The COVID-19 crisis is forcing workplaces, governments, and city institutions to adapt digitally—and public libraries are no exception. Efforts to expand the technological capacity of libraries across the country have been underway for years, but barriers persist. The ability of libraries to serve as physical community meeting places is temporarily hamstrung by government-mandated closures, and physical distancing measures that could remain in place for months are pushing libraries to look inwards and evaluate their role as city-building institutions.

Toronto's Bloor/Gladstone Library, image by Marc Mitanis

Last week, the Canadian Urban Institute (CUI) hosted a five-panelist webinar exploring the current role of public libraries, and how that could evolve in a post-COVID-19 environment. The five panelists offered perspectives from across the country. Maureen Sawa, CEO of the Greater Victoria Public Library, has noticed that as libraries switch to virtual services,"people are missing their physical branches, people are missing their books." The Canadian Urban Libraries Council has developed a think tank to discuss what libraries can do to reintroduce services, "but we know things are not going to be the same."

Åsa Kachan, CEO and Chief Librarian of the Halifax Public Library, says 4,600 new users have enrolled online across the system since libraries closed in mid-March. Within days, online services had been rolled out, including cooking classes and an 'Ask a Librarian' service. Recognizing that many children within the system partook in on-site snack programs, Kachan says over 1,100 snack packs and over 700 activity packs have been distributed to families to continue those services. "In every disruption are these opportunities for innovation and I've seen the library sector run towards those opportunities in a way that makes me really proud."

"One thing libraries have always been good about is shifting and pivoting where we need to," says Mary Chevreau, CEO of the Kitchener Public Library. "We are such a critical service, and more so now than ever in terms of creating that connection to those in the community." Chevreau says the response in Kitchener has been similar to that of Halifax, with deliveries of equipment and technology being offered to the most vulnerable. 

Toronto Reference Library, image by Jack Landau

Paul Takala, CEO and Chief Librarian of the Hamilton Public Library, says previous investments in technology have helped Hamilton's library system weather the storm. Online services are being ramped up, and users are being contacted by librarians to help them make the digital shift easier. Echoing comments made in an earlier Canadian Urban Institute webinar exploring municipal responses to COVID-19 and climate change, Takala says it's crucial that the higher levels of government provide serious financial relief to cities. "We can't continue to put critical services on the backs of local taxpayers, there isn't the capacity for that." He hopes COVID-19 will advance the conversation about the need to invest more in local government.

Gohar Ashoughian, University Librarian at Wilfrid Laurier University, says the priority has been helping students finish their term. Although more resources are being added to provide wider access, Ashoughian says university libraries are positioned best to handle the crisis, as schools already have sufficient digital capacity. 

Mary Rowe, host of the conversation and President and CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute, says COVID-19 has exposed the multifaceted role of libraries as physical places, as service providers, and as caregivers. She asks if growing resources on the digital side will give weight to people who think physical libraries are an anachronism.

"Digital does not replace human connection," says Kachan, who also pointed out that digital services are not equitably available, and several areas within the jurisdiction of the Halifax library system do not have broadband. "Libraries are part of community building and we can't lose that."

Sawa agreed, comparing libraries to the living room of a community. She notes that things will change when libraries reopen, including possible new rules around how long a book is quarantined and how many people can be around a computer at a given time. 

Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, image by Jack Landau

Takala says libraries need to "embrace the changes we need to make in order to open earlier rather than later." For many people, libraries are a lifeline and their only access to technology. In Hamilton, Takala sees customers of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds "coexisting peacefully and getting to know each other." With physical distancing measures possibly remaining well into 2021, Takala says libraries could make up for the lost time by reopening with longer hours, otherwise they are faced with a "shrinking mandate."

"Universities are at different levels of preparedness for online learning and everyone overnight was pulled into a remote learning environment," says Ashoughian, who opined that if COVID-19 leaves any positive outcomes, it will be a "new normal" with increased investment in technology.

Takala says both investments in technology and municipalities are needed. Citing mental health and addiction problems in Hamilton, Takala has noticed an acute lack of investment in social supports. "We've been underinvesting in social infrastructure for decades." Takala's comments were mirrored by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, who is calling for $10 billion in emergency funding for municipalities to help cover the gap in operating budgets.

Sawa says there is a role for libraries at every table. There needs to continue to be a reflection of their commitment to serve all needs, and embed themselves with community partners. Raising their role as community gathering places, Sawa declares libraries "more democratic than any church."

Takala says libraries are constantly innovating and continuing to adapt, which will prepare the system for the months ahead. Ashoughian says partnerships between public libraries and universities will be even more important moving forward. All panelists agreed that libraries are collaborative by nature, and suited to adapt to changing circumstances. 

The conversation was one of the most popular the CUI has hosted thus far, with nearly 1,000 people signing up to watch. The full discussion is available to view on the Canadian Urban Institute YouTube page. Recent discussions related to COVID-19, which can also be watched online, include: 'What are the Impacts on Local Economies?', 'How Will Public Engagement and Participation Processes Change?' and 'What are the Impacts on Urban Design and Architecture?'

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