Public libraries post-COVID

While we continue to research the ways in which libraries are responding to the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, we might do well to also consider what the situation will be like for libraries once the virus is finally brought under control. It’s unlikely to be the same. Clearly the measures that have been put in place in most countries across the world to ‘flatten the curve’ will have a lasting economic impact, the result of which will almost inevitably see increased pressure on public spending. Many countries’ economies are already entering a recession.

As it is, many public libraries are still reeling from the cuts that made due to the recessions instigated by the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) over a decade ago. The irony, however, is that it is during periods of economic downturn when public libraries are most needed and most used, particularly by those hardest hit. I was reminded of this when I came across Christine Rooney-Browne’s 2009 Library Review article, ‘Rising to the challenge: A look at the role of public libraries in times of recession by economic downturns.’ Although the cause of the recession that she was writing about (i.e. the GFC) was very different, her warnings and concerns for public libraries appear just as relevant in 2020. We will need to convince the powers-that-be, post-COVID, that libraries, especially public libraries, should be part of the recovery plan, rather than a line item to be deleted.

Rooney-Browne noted that ‘Public library authorities in the UK and USA … reported huge increases in visitor numbers, shifts in societal expectations, and demands for specific ‘‘job related’’ resources and services’ following the GFC. With many people losing their jobs and livelihoods as economic activity slows almost to a halt during lock-down, public libraries look set to see demand for a wide range of resources increase similarly in 2021. Back in 2009, the author also predicted, however, that public libraries ‘will be subject to ongoing review over the next few years as governments and local councils attempt to cut public spending.’ Unfortunately, these predictions came to pass in the 2010s, with UK libraries in particularly suffering numerous library closures and acute budget cuts. Will there be a ‘second wave’ in the 2020s?

Katoomba Public Library
Katoomba Public Library

Professor Philip Hider

Rooney‐Browne, C. (2009). ‘Rising to the challenge: A look at the role of public libraries in times of recession.’ Library Review 58 (5): 341-352.

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