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The COVID-19 effect on small rural libraries

By Bessie Sullivan 

Small rural libraries in Ontario are designed to get the biggest bang for the tax payer’s buck;  they are known for packing people into small spaces and running really creative programs on a shoestring.  They are also known for employing passionate workers who treat the library like their home, and pour their heart and soul into their jobs including unpaid time and the contribution of personal resources. 

I am not pining for the good old days when rural libraries were run with completely inadequate resources, crumbling infrastructure and the unpaid labour of their employees (who are predominantly women). In fact, in this article, I am arguing that this operating model is completely incompatible with what we think a post COVID-19 world will look like.

Curbside pickup
On May 14, the Provincial Government announced that libraries could start to offer curbside pick-up.  It has become abundantly clear that libraries are not designed to deliver service this way.  While curbside service is better than nothing, there are some significant barriers to rural patrons that are not factors in an urban environment.

Transportation and distance
The way our library system chose to deliver a curbside service was by appointment, and only at two of our branches; these decisions were made based on the lack of infrastructure and staffing. Haliburton County spans a large geographical area resulting in up to a 45 minute drive for some. We have no public transportation and many people do not own vehicles.  They rely on rides from others, which means that they don’t have the flexibility for limited appointment times.

Online resources and capacity
Prior to COVID-19, our library had a great print collection, decent programming and a patchy at best online presence. When COVID struck, we converted what services we could to online platforms over the course of three weeks. Full-time staff were working more than full-time hours to make this happen. We cancelled print newspapers in favour of Canadian Major Dailies online, and seriously reduced our print book buying so we could purchase eBooks, which is something that has never been in our budget.  We also purchased technical equipment to enable our programming staff to take their programs online. Staff working hours became devoted to the performing and editing of videos, which led to a shortage of staff available for curbside pickup. We had to prioritize resources in order to offer what we could online. In the long run, we don’t have the capacity to offer both an online collection and programming as well as in person collections and programming, no matter how heavy the demand.

Buildings and accessibility
We can’t honour many of the COVID-19 provincial legislation and guidelines. For instance, with the exception of three of our buildings, our branches are too small to undertake any kind of physical distancing. 

Some interesting challenges have arisen due to us being a county library system (our branches are owned and maintained by the member municipalities). The requirements of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act are implemented slowly in small rural municipalities because they simply can’t afford it.  These municipalities have a low tax base resulting in, among other things, no to limited garbage collection and few paved roads.  Retrofitting buildings moves at a snail’s pace. 

For this reason, based on their lack of accessibility, we are limited in which branches we can use to offer curbside pickup.  Aging infrastructure and neglected buildings have become very apparent during the crisis. As a consequence of conditions like these, we were weeks behind other library organizations in getting our curbside service up and running.



Access to computers
On June 8, the province expanded allowable library services to include access to computers, photocopiers, and printers, but the collection was still off limits—except through contactless curbside pickup. We had no idea how we could do this.

Picture a tiny branch (one which doesn’t even qualify as a branch in the Ontario guidelines) of only 480 square feet.  The branch has one staff member who is probably related to half of her patrons. How can we put her in the position of enforcing a no touching rule and not circulating materials, but allow access to the only computer that is smack dab in the middle of a room full of books? How do we enforce physical distancing when there isn’t six feet of clearance anywhere in the branch? We were still grappling with all this when the Province made their next announcement.

Re-opening to the public
On July 13, we were told that we could open with full services but still had to quarantine collections.  Again, only three of our seven branches are equipped to be able to do this.  The rest are too small for physical distancing and have no areas in which library materials could be quarantined and out of reach of our patrons.  We have yet to move past the curbside pick-up stage, and I don’t foresee us being able to before September.

The big take-away
What this crisis has accentuated for me is that there are some pretty big weaknesses in our cultural and social frameworks.  Over the years public libraries have taken on added responsibilities, social services that fill in the cracks or provide a safety net for community members. This has happened with little to no increase in financial support.  As we have witnessed over the past several months, when the public library is taken out of commission there are many services that no longer exist for the people in our communities. In addition, our budgets are too close to the bone to allow for any kind of nimbleness, and we are living with inadequate physical infrastructure.  

Father and daughter gardening together.
Many public libraries offer varied and vital services, such as community gardens.


A recent article in Bloomberg, pointed to a similar issue in the United States. Jason Kucsma, director of the Toledo Lucas County Public Library in Ohio says,

“Libraries have picked up a lot of the work to fill the gaps, but what I think we will see on the other side of this is that communities will realize that there are very big gaps in how we meet the basic needs of our community members. We are here to serve our communities in ways that make sense but we cannot be everything to everyone.”

Therein lies the problem. Because public libraries have always picked up the slack, the expectation of the community and the politicians are that we continue to do so. We find ourselves doing a worsening job as our limited resources get spread thinner and thinner.  We also find ourselves relying more and more on the goodwill of our employees. COVID-19 has amplified all our shortcomings. Hopefully our current crisis will lead to a re-evaluation of what adequately funded libraries can do well.  

Photo 1 by Lisa Hobbs on Unsplash
Photo 2 by Anna Earl on Unsplash

Bessie Sullivan is the CEO of the Haliburton County Public Library. She can be reached at bsullivan [at]

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