resilient system.

Urban resilience, as defined by the 100 Resilient Cities coalition, means "the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience." Library leaders are proving that their institutions are up to the challenge.

FUSE Corps, a national nonprofit executive fellowship program, brought together library staff and leadership from around the country in a virtual session to discuss strategies for resiliency. They shared how they're taking action to survive, adapt and grow in the face of the ever-changing needs of their communities:

Survive: Continue Providing Services for the Most Vulnerable

"Libraries are part of the critical social infrastructure in our communities," said Michael Lambert, San Francisco's city librarian. The San Antonio, Texas, Public Library, for example, is developing multilingual handouts with information on unemployment benefits and rental assistance that librarians will distribute as part of a curbside pickup model. In California's Alameda County, library branches have kept public Wi-Fi access open and maintained power to exterior outlets. The Seattle Public Library has kept five branches open strictly for restroom use. And when heat waves hit, key Los Angeles County libraries are being repurposed as cooling stations.

As jobless rates have soared toward Great Depression levels, libraries are also pivoting to meet their communities' employment-support needs. The King County, Wash., Library System instituted a personalized financial assistance hotline for small businesses and individuals, and is collaborating with the Seattle library to provide digital-literacy and other career-related training for job seekers. As the San Francisco Public Library suspended in-person services, its buildings have been repurposed into day-care facilities for children of parents on the front lines of COVID-19 and low-income families.

Adapt: Build Creative Partnerships and Redeploy Staff

The San Francisco library is working with the city's Department of Emergency Management to develop a model to redeploy librarians as contact tracers, with others tasked to distribute information about face coverings and social distancing. San Francisco librarians have also staffed food pantries, while in Los Angeles some librarians now operate call centers to help coordinate meal delivery to seniors.

In Houston, the Public Library partnered with the city's Health Department to repurpose library parking lots as COVID-19 testing sites in the city's most vulnerable neighborhoods. With the support of library staff, more than 20,000 COVID-19 tests were scheduled. The partnership with the Health Department also included libraries supporting COVID-19 hotlines.

The Boston Public Library worked with the city's Public Health Commission to identify residential recovery and treatment centers that lacked Internet access and distributed portable Wi-Fi hot spots to bring quarantined community members online. The Alameda County Library plans to deliver materials via bookmobiles, and the San Jose, Calif., Public Library will offer curbside pickup at some central locations, combined with a free summer food program.

Grow: Reimagining Libraries' New Role

Up until the pandemic hit, libraries were focused on keeping doors open and filling those hours with programming and content. Now leaders are considering how they might use their resources differently.

"For the next 12 months or more, the need to promote ongoing social distancing gives us an opportunity to actually work on content in favor of having to just keep our buildings open 15 or 20 hours a day," said Richard Reyes-Gavilan, executive director of the Washington, D.C., Public Library. The D.C. library, like many others, is considering how it can continue to offer services that patrons have come to enjoy, such as online programming and other virtual services. D.C. is also looking into how it can redirect its services to help unemployed people get back on their feet and potentially consider a career change.

These are the kinds of questions libraries across the country are asking themselves in their ongoing efforts to survive, adapt and grow. That self-examination, and the steps they are already taking, bode well for libraries coming out on the other side of the pandemic as even more vital and resilient community institutions than they already are.

This column had been updated to remove an inaccurate reference to wellness checks by the King County Library System and more accurately describe the library's financial-assistance and job-training efforts.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

A freelance writer who covers urban policy
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