May 12, 2021

A library located in a strip shopping center location, next to a restaurant.
The Manvel library, an affiliate of the Brazoria County Library System, provides a "Safe Place" for youth in crisis. The library works with local social services to provide assistance. Courtesy of the University of Texas.

By Richelle Crotty and Sharon Strover
Technology & Information Policy Institute, University of Texas at Austin

Libraries are institutions of social, cultural, and public engagement that reinforce community resiliency in the face of disasters. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has been a disaster that most librarians and people around the world felt unprepared for, librarians that reported strong ties with local city and county level government and fellow libraries felt more capable of handling the disaster while doing their best for their communities.

Our IMLS-sponsored research examines how smaller libraries contribute to community resiliency, especially in the face of disasters such as hurricanes, flooding or COVID. We know that library ‘ownership’ and management structures vary greatly in the United States and in Texas. Libraries can be public and part of the city or county government, they can be private, and they can be operated by a sole library director, a library board, or a consortium of libraries, and every combination in between. Accountabilities, autonomy, communication and resources are highly related to governance structures. One Texas coastal library is a county library in a city-owned building, and that can be highly advantageous. For example, their strong county and city ties meant that the library was able to obtain personal protective equipment (PPE) quickly and easily when the pandemic first hit.

Flyer advertising available social services.
Libraries were popular sites where social services and FEMA case managers would meet with their local clients. Courtesy of the University of Texas.

Although librarians are oftentimes considered county or city employees, the perception of librarians as disaster response members for local government varies. One librarian was able to receive FEMA disaster training in her role as library director, which meant that she was also a city department head. She felt the FEMA training significantly contributed to her ability to weather the pandemic, even though the training occurred before the pandemic and was not specific to infectious disease disasters. She said that it helped streamline local communication channels, helped her become “more fully aware of what resources [she] could bring into play, and.. [gave] her a better idea of what [her] mission and what help is needed from [her]” in getting her community back on their feet after a disaster.

In another library, their county government was able to purchase video editing equipment that greatly facilitated the transition to online story time format. Across all the mostly small and rural libraries we studied before the pandemic, story time was an incredibly popular program. However, the transition to online library programming was abrupt as closures occurred typically within the first few weeks of the pandemic in March 2020, and there was no time to prepare. One Texas countywide library system, made up of twelve library branches, was able to quickly purchase recording equipment and editing software that not only eased the transition to virtual story time, but also afforded high quality videos that were able to be shared among the various branches.

In contrast, one library that was private and had weak ties with their local and county governments and with other nearby libraries reported that they tried online story time but no one showed up so they discontinued virtual programming entirely.

With strong support from their local governments, libraries were also well positioned to help their cities and counties respond to the pandemic in other ways. One county library system was able to ask library staff to work at COVID-19 testing stations and assist with data entry for reporting local case counts.

Commemorative wood made from one of the fences blown down by Hurricane Harvey.
Bell Whittington Library in Portand had been damaged by Hurricane Harvey. In 2018 employees received a piece of commemorative wood made from one of the fences blown down by the hurricane. Courtesy of the University of Texas.

Unfortunately, for librarians without a close relationship to local government, managing decisions about how their library should respond to the COVID-19 pandemic was a stressful process. But strong ties with other local libraries helped librarians navigate decisions about re-opening their doors when local numbers of COVID infections were high. One librarian shared that she had come to rely on her “sister libraries,” the other libraries in her county, as they were able to “band together” to determine a process for re-opening and instituting curbside service in a way that kept library staff and patrons safe. The relationships between these libraries enabled this particular library to confidently propose a plan that kept the library serving its community while preventing an overeager city government from re-instituting face-to-face library services too soon. This librarian told her city:

“I know how important the library is. And I fought tooth and nail to get the library open as soon as possible after the hurricane because we weren’t in danger… [With the pandemic] we have to stay safe… if [we’re] not there because [we’re] no longer healthy, then the library closes anyway.”

Another librarian echoed that sentiment and shared that the pandemic has librarians “balancing the needs of [our] community against what the libraries are able to offer and then also keeping [patrons and] staff safe is important and really vital.” Navigating the tensions between the safety of library staff, the needs of library patrons, and the demands of local government, seems to be easiest for libraries when they have a strong, supportive relationship with government officials. More than one librarian assured us that your local library is “doing everything we can” and “we are doing the best we can.”

Plastic sheet blocking building damage.
This library in Port Neches used plastic to block building damage, dust and access to the outdoors, after a nearby plant explosion. Courtesy of the University of Texas.

Finally, the state served as a singular source of expertise. While city and county level relationships with the libraries are reciprocal with respect to things like budgets and sometimes staffing, the state disseminated information that helped librarians make decisions. Alongside state government, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission was also often cited as a great resource for helping librarians shape policies with their local government for their responses to COVID-19. Overall, relationships with local city and county government comprised a key factor in community resiliency for 10 coastal libraries in Texas. It remains crucial for small and rural libraries to develop strong support mechanisms through local government and fellow libraries to maintain confidence and a strong sense of effectively serving their community even when the physical building doors were shut.

Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program