National Library Week has been pretty rough, these last two years. It’s typically in April, and in early April of 2020, the country was first starting to realize that this weird new public health emergency, this new virus called COVID-19, was not going to magically go away – that it very well might, in fact, get much, much worse.
At the time, Vermont was in very good shape compared to some states with busy international airports, but anybody anywhere could call up news feeds about what was happening in Italy, among other places: the virus rampaging unchecked, hospitals strained to the breaking point, whole municipal economies coming to a halt. We might not have wanted to, but even so: it was fairly easy to read the writing on the wall last Spring.
Even given America’s piecemeal and halting response to the pandemic, it was clear that there might be major changes coming. It was in late March of 2020 that Boston’s mayor, amidst many other and more high-profiled measures, announced that Boson’s libraries would close. It was a common-sense attempt to slow the frightening spread of the virus, but even so, the starkness stopped me cold: the mayor announced that the libraries would all close at 6 pm – and he made no mention of when they’d open again.
“Those earliest months of the pandemic were really dark,” one long-time Boston Public Library patron said at the time, “but that was darker than anything. I didn’t know how I’d survive without the library.”
It was only a month later that National Library Week happened that year, and it felt like a cruel mockery. Boston’s library system had never simply shut down before.
2021’s National Library Week fell at the beginning of the month, and it happened in a different atmosphere. Instead of gathering dark, there was light on the horizon. Vaccines of near-miraculous effectiveness were in mass production; millions of people were getting vaccinated. The pandemic numbers were still hefty throughout the country, but there was a change in the air – this thing now felt survivable, even manageable.
And libraries had long since adapted, as libraries always do. Books and other materials could be requested online and picked up at curbside; staff could work hard to keep circulating items sanitized; electronic offerings could be expanded.
It’s true that sobering realities still rule the day. In 2021, just as in 2020, National Library Week happened in a country where one of the primary pleasures of libraries was still out of bounds in most places (although not, thankfully, our own dear Weathersfield Proctor Library). Patrons could still borrow all kinds of things, but in thousands of communities around the country, the joy of simply going to the library and sitting in peace and quiet for a bit, reading, writing, or just thinking your own thoughts, was still forbidden.
It’s comforting to think that this simple pleasure will come back someday soon. When hundreds of millions of Americans have been vaccinated, when therapeutics and treatment measures have continued to improve, when COVID-19 (and any of its cousins) has been reduced to just another background nuisance-virus, something that annoys but doesn’t paralyze … when these things have happened (and they sometimes don’t seem that far off), the hoping mind thinks, surely we’ll be able to go to the library and browse at leisure? That thing we didn’t realize how much we loved until we couldn’t do it anymore?
And in the meantime, it’s that very feeling, the one we’ve all had in the last 14 months, that feeling of intensely missing a joy we’d taken for granted, that makes celebrating National Library Week more important than ever. COVID-19 has done something more powerfully than any budget-meeting or hours-shortening could do: it’s reminded all of us that libraries do a whole lot more than lend books.
Librarians have been there through it all. Right now I know three librarians, each working at very different institutions when it comes to size, reach, and budget. But through this whole pandemic, they’ve shared one thing in common: the same commitment to helping their patrons that got them into librarianing in the first place. A pandemic shutting their front doors just made that more challenging.
Here at the Weathersfield Proctor Library, we’ve had our doors open to that exact same simple freedom since last June. Masks, precautions, yes, but in all this time, while so many other libraries were shuttered to foot traffic and absolutely barred from idle time, our patrons have been able to come and stay for a while. All the more reason to be grateful.
Libraries have adapted, as libraries always do. Here’s hoping that on National Library Week 2022 every library-lover will have that same freedom – to walk through the doors, hang around a bit, and offer a nice unmasked “thank you” to every librarian we see.
Steve Donoghue is a book reviewer and editor living in Boston with his inquisitive little Schnauzer Frieda. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor. He is the Books section editor of Big Canoe News in Georgia. He is a proud Weathersfield Proctor Library patron.