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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > September 2020

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Vol. 40 No. 6 — September 2020
THE SYSTEMS LIBRARIAN

The Stark Reality of COVID-19ís Impact on Libraries: Technology for the New Normal
by Marshall Breeding


The pandemic should be taken as a warning that additional layers of functionality should be built into resource management systems and not be left to be improvised as an afterthought.
It’s not an overstatement to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has made a profound impact on the library community. All types of libraries have implemented major changes in their operations in response to a health crisis beyond anything seen in recent history. As the virus swept through global regions, countries, and states, libraries were forced to close their physical facilities and concentrate on their digital services. 

The pandemic arrived quickly, at least not with the amount of lead time that would have been needed to enhance technology systems to support libraries as they carry out their work under fundamentally different operational assumptions. This crisis will inform future development efforts.

The full closure of libraries required multiple interventions in technology systems. Websites needed to be reworked to reflect closures, provide continual updates on the status of services, offer information on the suspension of the circulation status of physical materials, and give prominent placement to digital content and service offerings. Libraries were generally able to coerce their systems to make these adjustments, despite not necessarily being designed for such drastic measures.

Following the phase of pandemic response that required full closures, libraries needed to prepare for reopening, usually in reviving services in stages until normal operations could resume. As of this writing (late July 2020), libraries in the U.S. are offering partial services, such as curbside delivery of materials requested in advance. Some have resumed limited in-building services, although dealing with materials remains problematic, given the need to quarantine them for a few days. Libraries in some areas with rising infection rates have paused or reversed their processes for reopening.

School and academic libraries struggle to develop processes that are aligned with the plans of their parent institutions. Strategies vary widely. Some institutions have announced fully online curricula for the fall term; some will resume full, in-person classes; and most will offer hybrid options of remote and face-to-face teaching. Each of these teaching modes has enormous implications for support needed from the library. Libraries and their parent institutions are having to design processes in weeks or months that would normally take years. An abrupt change from in-person to online teaching is a tremendous hardship for everyone involved: instructors, students, and librarians. 

The pandemic naturally has meant drastic changes for library workers. The fortunate ones have been able to shift to working from home. Many libraries have provided the tools and technologies to enable library workers to perform at least some of their regular duties from home, with access to the systems and services involved. Those less fortunate experienced furloughs or termination. As libraries reopen, their workers face difficult choices regarding what level of risk they might accept relative to the special equipment, supplies, and procedures their libraries have been able to provide. 

The disruption related to the pandemic remains high. Libraries continue to improvise ways to coax their systems to support them as their workflows and services differ from the norms for which they were designed. This crisis will gradually recede, but lingering effects will likely endure for years. Libraries—and those who build the technology systems that support them—would do well to add new layers of flexibility to be able to manage ongoing disruptions and to be well-prepared for future events. It is difficult to predict the exact shape of the new reality, but it would be unrealistic to assume a full return to previous norms. This crisis has proven that libraries can navigate abrupt changes through heroic efforts. It is essential that, going forward, library systems of all categories be designed in advance to be more nimble, as well as help the organization through any new crisis or disruption. 

I can offer a few suggestions on the lingering effects of the current crisis that will have an ongoing impact on library systems and their surrounding community of developers and vendors. The pandemic should be taken as a warning that additional layers of functionality should be built into resource management systems and not be left to be improvised as an afterthought. Going forward, it seems that these systems need to include business rules that facilitate the use of physical resources and spaces in ways that respect ongoing health concerns. The current expectations for social distancing and for limiting physical contact with materials and equipment will persist, hopefully constantly informed by continually revised understandings of risk levels. 

Such controls could be built into circulation or fulfillment modules of automation systems. Quarantine periods for materials could be incorporated into the business rules for ILSs and automated material handling systems along with current factors such as loan periods, pickup locations, or hold requests.

Almost all libraries will face severely constrained budgets. Primary and higher education institutions are currently planning for significant budget shortfalls. The economic downturn will also impact funding levels of public libraries. These circumstances point toward libraries needing to prepare for difficult budget challenges. Libraries will be pressed to deliver services in ways that accommodate the changed circumstances brought on by the ongoing responses to the pandemic, but with little hope of additional financial or personnel resources. Libraries will have to make difficult choices about what aspects of their routines will continue and what can be deferred or phased out. 

At the industry level, vendors can expect substantially reduced opportunities for sales of new library systems. Within the U.S., the number of procurements per year has been in decline since about 2012. Libraries with short-term plans to launch new system procurement projects will likely be asked to defer them unless they can be accomplished without the need for substantial upfront funds and will demonstrate cost-savings over time.

The current crisis forced most libraries to suspend access to physical materials and to fulfill the needs of their patrons almost exclusively through electronic resources. This will likely result in a persistent, accelerated transition to digital services. It also seems prudent to recognize that physical materials will prevail as the dominant format for public libraries and as a lesser but important part of academic library collections. Recent studies by the Pew Research Center as well as book sales from Amazon and other outlets confirm ongoing preferences for reading in print (see, for example, pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/09/25/one-in-five-americans-now-listen-to-audiobooks). Even in response to this crisis, any shift to all-digital formats will not strengthen the position of libraries. However, strengthening digital collections represents one element of response-planning for any future events that may preclude access to physical materials. 

Likewise, libraries must prepare for digital disruption. Any long-standing interruptions of communications infrastructure may intensify the need for access to physical materials. It is not difficult to imagine a variety of scenarios, including widespread malware attacks and core infrastructure failures, that may hamper access to library discovery services and electronic resources. A robust, long-term disaster-planning strategy should include preparing for possible multiple categories of disruption.


Marshall BreedingMarshall Breeding  is an independent consultant, writer, and frequent library conference speaker and is the founder of Library Technology Guides (librarytechnology.org). His email address is marshall.breeding@librarytechnology.org.