The changing role of libraries

Libraries aren’t my second home — they’re home. Thanks to COVID, these public spaces have shifted by necessity from how Robert Frost defined home as “the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in” (we often get the chilling if awkward response: “I should have called it/Something you somehow haven’t to deserve”). Since reopening to visitors in the second week of June 2020, Miami-Dade libraries have been my sanctuary. I didn’t understand the psychic cost of lockdown isolation had done until August and September when, writing at Westchester Regional or done with a live Zoom session with students, I realized I didn’t want to return to my apartment. In the brutal sui generis heat of summer 2020, our libraries still got fewer visits than loan requests; the employees at mine zipped from shelf to shelf collecting material with hold slips sticking out of them like strange petals. Some of these men and women I’ve known for years. They were happy to return to work even if new responsibilities include mask detail in a county where compliance was solid but tempers were not, thanks to that heat.

Alas, my university library remains closed to all but students using two floors for studying and book pickup. No date yet on when we can browse the shelves (noticing my approach to the circulation desk, the student staff will say, “No date yet” before I’ve opened my mouth). What this means in the long term for traditional uses for libraries who can say; conversations about what to do with these forbidding edifices have been going well before the pandemic. The Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece today proposing new ways to think about them. Students were already ahead of us: they haven’t thought of libraries as “places to check out books and do research” in more than twenty years. Scott Carlson:

In many ways, academic libraries are among the most important public spaces on a college campus. A library building is often perceived as a campus’s “heart”; Hinchliffe prefers the term “front porch,” borrowed from the sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom, for the way it emphasizes the notion of community rather than collections. For much of the public, a library is a “third place” much like a coffeehouse or a bar — a space that is neither home nor an office, but where people can gather to socialize, work, or simply be alone in public.

Joseph P. Lucia, dean of Temple University Libraries, believes that many of the academic functions of a library can be conducted online. Surely, students will take advantage of that for convenience, and certainly many faculty members prefer to be off campus if not needed in the classroom, lab, or office. It’s not clear whether people will still prefer to work remotely after offices and public spaces reopen.

“Prefer” has got nuthin’ to do with it.

As it happens, my uni library emailed a notification: it has fulfilled my request for Roberto Bolaño’s Distant Star.

One thought on “The changing role of libraries

  1. The Multnomah County Library system (Portland OR and a few other towns) has been completely closed to visitors since last March. I’ve been reserving books since then (though they even suspended that for a few stints when the risk level was high enough) and am eagerly awaiting the time that I can actually set foot in one, which will hopefully be summer. Being able to still check out books has definitely helped me get through this pandemic, but there are reference books I’d like to look at, and that won’t happen until I can get back there in person. Some of the suburban library districts have introduced some level of in-person use. I was out in the westside suburbs last month and got to go inside the Beaverton library. It felt so good.

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