Executive Director's Blog: Service in Times of Disruption

The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the world’s people, institutions and economy.  In order to limit the virus’ spread, countries have prohibited group gatherings, closed most places of business and cultural institutions like libraries, and sealed national borders.  The effect has been disorientating to all. Routines have been broken, livelihoods jeopardized, social interactions “distanced,” normal life disrupted.

Like many of us, I can pinpoint the particular moment when COVID-19 disrupted my world.  I was abroad on vacation when I woke up to dozens of concerned text messages about my being “stuck” in Provence.  After laughing about what a bad lot I’d drawn, I read the President’s confusing introduction of a European travel ban on March 11.  Once I realized that I would still be able to return to the US as a citizen, I made a flurry of changes to my plane, train and automobile reservations.  A couple of days later, I was safely home in North Carolina.

Compared to the disruption experienced by others, I consider myself lucky.  Employees have been told to work from home (at best), or at worst seen their employment reduced or eliminated.  Unfortunately, further reductions seem imminent. Small businesses have been hit especially hard, being forced to close without the safety nets of commercial bank credit or cash reserves.  The longer the crisis lasts, the fewer of these businesses will recover.

Individuals are struggling to adapt to the disruption.  There have been temporary shortages of basic items at grocery stores; in-person socializing is greatly limited; homebound children and their parents are struggling to fill the structure and stimulation of school and work; older adults especially are suffering from forced isolation; and everywhere fear persists.

The library world has been no less impacted.  ALA has recommended that all libraries close for the safety of employees and patrons.  Most colleges and universities have shifted to online learning at least through the end of the current semester, their physical libraries either closing or reducing operations.  Teaching, learning, and access to information must go on, but in a radically altered environment.

For those with reliable internet access, many disruptions can be minimized.  Libraries are ramping up their distance education support as well as their virtual reference services.  Public libraries are investing further in online resources. Many publishers have temporarily opened up access to all of their online collections.  NC LIVE, for our part, continues to provide an online collection of 1.4 billion articles, eBooks, streaming videos, digitized newspapers and other materials.

One of the greatest challenges during times of disruption is to forget how things were in the past and ask how things need to be now and into the future.  Our methods must change to meet users where they are. It is critical that we all focus on being servant leaders, asking those we serve, “What do you need from us?  How can we help you?” We may be surprised by the answers we hear and we may not immediately have a good solution, but starting with the needs of our users is always the best approach.  Together, the library community has solved daunting challenges in the past. Shared cataloging. Resource sharing. Consortial purchasing. These are novel methods of doing more with less to meet the needs of our communities.  I have every confidence that our cooperative spirit, ingenuity and perseverance will rise to meet the present challenge.

There are things we can do individually to persist.  Call or FaceTime a friend or family member to see how they are coping.  Support your local businesses however you can to help ensure they are still around when this crisis passes.  Limit consuming the news to once or twice a day to avoid being overwhelmed by negativity. If you can, donate to your local food pantry to help the most vulnerable among us.  Try to do at least one fun activity a day for yourself. Go outside for a walk to get some air. Make a list of all the fun things you plan to do when things get back to normal.

Most of all, be kind to one another.  No matter who we are or where we live, we are all in this together.

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