Reimagining the Library

Library Services During COVID-19

Librarian wearing a mask

Reimagine: “to think about again especially in order to change or improve.”

In many communities, the library embodies a unifying space transcending socio-economic boundaries.  The public library doesn’t just exist as a book depository, it offers programming for all ages, printing services, room rentals, and access to free computers and Wi-Fi.  For students, the university library is often a central hub for knowledge—a space for connecting and socializing with peers, studying, obtaining print and digital course materials, and accessing computer labs for homework.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced libraries to adapt to federal and provincial health restrictions while ensuring people have access to library resources.  This fall term will look quite different in terms of what services are available for students at universities across Canada.  Librarians and other library employees have been working hard behind the scenes to expand digital content and enhance online presence to address the diverse needs of patrons.  The library of our memories may no longer be the same and we may need to consider the possibility that, moving forward, the library may be permanently altered to fit the everchanging needs of our society.

Browsing and Access to Library Materials

The days of wandering through the book stacks looking for references or books of interest have been put on hold for the foreseeable future.  With the health and safety of library patrons being a major priority, most public and university libraries will remain closed to browsing library materials until at least December 2020.  This closure includes some of Canada’s largest university libraries: the University of British Columbia, the University of Alberta, the University of Toronto, the University of Calgary, the University of Ottawa and Dalhousie University.

However, curbside pickup is now available at many libraries, and interlibrary sharing has restarted with limited capacity.  Some universities, such as the University of Alberta, have chosen to consolidate library services for the fall term and only have one curbside pickup location on campus.  AU’s library offers online resources, at-home mail delivery for books and provides students with borrowing privileges from TAL (The Alberta Library) and COPPUL (Council of Prairie and Pacific University Libraries).

In many cases, late return fees were eliminated for materials borrowed immediately before the pandemic and many libraries, such as the University of Winnipeg, have advised students to keep borrowed materials until the libraries have resumed service.  The recommended health guidelines for returned books during the pandemic was shortened from an initial 6 days to 72 hours.  Books returned to book drops are left untouched by library staff during this time and most late fees have been eliminated to account for the delay in the check-in of books.

In-Person Library Services

If you want to go into a library, you will likely be asked to wear a facemask (or face covering) and will notice for public health reasons, seating has been removed, plex-glass barriers have been installed, restrooms are closed, toys and games are removed from children’s areas, and computer terminals are spaced 2 meters apart.  The current recommended maximum occupancy for many libraries is 25 people, but some university libraries, such as the University of Toronto, have expanded occupancy to a few hundred for the fall term.

Once many provinces reached Stage 2 in their pandemic response, public library boards were allowed to use their own discretion as to when their local library reopened for in-person services.  As a trustee on my local library board, I realize the decision to reopen is not easy or straightforward.  Library boards must factor in local COVID-19 policies, the current number of active COVID-19 cases in their community, the needs of the community, and consider the safety of the library’s employees.  In addition to limiting services, libraries have also reduced their hours with some offering “Browse and Go” (Strathcona County Library) hours.  Many university libraries are opening exclusively for computer labs and study space (often requiring advanced reservations), with the exception of the University of Winnipeg whose physical campus is completely closed.  In-person library services vary extensively due to regional COVID-19 guidelines; therefore, I encourage you to check your local libraries and universities for updates.

Online Resources

I mentioned earlier we may want to reimagine our vision of the library to match our new reality.  Libraries are molding their services and expanding online programs as the pandemic increased the demand for e-books and online self-help resources.  Libraries are responding to this need by adding webinars, expanding their e-book collections and offering virtual tutorials and reference support.  AU’s Information Literacy and Resource Access Librarian Jennifer Remple, recommends AU’s “Talk to a Librarian” sessions on Facebook and live webinars on a variety of thought-provoking topics.  The University of Toronto Libraries’ online services include: RemoteLab software, “Chat with a Librarian,” videoconference research consultations, and how-to videos.  The University of Calgary has announced a temporary emergency access to HaithiTrust Emergency Temporary Access Service which makes over 1.2 million online titles available to their students.  A new initiative by the Canadian Urban Libraries Council is advocating for improved experience for public library patrons including changes to more digitalized content.  Their mandate is to address the emergent needs for library services and the “[a]ccelerated shift to digital over physical resources and to virtual over in-person service.”

Community Access

The demand for online library services goes well beyond the traditional methods as libraries serve their larger community and reach many vulnerable populations.  The face of libraries is changing, and public libraries now offer resume support, printing, free computer use to search for job postings, shelter in the winter, and adult programming on topics such as financial and estate planning.  The Leduc Public Library offers free learning opportunities for literacy and foundational skills through a program called Leduc Adult Learning.  The Regina Public Library offers both in-person and over the phone counselling sessions.  The Edmonton Public Library has an entire department for outreach services to reach homeless or at-risk Edmontonians.  I believe it is important for libraries to not only adapt during the pandemic, but to also serve the people in their communities who rely on their local library to live and thrive.

Final thoughts

From walking the many floors of Rutherford Library at the University of Alberta to visiting my local library for supplemental resources, libraries have been an integral part of my post-secondary journey.  I honestly can’t imagine having to attend university without them.  AU’s library staff have said they are working hard to make sure AU students have access to all of their materials during the pandemic and will accept library requests via email.  This is a season of change for many people, and the library will not look or feel like it used to, but many librarians are working very hard to ensure people have access to the resources they need during this pandemic.  Happy Reading!

Webinar Resources:

COPPUL: How can non-Indigenous people advocate for Indigenous education?

*COPPUL Library cards available for AU students

YRL (Yellowhead Regional Library): webinar on Mental Health Wellness and Support and an online blog for strengthening your positivity.

AU webinars:

The Education Institute (in partnership with Ontario Public Libraries):

COVID-19 responses at some Canadian university libraries:

AU Library:
Dalhousie University:
University of Alberta:
University of British Columbia:
University of Calgary:
University of Ottawa Library:
University of Saskatchewan:
University of Toronto Libraries:
University of Winnipeg: