From WiFi to health care access, libraries are stepping up as virus cases rise

The bad news just keeps rolling in. America’s billionaires have now increased their collective wealth by nearly $1 trillion since the COVID-19 crisis began. And many—like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos—have also denied hazard pay, personal protective equipment, and sick leave to essential workers.

But thank goodness for libraries.

Growing up, my local library was an oasis on otherwise boring summer days in rural Southern Maryland. I’d imagine my name on the front of novels and dream of visiting all the places in the travel books.

When I later worked the front desk at the same library, I helped people find books and use the computers to check email and apply for jobs.

No wonder libraries nationwide have played a crucial role in their communities during the crisis. They’re essential public goods, like clean water and public education. Everyone benefits from public libraries, one way or another.

In March, the American Library Association snapped into action by recommending libraries leave WiFi available during closures.

We’ll never know how many of the nearly 42 million Americans without broadband access used free public internet to pay bills, follow the news, or do schoolwork. But a library in just one Ohio county—Cuyahoga—reported nearly 30,000 WiFi sessions over two months.

Iowa’s Hawkeye Community College Library checked out 143 laptops to students to continue their studies when classes moved online. “This helped some students persist who may not have in this new learning environment,” staff reported.

A May American Library Association survey found that while 99 percent of libraries had by then limited building access, many had stepped up in all kinds of other ways. The majority had developed new partnerships, distributed personal protective equipment, shared accurate community information, and even helped address food insecurity.

High Point Public Library in North Carolina doubled down on distributing farmers market food to those using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP).

“You’re a LIFESAVER!!” a mother of six children told a librarian at Utah’s Brigham City Public Library who had helped her reserve books online.

Right now, libraries are helping people enroll in health insurance during the open enrollment period of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as COVID-19 cases spike and flu season picks up.

“We’re looking for any way we can help reach our communities, whether it’s book clubs or helping with insurance,” a library manager recently told Alabama’s Gadsden Times. “We have to evolve, and the point is what we can do to help our communities.”

No surprise that my hometown library has been giving out free books and meals to children. I wouldn’t expect anything less.

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Photo by Howard County Library System.