Around the world, library and information workers are doing their best, both personally and professionally, to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as some libraries are – cautiously – beginning to loosen restrictions, others are seeing them come into place.
Naturally, the focus is on the short term – how to keep staff, patrons safe, how to keep offering services as best possible, how to manage uncertainty. For many, it will seem difficult to think even beyond the coming days.
At the same time, it is already clear that this is a historic moment, with unprecedented steps being taken by governments, businesses and individuals. These are having a huge impact on the present, but what about the future? To what extent will what we are experiencing today not just ‘be’ history, but rather ‘make’ it?
This blog aims to identify ten developments we’re seeing today, and explore what they may mean in terms of trends shaping the future of libraries. It is not – and cannot be – exhaustive, and certainly can be improved. We welcome your ideas.
1) Restrictions on movement have dramatically changed our lives – will we get back to normal?
Limits on where we can go, how and with whom are affecting a huge share of the global population. On a personal level, people have been kept from family and friends, including at difficult moments. Many are not able to work, and face a loss of livelihood that, depending on whether they can receive support from elsewhere, could prove critical.
While many will be able to pick themselves up once the pandemic is over and go back to work, many will not be so lucky. We do face the risk of increased unemployment, homelessness and poverty into the future. Many will need training, support, or simply a place to get away from it all as they look to rebuild their lives and careers.
Faced with this, the need for free and welcoming public services like libraries, able both to help people find new opportunities for work or business, and to offer a moment of respite, should be as high as ever. Initiatives such as business incubators, support in job-searching or broader training programmes are likely to be important.
2) Many of our activities have ‘pivoted’ to online – will they stay there?
Just as many libraries have restricted or stopped circulating physical materials, they have in parallel seen much greater demand for digital content. They are working hard to identify ways to support online learning for students of all ages, often overcoming barriers (see below). In their own work, even those who were previously most resistant to new tools and technologies are having to get used to remote working and communication.
The restrictions will not last forever however, and many are looking forward to the possibility to work face-to-face with users and colleagues, as well as to handling new books and materials again. Nonetheless, the possibilities of digital – for learning, researching and accessing all forms of culture – will be clearer for all, and convenience may well replace necessity as a reason for using online tools. These of course bring with them ongoing concerns about how to protect privacy in the process.
The role of libraries as digital – as well as physical – providers of information and services seems likely to be confirmed. It remains to be seen whether the more favourable conditions set out by right-holders for access to electronic works will continue (or to what extent they will continue to print physical works at all), and whether library budgets themselves will swing back to physical spending.
3) Governments are investing billions into economies – how will they take it back?
As highlighted above, the restrictions needed to limit the spread of the pandemic are having a major impact on the ability of many to earn a living. Individuals and businesses in the culture sector, for example, are hit hard by the lack of physical audiences or visitors. In many countries, governments have sought to act by offering loans or subsidies to cover costs and pay salaries.
While these steps are welcome in the short term, this leaves open the question of how these same governments will deal with the debt incurred in the long term. With tax revenues also likely to be low, it seems inevitable that many will look to cut public spending, posing a direct threat to libraries.
Libraries will need to be able to make the case that they – alongside other key services – have the potential to be part of the recovery, and so to receive the support necessary to do this. The experience of the years after the 2008 financial crisis has been very negative for many, although at least the well-documented harm caused may help ensure that politicians think twice.
4) Education has been disrupted and delayed – can we limit the scarring effects?
Thanks to the fast footwork of many educational institutions – including their libraries – a lot of teaching has moved online. Lessons and lectures are provided through videoconference, homework and assignments set and received by e-mail or dedicated platforms, and some are even proposing online exams.
Nonetheless, it is clear that for those coming to the end of school years in May or June, it is not a normal year, leading to worries about how to ensure children do not fall behind, or miss opportunities.
As time goes on, there is likely to be major need for support to students looking to catch up or take new decisions about their futures. Online and/or lifelong learning opportunities will play a key role in this – libraries have the reputation and materials to support in both, either as provider or platform for others. In this way, they can help ensure that temporary disruption does not turn into permanent damage.
5) Testing, tracking and emergency powers are helping to fight the pandemic – but will governments be able to let go?
Governments globally have highlighted the value of testing and contact tracing as means of slowing – and in some cases containing – the spread of the pandemic. Through collecting information about people’s health and lives, they hope to be able better to isolate those at risk, and treat those infected. Limits on freedom of movement and action are aimed at stopping infection.
Such moves have often come as part of packages of emergency powers allowing governments to take all steps they think necessary in the context. Sometimes – regrettably – they have been accompanied with nationalist rhetoric.
Yet it does not always seem clear what guarantees there are that these special measures will be lifted at the earliest safe opportunity. This matters. The possibility to collect information about citizens and to by-pass ordinary procedures may be helpful in the fight against COVID-19, but it can also serve less positive ends.
Libraries can already help citizens and parliamentarians to keep track of what governments are doing – a vital first step towards accountability – and will need to continue to do this in the recovery. Governments themselves may look to hold onto extraordinary powers longer than they should. Libraries will need to be ready to remind them – and citizens – of the need to return to high levels of data protection, privacy, personal and academic freedom, and openness to the world as soon as possible.
