March 26, 2020

Pandemic closes public libraries; e-resources remain vital


The myriad ways the novel coronavirus is upending daily life includes the shuttering of public libraries across the United States. Led by the Library of Congress, thousands of libraries have closed their doors for fear of spreading COVID-19 among their patrons and users. Noting that “it is very difficult for us to put forth this recommendation,” the American Library Association formally urged all public libraries to close on March 17.

Like so much else about the pandemic, this news hits the underprivileged and dispossessed the hardest. In addition to serving as de facto daytime shelters for the houseless, public libraries are the only source of internet access for many people. Librarians—in the view of the managing editor — rank with social workers, nurses, bartenders, postal workers, and clergy as the unacknowledged yeomanry of the nation, and they have been tireless and explicit in their advocacy for poor people, immigrants, and the disabled.

The loss of free WiFi is especially troubling. It is hard for, uh … well, hard for educated middle-class-type people who have had private internet access their whole lives to understand how debilitating it is to lack online access, nor how badly occluded it makes establishing a professional life. Even leaving out access to books and periodicals—and some of us here at Melville House formed our lifelong reading habits on the backs of public libraries—the effect of these closures is widely immiserating. It sounds like a cliche, and maybe it is, but public libraries are truly an engine of upward mobility and civic empowerment.

The whole situation is mitigated somewhat by the fact that many libraries have long since had robust digital offerings, and the widespread discovery of these resources may indeed serve as a small, unexpected benefit. The New York Public Library is a veritable gold mine of material; some of us are especially enamored of their immense catalogue of digital images. Bookish types will revel in the material available on a dedicated humanities network, while your odd amateur historian might well revel in the nearly endless catalogue of digitized newspapers from 1789 to the present.

These days are famous for inspiring dark thoughts, but frankly we suspect that the mechanics of disaster capitalism will quickly swing into high gear when the pandemic has passed. We got along pretty well without physical libraries after all, didn’t we? Maybe we don’t really need them after all! This and plenty more like is the logic we can expect to see aprés le deluge, and it will take activism and vigilance to make sure that the intellectual commons that is our libraries are supported. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

In the meantime: wash yer hands, kids!



Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.