A Roadmap Imagined: Scenario Planning for Post-COVID-19 Ontario Public Libraries

A Roadmap Imagined: Scenario Planning for Post-COVID-19 Ontario Public Libraries

It cannot be overstated that now is the time to plan for re-opening our library systems.  Here are some thoughts that are relevant to your discussion on re-opening your services for your communities.

Steve Kraus at OLS-North made a wise observation on Facebook this week:

“It’s been an interesting day back to work mode after Easter weekend, having spent the majority of the day catching up and connecting with colleagues in various meetings so far today… one thing that keeps popping up for me today is language… Consider this…

“Once we get back to normal…” must have been said about a dozen times today so far… I think we should embrace a new mindset…
“Once we meet the new normal…”
The future talk is fun…”

Truth, that.

These decisions are key to the CEO, Management Team and Library Board.  It may involve policy decisions, budgetary adjustments, staff planning decisions, and more.  It’s better to deal with these now – before you re-open.  It’s a great time for CEOs to consult their independent boards and for Boards to provide strong input and support to the CEO in an ongoing and difficult time.

First Step:

Build your strategic strike team as soon as possible.  Choose carefully.  Maybe the library management team is insufficient.  Consider partners (outreach, daycares, seniors, etc.), facility managers (if you lease), custodians, landscape crew, municipal administration (HR?), etc.  Choose whom to consult if they don’t need to be on the core team.

Second Step:

Engage the team in a virtual planning session.

The first meeting isn’t about making choices, decisions, or choosing direction.  You are focused on defining the knowns and unknowns, mapping the environment (local, provincial, federal, global), and learning about the scope of your planning goals.  At this point you’re focusing on being flexible and prepared – nonetheless.

The second meeting is about your local priorities.  Where are the biggest needs and where is it perfect for the public library to lead or partner?  What are the library’s core services that must continue?  What new opportunities have been highlighted in our community’s experience with this emergency?

Third Step:

The third meeting is to draft a high-level plan based on all of your scenarios and form a writing team.  Have the writing team prepare a draft plan by a specific date and have the whole team review the plan (Google Docs?) and assemble once again to review as a group.  When it’s ready, seek Board endorsement of the high-level direction, foci, decisions, tactics and policy needs.

What are the potential scenarios?

I have taught scenario planning at the Masters-level for library, museum, IT, and archives professionals at the iSchool at the University of Toronto.  We are clearly entering unknown territory and planning in a slight vacuum.  That doesn’t mean we’re unequipped to imagine the potential scenarios for our library and think through potential responses.  I am available to chat with CEOs and Board Chairs or I can be engaged to facilitate your team meeting process.

Right now, all Ontario public libraries are under physical lock down – although our digital services are generally thriving, some employees are working from home or in-branch, and nearly everyone has expanded and experienced strong growth in their digital programming and communications.

There are several scenarios that form the core of what might happen next for public libraries in Ontario.  It’s important to remember that we’re in this boat with a host of others – social institutions, schools, governments, businesses and so many more.

Here are four:

Scenario 1: Waves of Disruption: Stay Closed for A Longer Term (January 2021?)

Some predictions assert that this crisis could last 18 to 24 months.  It may come in waves. Scientists are unsure if those people who have had the virus gain immunity and how long that would last. Scientists also say we don’t know if the summer warmth will result in a decline of the threat.  All told, only a minority of Ontarians would be immune before a cure, treatment, or vaccine is available.

Based on that, this scenario imagines much longer school and higher ed closures and more distance learning.  We also may see new and revised categories of essential services or new rules for other services around the extent of openness they are allowed to achieve.  These could include mandatory masks for public service, limits on building occupancy or visitors, or limits on the core social services that support our most challenged populations. All of this is relevant to public library operations.  It may involve choices of open hours, temporary branch closures, or branch rotating openings – depending on your local system and community situations.

In nearly every scenario we must strengthen digital services, resources, and programs and the attendant budget adjustments.

Scenario 2: Open then Close then Open Again

In this scenario, we imagine opening again, possibly with explicit/implicit rules for interaction and use of the library, and then being closed again by mandatory emergency declaration during an echo wave of the COVID-19 virus.

Again, it would contain elements of the above scenario, but may be more limited in impact on our operations.  It clearly has elements of staff recalls and service portfolio choices.  It would also require strong policies and procedures for the safety of staff and public.

