Libraries assist us, so we must always assist them

Credit: Smita Patel/EdSource

Student studying at the San Jose State University Library.

Credit: Smita Patel/EdSource

Student studying at the San Jose State University Library.

November 3, 2022

When the public library in my neighborhood started its curbside pickup service in San Jose around the fall of 2020, I reserved multiple slots to pick up brightly colored board books. We were working parents stuck at home with a toddler. When we were on the brink of working parent burnout, the library’s service helped me choose books online for safe, socially distanced pickup at an assigned time. My toddler could now pore over new books every week while the adults took a nap or watched something other than “Ice Age” or “Moana” on Netflix. Sanity returned to our home.

Not long after shelter-in-place orders went into effect across the country, working parents were exhausted as they tried to balance work, kids, spouses, household duties and other familial responsibilities while ensuring everyone stayed safe from the then little-understood virus. Depression, anxiety and alcohol consumption increased among these overworked parents.

You won’t guess where some people found support and respond: at their local libraries, believe it or not.

Presciently, Eric Klinenberg in his 2018 Op Ed in the New York Times The public library described as that singular space that offers ”companionship for older adults, de facto child care for busy parents,” among a host of other services in addition to giving free access to books and music and movies. However, all of those treasures and educational lifelines became inaccessible when the libraries closed due to the pandemic.

Still, somehow, librarians across the Bay Area and the country adjusted many of their work duties to be able to continue to offer their services during the toughest periods of the pandemic. Libraries reallocated their budget from print resources (books, journals) to online resources and streaming services — e-books, movies, music, audiobooks. In-person events like children’s story times were adapted for virtual sessions. Library staff provided support via phone, chat, text and online announcements to toddlers, teens, adults and senior citizens.

Many libraries went so far as to print face shields in their 3D labs to support local hospitals and county facilities. In many places, library workers were also engaged by city services to answer county office-related calls.

Workers in educational institutions from pre-K to colleges and universities were considered essential workers if they could not perform their work remotely. Library professionals were unduly left out.

Curbside pickups would not be possible if library workers did not enter their buildings. They carried back books that patrons returned with as much trepidation as any of us would have had about touching objects outside our homes. They staffed online chat/ask-a-question services for long hours, every day of the week. As librarians at a public university, my colleagues and I were available for live chat to field questions from patrons for the entire working day, every day.

And trust me, the questions from the public arrived nonstop.

What can you do? Ask your representatives to support the 2023 US Senate appropriations bill. In July 2022, in response to the Build America’s Libraries Actthe Senate bill proposed that federal funding be released to modernize library facilities and invest in technologies and literacy so that this essential service can remain open.

Libraries provide essential services even today when many believe the pandemic is a thing of the past. Libraries are community partners. Libraries help in our children’s education, they give access to resources that the less privileged desperately need, and they enrich our lives with resources for lifelong learning.


Mantra Roy is the collection strategy librarian at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library at San Jose State University and a fellow with The OpEd Project.

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