6) It has become clear that laws and practices were not ready – will we learn the lessons?
A major concern for many in the library field has been how to deal with the fact that copyright laws – and in particular the exceptions and limitations on which libraries rely – are often firmly stuck in the analogue age. With on-site (and on-campus) activities now impossible, libraries have too often found themselves unable to provide services they have already paid for, or which would be completely uncontroversial in person (such as storytimes).
There are welcome steps – through soft-law agreements and unilateral action by some rightholders – to improve matters here, but it is clearly far from ideal that the ability of libraries to provide services in times of crisis should rely on goodwill and good relationships.
The challenge in future will be to ensure that the lessons of the crisis are learnt, and that libraries and their users should not face more difficulty in working through digital tools as through analogue ones. Adapting copyright laws properly for the digital age will be a key part of this, although we can certainly expect efforts to resist this in order to leave decisions in the hands of rightholders.
7) Weaknesses and incompleteness in our digital infrastructure have become clear – will we fix them?
Undoubtedly, more people are able to continue with more elements of their personal and professional lives now from their homes than ever before. However, this is clearly not the case for all. This is not just because their livelihoods depend on activities which have been forced to close., but also because they do not enough good quality access to the internet and the skills to use it.
At a time where connectivity can make the difference between being able to talk with family and friends, continue working, and keep supplied and healthy, the impact of the digital divide is as clear as ever. The people coming to library car parks to download homework – or films – are simply one illustration of the failings of our current infrastructure.
We can hope that this crisis will lead to greater investment in connecting communities – itself a powerful economic stimulus. With this, it will be necessary to call for support for skills development, with libraries an obvious potential provider. We will need to avoid those getting online for the first time failing to realise potential or falling victim to scams and other dangers.
8) The need for global information sharing is obvious – will we make it permanent?
Many of us have been regular visitors to websites sharing latest information about the spread of the pandemic. Of course, in addition to maps and overall statistics, there is also a huge amount of data and research being shared between authorities globally in an effort both to understand what is going on, and to advance work towards effective treatments and even a vaccine.
This work has been supported by widespread efforts to lift paywalls and other restrictions on access to articles and other work related to COVID-19. With time, it has also been made easier to re-use works, for example in the course of text and data mining.
The question remains whether these restrictions will re-appear once the crisis is over, or will we see a lasting shift to a more open information-sharing environment? Partially this will rely on laws, for example making it clear that activities such as text and data mining should not require new payments or authorisation. Partly it will need changes in practices and business models. Libraries will need to keep up the pressure in favour of openness.
9) Pollution is down and air quality up – will we learn to live greener lives?
One of the rare positives from the pandemic has been the fall in emissions from transport and industry, leading to improved quality of air and water in many places. Without the possibility to go to work, visit friends or family, or go on holiday, people are effectively consuming less carbon and producing fewer other polluting chemicals. Conferences and meetings have moved online, and people are discovering local attractions, at least where they can.
Clearly, once the restrictions are lifted, many will want to take the first opportunity to go and visit loved ones again, and return to normal life. But with people getting used to having to limit driving and flying by necessity, can we hope that the pattern of increasing emissions globally will be stopped or at least slowed?
As they re-open, libraries will have the opportunity to redouble their efforts to promote green lifestyles, as well as bring together evidence that supports ongoing efforts to understand and deal with climate change. Some may be able to continue the support they have started to offer to users in terms of tools and advice so that they can continue to work remotely, so reducing travel. We can hope, also, that people may come to appreciate more than before their local areas and what there is to do there, again limiting polluting travel.
10) The value of culture in well-being is clear – will we continue to invest in making it a reality?
As highlighted above, libraries (and publishers) are seeing major increases in demand for their digital offers. At a time of stress – often linked with forced inactivity – people want to be distracted, informed, or inspired by creative works, both contemporary and historic. Virtual exhibitions are taking place, some even looking back at how societies have dealt with pandemics in the past.
Librarians and archivists are also already working hard to collect news and other materials which will help future researchers understand the events and experiences of today. These may even help us improve our responses the next time we face such a challenge.
But will this awareness of the importance of culture last into the future? This is certainly to be hoped, although the ability of creators and libraries to supply this will depend a lot on whether they continue to receive the necessary support. Laws and practices will need to change to facilitate this, but at least as the crisis has showed, there is no shortage of energy and inventiveness here.
As set out in the introduction, we are still very much in the middle of the crisis. With the focus almost exclusively on the coming weeks, it is certainly too early to say with confidence what will come next.
However, what happens now will shape the future. The ideas above set out some potential trends, which are likely to interact with each other as we go into the future.
Do libraries risk seeing growing demand while having to fight hard for existing resources? Will they be able to keep up with – and support – an ever more digitalised economy and society without changes in laws? What will be necessary to uphold – or restore – core library values once the crisis is over?
We look forward to your views and ideas.
See Part 2 of this blog, which looks at what library advocacy agendas in the short, medium and longer term could look like.