Scenario 3: Open – Monitor – Evolving Return of All Services

This is probably a best-case scenario.  It can allow for library management and Boards to phase in operations and reintroduce services in phases.  For example, book returns, ILL, and circulation could start with precautions while in-person programs may be limited to smaller attendance or eliminated in the short term. The movement to digital services will likely continue to increase due to the adoption and awareness created during the crisis.  Again, cleanliness protocols will need to be science data-driven, visible and enforced.  Many people (maybe a majority) have suffered some severe financial impact and the FREE public library is there for them.  We can expect certain program and training portfolios to increase in demand – job finding and training, homeschooling, e-resources for reading and entertainment, etc.

Scenario 4: Tax Base Damage or Collapse

We hope that this is the most fearsome scenario.  At this point we are assured that the provincial PLOG grants are not affected but these represent an aggregate of less than 4% of public library funding in Ontario. With retail, tourism, and restaurants mostly closed HST collection is severely impacted.  Income taxes will be impacted by historically high unemployment that will only return gradually.  Municipal revenues on property taxes, business taxes, building permits, licenses, hall rentals, etc. are way down.  [While these revenue may be partially recovered through programs from the provincial and federal governments, there are serious timing and cash-flow issues and it can be predicted that some will never be fully recovered.] Also, social service spending (EI, welfare, etc.) is an increasing drain on the budgets of all levels of government.  This can be easily predicted to have an impact on our largely municipally-funded finances (and we are already seeing the planning and effects of this on short-term furloughs and layoffs).

In this scenario we may need to get very real about fundraising, charitable status foundations, sponsorships, and promoting the role of the public library to reduce major cuts.  Now is the time for Boards and Management to increase their relationships with their business community, partners, locals, and government.  Also, try to ensure that the library has representation in community/municipality planning – many are on the EOT Emergency Operations Team.  The library has lots to offer and share in the broader community – and there’s probably lots a library could learn as well.

Plan, target and communicate.

Here are two public post links that explore the questions we need to ask . . .

Questions to Consider

What is a library? In a post-COVID world, how will they change?

What is a library? In a post-COVID world, how will they change?

“The question is: How will libraries change?

  • How will libraries define themselves?
  • Without reliance on physical space, how will staff answer the question, ‘What is a library?’
  • Will libraries continue to use online spaces for live interactions with community members, in addition to in-person activities?
  • Will more libraries go fine-free for good?
  • Will libraries focus more on access to materials outside of the library building (digital access)?
  • Will continued concerns about germs, infections, viruses, etc. limit the size of in-person group meetings and activities?
  • Will social distancing permanently change how library spaces are laid out?
  • How will staff be deployed differently, based on changes in services and changes in funding?
  • Where will staff work? Will more staff work remotely on a regular basis?
  • Will funding streams change and what will that mean for library services?
  • What will friends groups do?  Will they still do book sales, author talks, and fundraisers?  How will these need to change?
  • How will library strategic plans, long-range plans, or five-year plans change in the wake of this?
  • If there is a shift in library staffing, what will this mean for a library’s hiring needs? (And what will that mean for thousands of people who want to go to work in a library?)
  • How will contingency and disaster plans change, due to what we’ve learned during the pandemic?
  • How will libraries demonstrate their worth in the months and years ahead?

Yes, so many questions and right now we have the time to think about them.  Depending on a library’s fiscal year, union status, and funding cycles, it may need to answer some of those questions soon.”

Now and Next: What a Post-COVID World May Bring for Libraries 

“The post has ten questions which you (and your library) may want to ponder:

  1. Restrictions on movement have dramatically changed our lives – will we get back to normal?
  2. Many of our libraries have ‘pivoted’ to online – will they stay there?
  3. Governments are investing billions into economies – how will they take it back?
  4. Education has been disrupted and delayed – can we limit the scarring effects?
  5. Testing, tracking and emergency powers are helping to fight the pandemic – but will governments be able to let go?
  6. It has become clear that laws and practices were not ready – will we learn the lessons?
  7. Weaknesses and incompleteness in our digital infrastructure have become clear – will we fix them?
  8. The need for global information sharing is obvious – will we make it permanent?
  9. Pollution is down and air quality up – will we learn to live greener lives?
  10. The value of culture in well-being is clear – will we continue to invest in making it a reality?

