It’s been, to say the least, a tough time for libraries. COVID-19 threw physical locations, services, and programming for a loop, forcing librarians to pivot and adapt at a rapid-fire pace to continue offering content and care. Safety precautions were quickly adopted — from social distancing policies to full-on shut-downs — and libraries ramped up alternate access to materials and resources through curbside orders. We also saw an accelerated adoption and normalization of digital content, programming tools and platforms that were previously received apprehensively.
Things are (thankfully) starting the slow return to normal, with libraries in many cities around the world cautiously reopening their doors and welcoming patrons back to in-person activities. But in many ways, the past months have shifted attitudes and interests in such a dramatic way that the post-pandemic library can’t look the same as it once did. The coronavirus and the surrounding social and political events of 2020 have changed library programming forever. And while change can be tough, there are a lot of exciting opportunities that lie ahead as programming evolves.
Part of these programming changes are due to shifting perspectives on the role of libraries as important community facilities. Libraries already addressed so much community need pre-COVID, but the emphasis on these services during particularly tough times made their value even clearer: some libraries were repurposed for mental health programs or vaccine rollouts, while others ramped up support for the unemployed and others in need. Of course, both pre- and post-pandemic, libraries are constant victims to budget cuts and other economic pain points, meaning that even during a time where we collectively appreciate libraries more than ever, they’re forced to do more with less.
Regardless of the challenges libraries have faced, there’s a lot to look forward to in the changing landscape of library programming. Here are some of the many new offerings and library program ideas on the horizon.
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1. Even more digital content
Most libraries have been offering e-books and digitized resources for years, but the pandemic certainly accelerated the demand and user base. In 2020, over 430 million digital items were borrowed globally. Even as physical libraries open up again, it’s likely that digital content will remain at this high-point of popularity.
2. Virtual workshops, readings, and events
Reading materials weren’t the only things that went digital during COVID: event providers everywhere scrambled to bring live gatherings into a virtual space. Libraries offered everything from drag queen story hour to Zoom tutorials online, bringing many of their important services and community-building events to people in the comfort and safety of their own homes.
Post-pandemic, this low-barrier, accessible-to-all option is likely to continue, whether with fully digital events or hybrid live-digital ones. (Bonus benefit: digital meetings can also lead to more development opportunities for librarians themselves to learn from other experts in their field around the world.)
3. More support for students
Education was dramatically disrupted this past year, and while libraries have always played an important role in supporting academics, the pressure will be even higher as students at all levels strive to play catch-up.
Working as either a provider or platform for study resources, online coaching and life-long learning, libraries will be key to getting everyone back up to speed. We’ll likely see more online after-school programming, youth services and tailored activities, designed to help learners of all ages.
4. Going global during COVID-19
If there’s one thing the pandemic taught us, it’s that the world is undeniably connected. It’s why so many governments and research organizations willingly let down their guard during this time of crisis to share an abundance of data and research with each other. Helpfully, many paywalls and restrictions were lifted during this time, too, to ensure equal-opportunity access to essential information. In the future, we can only hope this embrace of information-sharing continues.
5. Helping with the job hunt
In the wake of a time of such massive unemployment, libraries will need to level up their support for job seekers. Even simply offering internet access to those who may not have reliable Wi-Fi at home is an important community service. Offering further resources and workshops for writing resumes and cover letters, applying for unemployment insurance or preparing business plans will be appreciated all the more by those who are hunting for work.
6. Embracing the physical space
Even as so many library resources are going digital, we’re seeing the unique potential of physical spaces and tools realized. Libraries are setting up podcast studios, installing 3D printers and lending out mobile WiFi hotspots — tangible items and experiences that the average library patron may not be able to access elsewhere.
7. Getting crafty
Beyond readings and author Q&As, libraries are increasingly embracing DIY and craft workshops to connect with the community. Examples from across North America include cooking lessons, pumpkin carving contests, and even take-and-make craft kits — all activities designed to combat social isolation.
8. Renewing focus on social justice
From the Black Lives Matter movement to the fight to protect AAPI communities from acts of hate, the past year has been a bit of a social justice awakening for many, putting books like How to Be an Anti-Racist on the best-seller list. Libraries would be wise to capitalize on this interest for education and activism with programming geared towards anti-racism.
As a space that is so many different things to so many different people — a source for learning, a community center, a hub for social services — libraries simply must keep evolving with the times to serve the community. While the pandemic pushed library programming in some thrilling new directions, there’s only more growth to come from here.
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