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Silver Linings

On this week’s Princh Library Blog post we have guest writer Stephen Abram sharing his thoughts on how the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has affected libraries, and how libraries can adopt to create the “new norm”.

What we learnt

A few things are clear now:

  1. The COVID-19 crisis and the attendant behavioural changes will last a long time – for at least 4 to 5 years with changes becoming permanent or increasing which is well within the normal planning horizon for public library strategic plans.
  2. The COVID-19 crisis has materially changed human behaviour – consumer, technology, and socio-economic.
  3. Digital advancement has taken just six months to cover five years of expected digital engagement, adoption, and skills change: Significantly more residents / consumers are:
    • buying online
    • learning online
    • conferencing online
    • working from home (WFH)
    • using government services and forms online
    • engaging with e-books, e-audiobooks, e-magazines, digital music, digital video of TV shows and movies . . .
    • Banking online
    • Living in a small ‘bubble’
    • Socializing online (such as book clubs. Moms and Tots groups, story times, etc.)
    • and much more

Consider these other global change agents that COVID is exacerbating or magnifying:

  • “Growing inequality in jobs and income on a global basis.
  • Shift from labor to capital to knowledge
  • Rapidly changing business models (software as a service as harbinger for more “as a service” options)
  • An older generation from the Second World War and the Boomers leaving the scene as Millennials and Gen Xers take over
  • Europe becomes less relevant as China emerges
  • Oil becomes less important as other forms of energy emerge
  • Political platforms move toward populism and nationalism; international agreements and accords seem less valuable”

Public Library Strategic Plans

These trends mean that your library’s strategic plan is out-of-date if it was done before the 2020 Covid-19 juggernaut hit.  All of the prior SWOT exercises, community engagement surveys and focus groups, and research are now out-of-date.  It is a great time to refresh strategic execution plans with new filters and perspectives.

That said, the following things may not change but should be reviewed in your new strategic plan goals and execution priorities:

  • Your library’s mission, vision, and values (although the balance internally may)
  • Your broad strategic organizational priorities may be OK, but just OK and likely misordered.
  • Your marketing may be good but may need adjusting given the increased digital waves.
  • Your digital resources and capital investments are very likely to require attention.

As for strategic execution, your library is likely experiencing:

  • Staffing issues with furloughs, lay-offs, sick leaves, shortages, resistance, and fear.
  • Shortages of volunteers for book sales, reading buddies, events, Friends groups, etc.
  • Inadequate facilities for physical distancing and programs.
  • Decreased gate-count and increased digital engagement metrics.
  • Intensified staff training for virtual meetings and programs, digital strategies, new digital services, new e-formats, new processes (e.g. curbside), or appointment bookings, etc.
  • Massive changes in staff strategic professional development activities with most conferences, training sessions, vendor training, etc. going digital.
  • If you have unionized staff, there is likely more intense engagement and negotiations on workplace protocols.
  • Staff communication is more difficult but increasingly necessary with distance working arrangements.
  • Extreme change with regular library partners in other sectors like:
    • Elementary and high schools are using significantly different models resulting in more learners being available at home or on-site during the school day.
    • Universities and colleges doing coursework from home or taking a gap year.
    • Social service, seniors, and Immigration agencies.
    • Huge day care changes.
    • Huge changes in the rules and accessibility of long-term care and hospital residents.
    • Social services changes for community health, wellness, employment centres, etc.
    • Closed or limited sports, parks, and recreation facilities (especially when they are shared facilities).
    • Closed or severely limited access to cultural activities.
    • Reduction in hours and locations for major services like banks, restaurants, bars, stores, etc. along with increases in online consumer engagement.
  • Some areas have up to 85% adult out-of-town commuters which has plummeted, and residents are in their hometown all day and often working flexibly (with often tenuous equipment and connectivity).
  • Important social issues are on the rise and need addressing locally for all ages including suicide, drug use, poverty, homelessness, family violence, and many more.
  • Increased unemployment, underemployment, bankruptcies, and need for social assistance, business subsidies, support, and help.
  • Quality of life issues across communities with the massive changes in availability of local concerts, plays, performances, team sports, clubs, fairs, farmers’ markets, and other cultural and social activities.
  • Severely limited access to food options for social engagement like coffee shops, restaurants, patios, bars, and taverns.  Indeed, some may never survive as successful businesses in both the short and long-term.  Mainstreet and downtown business district revitalization plans have suffered a set back.

Big Opportunities and Challenges

Public Libraries are the rudders of their community ships.  COVID-19 has presented us with opportunities and changes.  It is NOT about adapting to a new normal.  It IS about creating the NEXT normal for our libraries and our communities.

Libraries need to acknowledge that they are community change agents and proponents of community vitality, but if we do not change, libraries cannot remain what they are.

Stay tuned for my next post in which I will show innovative solutions that libraries around the world are accomplishing to support social and economic recovery in their communities.

We will be back next week with another interesting article from the library world!

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