Credit: Smita Patel / EdSource
Student studying at the San Jose State University Library.

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When the public library in my neighborhood started its curbside pickup service in San Jose around the fall of 2020, I reserved multiple slots to pick up brightly colored board books. We were working parents stuck at home with a toddler. When we were on the brink of working parent burnout, the library’s service helped me choose books online for safe, socially distanced pickup at an assigned time. My toddler could now pore over new books every week while the adults took a nap or watched something other than “Ice Age” or “Moana” on Netflix. Sanity returned to our home.

Not long after shelter-in-place orders went into effect across the country, working parents were exhausted as they tried to balance work, kids, spouses, household duties and other familial responsibilities while ensuring everyone stayed safe from the then little-understood virus. Depression, anxiety and alcohol consumption increased among these overworked parents.

You won’t guess where some people found support and respite: at their local libraries, believe it or not.

Presciently, Eric Klinenberg in his 2018 Op-Ed in the New York Times described the public library as that singular space that offers ”companionship for older adults, de facto child care for busy parents,” among a host of other services in addition to giving free access to books and music and movies. However, all of those treasures and educational lifelines became inaccessible when the libraries closed due to the pandemic.

Still, somehow, librarians across the Bay Area and the country adapted many of their work duties to be able to continue to offer their services during the toughest periods of the pandemic. Libraries reallocated their budget from print resources (books, journals) to online resources and streaming services — e-books, movies, music, audiobooks. In-person events like children’s story times were adapted for virtual sessions. Library staff provided support via phone, chat, text and online announcements to toddlers, teens, adults and senior citizens.

Many libraries went so far as to print face shields in their 3D labs to support local hospitals and county facilities. In many places, library workers were also engaged by city services to answer county office-related calls.

Workers in educational institutions from pre-K to colleges and universities were considered essential workers if they could not perform their work remotely. Library professionals were unduly left out.

Curbside pickups would not be possible if library workers did not enter their buildings. They carried back books that patrons returned with as much trepidation as any of us would have had about touching objects outside our homes. They staffed online chat/ask-a-question services for long hours, every day of the week. As librarians at a public university, my colleagues and I were available for live chat to field questions from patrons for the entire working day, every day.

And trust me, the questions from the public arrived nonstop.

What can you do? Ask your representatives to support the 2023 U.S. Senate appropriations bill. In July 2022, in response to the Build America’s Libraries Act, the Senate bill proposed that federal funding be released to modernize library facilities and invest in technologies and literacy so that this essential service can remain open.

Libraries provide essential services even today when many believe the pandemic is a thing of the past. Libraries are community partners. Libraries help in our children’s education, they give access to resources that the less privileged desperately need, and they enrich our lives with resources for lifelong learning.

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Mantra Roy is the collection strategy librarian at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library at San Jose State University and a fellow with The OpEd Project.

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  1. AKennedy 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Hear, hear! Our local library system did everything they could to continue services: they offered storytimes online, contactless circulation, and online chat help. Consider how few places allow people to be indoors, for free, with the expectation of buying anything. Thank you for giving credit where it’s due!

  2. Jim 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Apparently the author and I live in different universes. In my universe the libraries closed during the pandemic even though there was no scientific rational for them to do so. While the public areas needed to close the core function of lending books was not impacted by the virus whatsoever yet they still closed exactly when the were needed most. You could go pick up a bottle of liquor or an bag of cannabis, these … Read More

    Apparently the author and I live in different universes. In my universe the libraries closed during the pandemic even though there was no scientific rational for them to do so. While the public areas needed to close the core function of lending books was not impacted by the virus whatsoever yet they still closed exactly when the were needed most. You could go pick up a bottle of liquor or an bag of cannabis, these were both “essential.” A book? not so important. Despite all the kids at home with time to read, the libraries stayed closed. The story above about should be filed under “fantasy.”