Not-So-Empty Library Spaces

You probably, to some degree, miss the physical space of your library right around now. It’s been about eight weeks since you’ve seen each other, after all. Whether it’s a dual-monitor setup in your office or that weird stain on the carpet that you swear looks like an alligator from the right angle, there’s got to be something you miss about your library space.

I think physical library spaces and their many uses are fascinating, so knowing that so many libraries across the country are sitting empty and dark right now makes me a little sad. (To clarify: we should definitely be closed for safety, but empty libraries are still a sad thing to imagine.) Not all library spaces are going completely unused, though, and some are being used in new and unforeseen ways.

In the more traditional vein, some libraries are offering curbside service, which means there must be a skeleton crew inside the space, experiencing that “empty libraries are eerie” feeling we’ve all had when we forgot our phone on our desk and had to go back in after closing.

Another well-known use of library space is being continued in Seattle. They recognize that books and computers are not the only things people want from libraries, and reopened enough of their spaces to allow unsheltered people to use another highly popular library resource: the restrooms.

We know at least one library is buzzing with activity while the staff completely reshelves their collection after a well-meaning cleaner arranged all the books by size.

This American Libraries article discusses several ways libraries – and library staff – are being repurposed, like turning a library into a day shelter (with adequate space to allow necessary physical distancing) or deploying library employees to help out at shelters and helplines.

While most of these examples involve public libraries, academic libraries are also participating in popular pandemic-time activities, like 3D printing PPE in their maker-spaces.

But the most active use of library space right now is one I’m getting to witness firsthand at our own library. When I completed the NLM’s Disaster Health Information Specialist program earlier this year, I learned that libraries often serve as the Incident Command Center for disasters, because they have comfortable space (heat/air, restrooms, electricity, seating), internet access and phones, and “breakout” spaces like study rooms or meeting rooms. Our library is now serving in this capacity, and it is fascinating to see how that works, up close and in real time.

If your library space is not very lively right now without you, and you miss your plants and desk tchotchkes, try thinking of the funny things about returning to work, whenever that will happen for you: what outdated displays will still be up? The weather will have changed pretty drastically; what jacket or scarf did you forget you left in your office in March? And, now might not be the best time to remember… but did you leave leftovers in the break room fridge?

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