Government Options to Re-open the Economy, Employment, Education, and the Province

  1. Restart gradually — most important services first
  2. Experiment in select cities
  3. Open for business ASAP, but mask up
  4. Not a return to “business as usual”

American Libraries magazine:

Reopening: Not “When?” But “How?”: Libraries consider the realities of a post-pandemic world

Reopening: Not “When?” But “How?”

So, back to Steve Kraus’ implied question:

What is the new normal?

Let me be clear about my views on normal.  It doesn’t mean average – public libraries never strive for just average.  I’ve worked on and facilitated enough strategic planning exercises to know that our CEOs, Boards and staff NEVER want to strive be average.  Ontario’s Public Libraries are already AWESOME and punch way above their weight class in their communities.  Past ‘normals’ will not return nor will they predict the future.  Future planning cannot be nostalgic.’

We need to internalize the viewpoint and belief that normal isn’t something that happens to us and our organizations.  Normal is a social construct and we are major social institutions.  The NEW NORMAL can be influenced and created by us.  Now is the time for great vision, and based on our great values, to achieve our mission of improving the lives of our community’s residents!   

Here’s a key question.

“What can we do to solve some long-standing problems we’ve taken too lightly in the past?”

“What can we not do today, that if we could, would fundamentally improve the lives of our residents and the quality of life in our communities?”

“I think this could be the occasion for a bit of a reset. Out of this tragedy may come some long-term good.”

Consider in your post-COVID-19 plans.  Here are a few conversation starters . . .:

  • End fines.

We know that fines strongly damage public libraries’ reputation and value. Also, studies show they just don’t work at getting the items back on time! Let’s use this opportunity to stop. It can cost us more to collect than it gains and some libraries don’t get to keep it.   Fine forgiveness can be introduced as a reward and/or thank you to your community when you re-open.  At a minimum, forgive all fines and/or limit fines to adults 19-64 (knowing that it won’t work as well).  In my opinion, kids and teens should never pay fines.

  • Increase virtual programming & collections

Creating the new normal is a strong digital opportunity.  Of course, make sure your basics are right-sized based on your shut-down such as e-books in particular.  Ensure that your e-magazines, e-audio-books, and the like are increased and promoted. We know these usage categories grew apace throughout the closure.

Let’s face it – our DVD collections were entombed during the closure along with our print resources.  It’s a dying format and we need to plan for the future.  Under most scenarios we can expect in-person gate-counts to decline and digital to increase – regular collection balance reviews over the coming years are essential.  We also expect governments at all levels to more fully realize the need for better broadband – quickly.  Now is the time to invest in audio, podcast, music and streaming media and digital film collections.  Start by piloting what you can afford and monitor, learn, and build.

e-Learning is the new normal and major on-trend highlighted throughout the provinces education strategies at all levels and patron adoption.  Public Libraries who subscribed and promoted free online learning resources gained the rewards.  There are many free resources that your library can curate.  You can also reach critical mass more quickly by subscribing to major e-learning collection aligned with your community’s needs for personal development, learning and employment.  Examples include Lynda.com (LinkedIn Learning), and Gale Courses.

Research articles and Homework Helper are usually core services.  Print magazine collections have been supplanted many years ago.  Most libraries have millions of articles available in databases to promote to local schools, colleges, adult learners, and students.  Consider partnering with local school boards to cross promote databases and public library cards – especially as distance education and e-learning evolve.

  • Beef up your staffing model to include more digital roles

In many scenarios we would expect lower traffic to our physical branches in the medium term as we recover.  As opportunities present themselves clearly chose to create new or expanded roles/teams for:

    • Website development (ensuring mobile-first and device agnostic strategies).
    • Social networking support for staff (Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, et al).
    • Add social tools to your website for community recommendations and more. (LibraryThing, Bibliocommons, Goodreads, etc.)
    • Add conference, video-call, and virtual programming software to your staff toolkit. (WebEx, Adobe, Google Hangouts, etc.)
    • Encourage the development of virtual reference services (Skype, Zoom, etc.)
    • Add online calendars integrated with online registration and communication tools. (Eventbrite, etc.)
    • Ensure that your ability to generate virtual library cards online and using mobile devices to issue cards is implemented well.
    • What do partnerships, outreach and liaison look like a a post-COVID-19, digital-first world?

