If you find yourself scrambling for a good novel to escape the novel coronavirus, you're not alone. Across the country, libraries have seen demand skyrocket for their electronic offerings, but librarians say they continue to worry about the digital divide and equality in access — not to mention the complicated questions that must be answered before they can reopen for physical lending.
"Since the library closed on March 16, we've had about seven thousand people register for library cards," says Richard Reyes-Gavilan, Executive Director for the District of Columbia Public Libraries. "We've had over 300,000 books borrowed since mid-March, which is astounding considering that our collections are limited."
By the library's accounting, that's 37% higher than the same period in 2019, and DC isn't alone in an uptake in digital usage: Weekly library e-book lending across the country has increased by nearly 50 percent since March 9, according to data from OverDrive, a service used by many libraries to let patrons check out media for e-readers, smartphones and computers. Audiobook check-outs are also up 14% — not quite as large a shift, likely because fewer people are in their cars commuting to work.
How pandemic reading has (and hasn't) changed
Nationally, there's been a jump in titles checked out virtually across topics, but demand for children's e-books has more than doubled during this period.
By comparison, e-book checkouts for adult fiction across the U.S. have grown by more than a third, and young adult fiction by more than 50 percent. There have been more checkouts of children's books than adult nonfiction on weekdays since the week of March 22.
"The big change we've seen is within juvenile fiction," says Susan Gross, a data analyst with OverDrive. "Typically adult non-fiction is the second most popular type of title that's read, but now on certain days juvenile fiction surpasses adult non-fiction, which we haven't seen before ... our thought on that is that parents are probably trying to enrich their kids' during the school week when they would typically be in school."
So patrons seem to be reading more, but are they reading differently? At the macro level, the answer appears to be no. While adult nonfiction hasn't increased at nearly the same volume in total checkouts as fiction has, it started out much lower, and its relative rate increase is still proportional.
Library categorization is notoriously messy, but OverDrive's rankings of the top national checkouts by genre (using the industry's standard BISAC codes) indicate that readers aren't radically shifting their tastes on the grim/fluffy axis. The top categories have remained remarkably stable through 2020, led by thrillers, romance, "women sleuths," and literary fiction.
That said, some sub-sub-genres are showing signs of our collective psychological strain: Within the self-help category, "motivation" and "happiness" titles have seen an increased number of checkouts, says Gross. Reyes-Gavilan notes that he's seen greater interest in books on pandemics and race relations, although the latter is no doubt boosted by a program that made many titles available for instant checkout.
Libraries have also reacted to the closures by transitioning events to virtual spaces. DC's libraries added a chat service allowing readers to ask a librarian questions over the phone or the web. It also launched its "one city, one book" program online by offering free digital access to Elizabeth Acevedo's With the Fire On High, including a virtual talk by the author at the end of the campaign. And it's been holding Facebook-based storytimes with hundreds of participants.
"More than just their buildings"
Of course, while we typically think of libraries in terms of books, that's not all that they do: They're also a de-facto community center for access to services, which are now increasingly hard to deliver.
Since closing physically, DC library buildings have kept their wireless access on, and have seen almost 20,000 devices connecting for more than 60,000 sessions. "One of the things that's extremely important in our libraries is the ability for people to print wirelessly from our copiers, for people who are printing out resumes, health forms, job applications, you name it," says Reyes-Gavilan.
Across the country, while physical lending remains closed, five of Seattle's library buildings have been opened for restroom-only access since late April, in part hoping to slow the spread of COVID-19 by making handwashing easier for the homeless.
Seattle's library system also runs a wi-fi hotspot lending program, which reserves 250 devices for high-need populations, like the homeless or poorer families without access. After the pandemic began, existing checkouts were extended, and Seattle's library foundation funded 75 additional hotspots to bring the total number to 325. The library has been installing these in weatherproof enclosures at homeless encampments around the city or assigning them to shelters and relief organizations.
"The conditions that we're living in now kind of exaggerate or accentuate the digital divide," says Andrew Harbison, assistant director of Collections and Access for Seattle Public Library, "and so we also have teams working on figuring out ways to reach people outside the digital sphere."
Reopening and recovering
How libraries will adapt in the long run is still unclear. Digital titles are often three to five times more expensive than physical books, and unlike physical books (which can be borrowed hundreds of times) e-book licenses are typically capped at a short time period or limited number of checkouts (or both) before they must be renewed.
As a result, if this burst in digital lending is sustained, it could be a financial problem for cash-strapped libraries. Seattle's libraries have been able to transfer funding to e-books while branches are closed for in-person borrowing, at some point they'll need to start repurchasing print materials again.
Physical lending entails an entirely different set of challenges. Currently, many libraries plan to isolate returned books or media for 72 hours before they can be picked up by a librarian and reshelved. As a result, circulation may be slower than usual when service resumes.
However, the hope is that official guidance from the CDC, and a study by the Institute for Museum and Library Services, will be able to reduce those delays if typical surfaces like cardboard, paper, and mylar are not shown to be a significant transmission vector for the novel coronavirus.
Harbison notes that in some ways, programs like restroom access provide a way to anticipate potential challenges when libraries fully reopen — offering curbside pickup, providing protective gear for staff, and adapting the space to enforce social distancing by moving furniture and enforcing occupancy limits.
In DC, Reyes-Gavilan is excited about being able to physically open the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, which has been closed for renovation since 2017, especially given the current background of race-related protest. "We'll be offering socially-distant services the likes of which the city has never seen from a public library," he says.