Stephan Barker retired in 2018 as a librarian in the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System.

As the nation prepares to reopen following the pandemic shutdown, businesses and organizations will have to reconfigure service models to safely engage the public. Public libraries are not exempt from this mandate. Libraries are shut down around the country, but many are offering online story times and other activities in place of face-to-face services.

It’s difficult to imagine all library services going digital. Public-access computers have become an integral part of library services; some medium-size branches in the Washington metropolitan area, for example, have up to 60 computers available to the public, and every one of them is usually in use within minutes of the library opening.

In most branches, however, the computers are only inches apart, making safe social distancing impossible. To maintain six feet between computer users, libraries will have to reduce the number of computers or reduce space dedicated to books, magazines, and tables and chairs to spread out the computers.

My money is on the second option. Fear of viral transmission from books and other materials may severely reduce traditional borrowing, and libraries have been downsizing their print collections for years; the pandemic may give libraries the impetus to take this trend even further. Many library customers have a preference for print over e-books and digital formats, but fear of contagion may significantly alter the equation.

Story times and book discussion groups offer additional challenges. A branch with an auditorium or large meeting room could offer a story time and allow parents and children to maintain social distancing. The same holds true for book discussion groups. But activities that require closer social interaction — e.g., board games and homework help — would have to be curtailed. Smaller branches without a lot of space might have to cancel these activities or reconfigure their interiors.

In every financial downturn, libraries are among the first public agencies to face budget cuts. State and local governments are already financially strapped, and some jurisdictions have furloughed library staff. A common misperception among some lawmakers and members of the public is that libraries are a nonessential service. In low-income neighborhoods, however, library computers are the only Internet connection for many residents. Closing a branch disenfranchises people and makes it difficult for them to apply for unemployment benefits, look for a job or access social services.

How libraries survive this difficult period will depend on the priorities they establish; making themselves accessible — and indispensable — will offset the downsizing that lies ahead. They also have an obligation to provide Internet and computer access to disadvantaged neighborhoods. The most sustainable branches likely will be those co-located in larger facilities such as Montgomery County’s new Wheaton Community Center. The building houses a branch of the Montgomery County library system in addition to a gym, a walking track, game rooms, an auditorium, a kitchen, meeting rooms, a used-book shop and indoor parking.

The “new normal” has become one of the most overworked cliches of the past few months. No one knows what the new normal will look like, but for public libraries, I suspect the changes will be significant. One thing I am sure of: Many of us can’t wait for our libraries to reopen!

Read more: