In these days of shelter-in-place, lockdowns, quarantines, and isolation, only essential workers are allowed out. Some essential occupations seem obvious. Police, firefighters, and medical personnel come to mind. Establishments that are not particularly essential, and were the first to shut down, include spas, gyms, barber shops, and nail salons. In my state, dry cleaning is essential, and liquor stores are open. I can get my tires rotated, but I can’t get my teeth cleaned. I can order takeaway, but I can’t sit in a restaurant and eat. Schools are closed, but daycare centers for children are open. Offices are closed, and office workers have been told to work from home.
The exact definition of what is an essential activity differs, in the United States, from state to state. In other parts of the world, it differs by country. It is essential to go to the grocery store. But is it essential to go every day or multiple times in one day? It depends. Some places have closed golf courses and parks. In other places, they’re open. If exercise is essential, when, where, and for how long varies by locale.
What about libraries? We all believe that libraries are essential. But is keeping the building open an essential activity? There we run into a dichotomy between our service ethic and our desire to be safe. Librarianship is a helping profession. We want to be there to provide information, programs, and education for our users, not to mention computers, a wireless connection, and printers.
At the same time, librarians have no desire to become martyrs. When academic institutions and government entities declared, early in the emerging health emergency, that several libraries would remain open, there was an uproar. Those in contact with the public did not wish to risk infection and called for the libraries to close. Complicating the issue is the fact that some people will not be paid if they do not physically show up for work. Eventually, almost all U.S. libraries closed, although that is not true globally. Sweden, in particular, was reluctant to send its library workers home.
Librarians are nothing if not innovative. They have promoted their digital resources, instituted online story hours, held online concerts, videoed educational content, and learned new tools to enable them to continue outreach. Public libraries have been encouraged to leave their Wi-Fi on so people can sit in their cars (socially distanced) in the parking lot for internet access. Academic libraries have renegotiated licenses to expand at-home access for students. Publishers have lifted (temporarily) paywalls.
Yes, libraries are essential. Library services are essential. But what this health crisis has shown is that it’s librarians who are the most essential. They adapt to a changed world, reach out to their users, encourage new approaches, learn new technologies, and continue to demonstrate leadership while bridging the dichotomy between their service ethic and their desire to be safe. Librarians are the essence of essential.