COVID-19 is not the great equalizer, as Madonna announced from her milk and rose petal bath. But perhaps, libraries could be.
Library access may seem a small matter as more than 100,000 coronavirus deaths expose the delicate lattice of America’s systems, the U.S. unemployment rate rockets toward 20%, and as police spray peaceful protestors with chemical weapons that have been banned in warfare. In the midst of all this, we are living in a Digital Dark Age in which the rich pay to have their private libraries curated and the poor are technologically barred from borrowing library books during quarantine. In many communities, public libraries are the last bastion of social support, hiring on social workers to meet the influx of homeless patrons and others in crisis. The pandemic has exacerbated the torn economic disparities that our local libraries invisibly mend everyday. When virtually no free secular public spaces remain, libraries play a role as integral to a community’s health as schools and hospitals. Fortunately I can still access the library with my Kindle e-reader while quarantining at home. I have a laptop and internet access. But not all are so fortunate. For this reason, we need to increase federal funding for libraries in order to put a smartphone, e-reader, and laptop in the hands of every American who can’t afford their own.
Libraries saved my life. When I was a homeless teenager, the public library offered me shelter from the snow and rain where I could wash my hands, search for jobs, or study for my college entrance exams. I spent hours reading beneath a window, surrounded by stacks of books, diving into other worlds and characters’ lives in order to escape my own.
In Medieval Europe during the Bubonic Plague, laws policed peasants’ illiteracy and the poorer classes usually could not access books, the technology of the time. Today, our most marginalized neighbors face similar technological barriers due to safety precautions for COVID. But we need not look as far as Europe for a history of laws suppressing and policing literacy. America has its own long history of anti-literacy regulations. Into the 1960s, segregated libraries flourished all over the U.S. and remote bookmobile programs sometimes championed a more sinister motive by deterring Black patrons from visiting the stacks. Until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many states had systematic voter suppression laws that required literacy tests. Illiterate white voters were usually exempt, their right to vote based only on their white ancestry. If e-reader, smartphone, and laptop devices were provided to all, shelter-in-place could be rewritten as an opportunity for libraries to rectify the disproportionate rates at which Black patrons are punitively excluded.
Libraries saved my life.
There is a yawning chasm of accessibility privilege that we cannot afford to ignore, now that libraries have become 100% digital during the pandemic. In spite of this, librarians are doing their best. Through these uncertain times, U.S. libraries have continued to provide online resources and e-books while remaining physically closed to protect their communities through the virus. The American Library Association issued a press release on March 23, 2020, recommending that library branches leave their WiFi on as a digital safety net. However, many people do not have the means to access a library that has abruptly transitioned to a digital-only format.
Last week, I spent hours helping a friend who is a trafficking survivor access a library book that she needed for a school project. She is studying to become a therapist for other survivors. Like most, her college has been closed since March. She had to drop a math class because she could not meet with her tutor during the quarantine. If we want to believe that our society has advanced at all in the last 5,000 years, we must not actively limit access to information. Every person should have a smartphone, e-reader, laptop, and a library card.