As an academic librarian and a life-long library card holder, I paid little heed to those who predicted library buildings would close and everything would go online. “It won’t happen,” I said, never imagining that a global pandemic would close library buildings for months on end. For the first time ever, I saw glimpses of what a world without libraries might be like.
In the early days of the pandemic, library users with internet access had a seemingly infinite number of downloadable resources a click away, making those visions of an exclusively online library seem possible. It didn’t take long, however, to see how deep the digital divide really was. So librarians set out to find innovative ways to get print and physical materials to the people who needed and wanted them.
My neighbourhood library, Windsor Public Library’s W.F. Chisholm branch, developed a system where you rang a doorbell and placed your library card in a taped-off red square on the glass door. A staff member would write your card number down and retrieve your held requests, while you waited in another taped-off square on the sidewalk for your material to be placed on a table outside the door.
Sometimes other patrons and I would try to make socially-distanced small chat through our masks. Mostly we just waited silently, alone.
When my material was put on the table, the library staff and I would wave to each other and we’d go our separate ways. I was never sure if the wave meant “hello,” “goodbye,” “can you believe what is happening?” or, “please, take care of yourself.” Likely, it was a combination of all of these.
Walking home from the library one fall day, I realized trips to the library never used to be about simply picking up reading material. It was about talking with the staff, knowing their names, and having them know mine. It was about running into neighbours and overhearing children’s story time. But, as the pandemic dragged on, the library became less of an experience and more of a transaction; a conduit, not a source of connection.
One particularly cold and grey afternoon in the throes of the worst wave we’d seen to date, I was waiting for my books in the taped-off square. I’d been feeling particularly lonely that day, grieving the loss of things I’d taken for granted before. I was lost in thought when I spotted the most remarkable thing: the librarians had taken apart a brightly-coloured picture book and taped the pages to the window, side by side, in a line, at child height.
They had created a pandemic version of story time. I exited my taped-off square on the sidewalk and read the story. I collected my books, waved, and continued on my walk.
As I entered the nearby park, I suddenly felt more hopeful, tracing the feeling back to the picture book on the window. It wasn’t the story itself that gave me hope, it was what the gesture revealed about libraries and librarians.
Libraries are about connections
A pandemic might close a library, but it can’t stop librarians. Their simple yet poignant act of taping a picture book to a window ensured anyone walking by who needed a story, would get a story. Even when libraries were seeming more transactional, librarians were still finding new ways to remind us that libraries are about connections and experiences.
The pandemic changed how libraries delivered their services, but it didn’t change the reasons why public libraries exist and must continue to exist.
When the pandemic closed libraries to the public, we saw how many people depend on them, not only for books and movies, but also for computers, internet access, and a safe, warm, accepting space. In many ways, we couldn’t see all the things libraries and librarians do until their absence made them visible.