As coronavirus infections spread throughout the world, lots of people are staying home to slow down the spread and save lives. In the US, many universities, schools, and libraries have closed their doors. (Here’s what happening at the library where I work, which as I write this has closed all its buildings.) But lots of people are still looking for information, to continue studies online, or just to find something good to read.
Libraries are stepping up to provide these things online. Many libraries have provided online information for years, through our own websites, electronic resources that we license, create, or link to, and other online services. During this crisis, as our primary forms of interaction move online, many of us will be working hard to meet increased demand for digital materials and services (even as many library workers also have to cope with increased demands and stresses on their personal lives). Services are likely to be in flux for a while. I have a few suggestions for the near term:
Check your libraries’ web sites regularly. They should tell you whether the libraries are now physically open or closed (many are closed now, for good reason), and what services the library is currently offering. Those might change over time, sometimes quickly. Our main library location at Penn, for instance, was declared closed indefinitely last night, less than 12 hours before it was next due to reopen. On the other hand, some digitally mediated library services and resources might not be available initially, but then become available after we have safe and workable procedures set up for them and sufficient staffing.
Many library web sites also prominently feature their most useful electronic resources and services, and have extensive collections of electronic resources in their catalogs or online directories. They may be acquiring more electronic resources to meet increased user demand for online content. Some providers are also increasing what they offer to their library customers during the crisis, and sometimes making some of their material free for all to access.
If you need particular things from your library during this crisis, reach out to them using the contact information given on their website. When libraries know what their users need, they can often make those needs a priority, and can let you know if and when they can provide them.
Check out other free online library services. I run one of them, The Online Books Page, which now lists over 3 million books and serials freely readable online due to their public domain status or the generosity of their rightsholders. We’ll be adding more material there over the next few weeks as we incorporate the listings of more collections, and respond to your requests. There are many other services online as well. Wikipedia serves not only as a crowd-sourced collection of articles on millions of topics, but also as a directory of further online resources related to those topics. And the Internet Archive also offers access millions of books and other information resources no longer readily commercially available, many through controlled digital lending and other manifestations of fair use. (While the limits of fair use are often subject to debate, library copyright specialists make a good case that its bounds tend to increase during emergencies like this one. See also Kyle Courtney’s blog for more discussion of useful things libraries can do in a health crisis with their copyright powers.)
Support the people who provide the informative and creative resources you value. The current health crisis has also triggered an economic crisis that will make life more precarious for many creators. If you have funds you can spare, send some of them their way so they can keep making and publishing the content you value. Humble Bundles, for instance, offer affordable packages of ebooks, games, and other online content you can enjoy while you’re staying home, and pay for to support their authors, publishers, and associated charities. (I recently bought their Tachyon SF bundle with that in mind; it’s on offer for two more weeks as I write this.) Check the websites of your favorite authors and artists to see if they offer ways to sponsor their work, or specific projects they’re planning. Buy books from your favorite independent booksellers (and if they’re closed now, check their website or call them to see if you can buy gift cards to keep them afloat now and redeem them for books later on). Pay for journalism you value. Support funding robust libraries in your community.
Consider ways you can help build up online libraries. Many research papers on COVID-19 and related topics have been opened to free access by their authors or publishers since the crisis began. Increasing numbers of scholarly and other works are also being made open access, especially by those who have already been paid for creating them. If you’re interested in sharing your work more broadly, and want to learn more about how you can secure rights to do so, the Authors’ Alliance has some useful resources.
As libraries shift focus from in-person to online service, some librarians may be busy with new tasks, while others may be left hanging until new plans and procedures get put into motion. If you’re in the latter category, and want something to do, there are various library-related projects you can work on or learn about. One that I’m running is the deep backfile project to identify serial issues that are in the public domain in less-than-obvious ways, and to find or create free digital copies of these serials (so that, among other things, people who are stuck at home can read them online). I’ve recently augmented my list of serial backfiles to research to include serials held by the library in which I work, in the hopes that we could eventually find or produce digital surrogates for some of them that our readers (and anyone else interested) could access from afar. I can also add sets for other libraries; if you’re interested in one for yours, let me know and I can go into more detail about the data I’m looking for. (I’m not too worried about creating too many serial sets to research, especially since once information about a serial is added into one of the serial sets, it also gets automatically added into any other sets that include that serial.)
Take care of yourself, and your loved ones. Whether you work in libraries of just use them, this is a stressful time. Give yourself and those around you room and resources to cope, as we disengage from much of our previous activities, and deal with new responsibilities and concerns. I’m gratified to see the response of the Wikimedia Foundation, for instance, which is committed both to keeping the world well-informed and up-to-date through Wikipedia and related projects, and also to letting its staff and contractors work half-time for the same pay during the crisis, and waiving sick-day limits. Among new online community support initiatives, I’m also pleased to see librarian-created resources like the Ontario Library Association’s pandemic information brief, with useful information for library users and workers, and the COVID4GLAM Discord community, a discussion space to support the professional and personal needs of people working in libraries, archives, galleries and museums.
These will be difficult times ahead. Our libraries can make a difference online, even as our doors are closed. I hope you’ll be able to put them to good use.