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Gazing Into the Crystal Ball

by on December 29, 2021

Library Directors Look Ahead to 2022

The one thing we can all predict about the future is that it will be unpredictable. That being said, we also know that certain themes carry forward like clockwork. After two crazy years, what does the future hold for public libraries?

In a recent survey to the Urban Library Council Directors listserv, sixteen library directors weighed in on their top concerns for 2022. The respondents touched on many topics; however, the top concern by far was the continued fallout from COVID-19. The pandemic upended the library’s relationship with patrons. Between limited hours, uncertain access to buildings and safety concerns about virus spread, patterns of use changed dramatically. Libraries have seen a drop in visitors that has not reverted back to pre-pandemic levels. A Canadian library director listed a number of possible reasons including:

“The continued effects of the pandemic including changing customer behaviors, hesitancy to frequent public spaces, mental health issues, impact on loss of learning due to school closures, and the shift to online.”

A California library director wondered if short term building closures permanently shifted people’s behavior.

“Will customers return to libraries that were not available (or had limited availability) during the pandemic. Did those customer find substitute activities, did they change their habits in such a way as to forego library attendance? Our circulation has returned to 50% of normal so far, but will it plateau before 100%, will it exceed that level?”

Being closed to the public made a Maryland library director worried that this unintentionally supported a problematic viewpoint of non-relevance.

“The first issue facing public libraries is that we are still not thought of essential/critical to our communities. There is still a notion of nice to have and that we are book centric and of course this relates to funding, staffing, facilities etc…”

A Texas library director shared similar concerns about the perception of libraries.

“I believe libraries will be challenged defining our new normal as we ease out of COVID. The way we do business has changed because of COVID. Many libraries are struggling to fill positions because employees have other options. Libraries learned that we can effectively serve patrons virtually. The attitudes of some users about what the library has to offer have changed.”

A Canadian library director was also concerned that the great work we do was completely drowned out by our citizens.

“Public libraries are struggling to get heard and people have an outdated view of what we offer. But it’s hard to get heard above all the noise, especially in the information ecosystem we are in in which being heard means manipulating the attention of citizens. Ironically, we are more needed than ever, but people still say “no one knows you offer X”.”

Public safety measures negatively impacted the customer experience according to another California library director.

“It’s not so much the actual COVID infection but everything that has resulted from the pandemic such as the pushback on mask mandates and vaccine requirements. We are facing an increased frustration from both staff and the public, increased tensions and for those cities with vaccine mandates, a potential staffing problem.”

With government budgets thrown into turmoil from business shutdowns, funding for libraries took a hit in many parts of North America. As one Canadian director noted:

“Budgets are tight both provincially and municipally.”

Several directors commented that their infrastructure is in need of repair and upgrading. However, funding for capital projects is running up against tight operating margins. For example, a California library director shared the following about their system.

“This may not be the case for every library system but over half of our branches are too small and well beyond their normal useful life. There is a high amount of deferred maintenance and insufficient funding resulting in increased deterioration of buildings.”

On the theme of infrastructure, broadband access was an issue across the spectrum. A Californian director observed that:

“Even in Silicon Valley, there are households without good broadband. What is our role in this? It really is an infrastructure issue for cities, counties, and our country. Libraries have stepped up to “fill the gap” with hot spots, parking lot Wi-Fi and other creative access but it is not enough.”

An Arizona library director worried that libraries will continue to bear the burden of providing high speed access.

“As communities scramble to provide equitable access to all they are looking to libraries and library budgets to support and lead the process.  While we are poised to provide with many resources, we cannot be expected to carry the financial burden without substantial support from jurisdictions.”

A huge line item in the public library budget is electronic material. While the tensions that existed between publishers and libraries prior to the pandemic over digital access moved to the back burner, they were never resolved. A Canadian library director noted:

“It is an issue that has not yet been resolved and we’ve experienced an increase in demand due to the pandemic and fewer and larger players (Penguin purchasing Simon & Schuster, Amazon factor, Overdrive M&A’s).”

A California library director observed this topic was recently discussed in the US Senate and legislation passed in Maryland requiring reasonable eBook pricing for libraries.

“The pandemic actually helped our cause on this and we are all keeping an eye on this access point”

In the face of a growing labor shortage due to retirements and attractive private sector salaries, many directors were concerned about recruitment. With libraries expected to be open back to full hours, a California library director worried that lack of staff made this daunting.

“We need full – or nearly – full employee rosters to open and operate our facilities safely and effectively while providing outstanding customer service.”

An Arizona library director noted that the expectations of candidates has changed.

“Due to the pandemic a great many people retired or decided to move out of public service.  Those who are remaining are expecting more flexible work environments and schedules.”

Pay gaps and pressure to increase wages is pushing up against traditionally lower library salaries. A Colorado library director shared that:

“We are correcting wages against market forces bringing up salaries at the lower end with the requisite cascade through other pay grades. We have sought to correct wages against market data for 4 years, but the market is moving at the lower end more quickly than we forecasted.”

Directors also worried about staff morale and wellbeing after two years of COVID uncertainty. An Ohio library director noted that it had a detrimental effect on employee relations.

“Our relationship with staff has fractured over the issues safety, pay, expectations, and approaches to DEI issues beyond those who have left for better opportunities.”

For those employees who have stayed throughout the pandemic, job satisfaction was impacted according to a Minnesota library director.

“Many no longer enjoy the public service work; it’s all they can do to come in each day. They are burnt-out and struggling. I believe the top issue we’ll face in 2022 will be to help staff heal and get back to a place in which they feel positive about the work.”

Also on the radar is an increase in book and activity challenges, often targeting the subjects of racial equity and LGBTQ+. A Michigan library director who dealt with challenges first hand shared:

“More and more of these challenges are political and heated. It is a tough time for intellectual freedom. We need to step up and be astute to preserve it.”

At the same time, an Ohio library director was concerned that library workers have to deal with people who cause disruptions while claiming they are there to protect freedom.

“We have 1st and 2nd Amendment auditors filming in our locations trying to get a reaction from staff that can be posted on social media.”

In the midst of the many concerns, another Ohio library director believed that the public library could be a source of community healing.

“We are one of the last open community spaces with a tradition of universal access. This means we can help bridge the seemingly impassible gulfs in the community. We still have the trust of the people. Opening our doors every day is an act of social justice.”

Finally, there was also a general consensus we are near the end of the COVID emergency. However, libraries must be ready to act. As a Virginia library director said:

“It has consumed our agenda over the last two years.  We have to move past the fear, uncertainty and doubt or accept and deal with this being our new normal.”