While we may hope and pray that this emergency is a once in a century event, it would be unwise to plan on hope alone.  Your library system will be much better prepared for future pandemics should they echo or occur more often in the coming years.  That said, you’ll also be better prepared for any other local disaster – flood, tornado, blackout, ice storm, earthquake, fire, etc. However, most of these digital and other initiatives are just building on public library best practices and known long-term trends.

  • Celebrate . . . A lot

For Staff: Your staff have been isolated for a long time.  Our profession attracts social beings and they’ve potentially been lonely, worried, scared, on furlough and/or dealing with home issues more than usual.  Consider a celebration of thanks for their work-from-home challenges, work, ideas, and accomplishments.  Awards, rewards, and thanks are in order.  If possible this can math the celebration culture of your library but consider a BBQ, pizza party, potluck, champagne, location, and decor.  Short greetings, recognitions, and thank you’s could include all Board members, the CEO and management eam, the Mayor and Council, Friends and others.  Your staff (and you) need to reconnect in person and remind themselves of their awesome roles in the community.  This is actually like a re-launch of your team.

For your community: I’m not going to say that they need reminding about the local library – they’ve already been made aware by your teams about your digital presence.  That said, you’ll need to craft your opening day carefully and frame for them that you’ve created a safe space, build on the community trust you enjoy, and communicate any new rules.  Physical distancing and masks – if they’re plain, draw a smile on them!- will likely continue and the inside of the library may look a little different because of that.

Consider what events can be appropriate to reconnect the library and your neighbours, residents, and town.  Consider strawberry socials, small tea parties, outdoor story times, Barbeques, Hot Dog / Corn cob roasts, farmers’ market, Fairs (job fairs, community group fairs, antiques, arts, & crafts fairs) etc.).  Build on your partnerships.  Outdoors in your adjacent park or parking lot.  These are great opportunities to re-build your community’s connections when it is declared safe – they’re hungry for it.  Make sure to post a ton of happy pictures to your blog, websites, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.  Videos too!

For Yourself: Practice good self-care.  Pace yourself.  Reward yourself with down-time and be safe too.  Stay balanced.  For Board chairs and members, recognize the enormous stress both you and especially your CEO are under.  Take care and be supportive.

Staff and Facility Development

  1. You can’t open until you’re fully ready and staff are trained and oriented to all new policies, directives and procedures.  That’s a big responsibility to keep staff and users safe and confident.
  2. Identify COVID-19 cleaning protocols videos and webinars and sharing them with staff prior to opening and even now.
  3. Continue to encourage any professional development during the closure period with all staff.  They can return better than they left with new skills and confidence!
  4. You will want to investigate kits for the library – thermometers, masks, cleaning supplies, etc.
  5. Purchase plexi-shields for circ/info desks early before they run out.  If the weather is nice, prop doors open at your entrance and throughout your library (but clean the door grabs regularly anyway!).
  6. Start thinking of how you would redesign public spaces.  How would you rearrange tables & chairs (4 chairs per table won’t likely meet physical distancing rules or patron expectations)?  Your social seating / community living room spaces may need separation.  You might even choose to not allow seating at first until you’ve  learned from the behaviours you observe and burned in new – hopefully temporary – models.
  7. Review your staff work spaces.  Are they ready for physical distancing?  Are they ready for a deluge of returned books?
  8. Really review how your public PCs are set up.  Patrons won’t feel comfortable using them at first until they’re 2 metres apart and spread out.  Your cleaning protocols will need high visibility and signage.
  9. Your WiFi will be on for BYOD.  That said, how does your floor layout encourage physical distancing?
  10. Your books are COVID-19 free if they’ve been locked in the library for over a week.  That’s the good news.  For staff safety, you’ll need to implement protocols for returned books and reshelving.  (IMLS, CDC Offer Guidance for Disinfecting Returned Library Books https://fopl.ca/news/imls-cdc-offer-guidance-for-disinfecting-returned-library-books/  In short, your library may need to quarantine returned books for 48 hours before processing them back in and order staff to take appropriate precautions with them.)
  11. Now is a great time to implement hands-free holds and customer pick-up.  You may need a little branch reconfiguration before re-opening but, i the long run, it will minimize physical contact with staff and users.  Many libraries have done this for many years and cardholders seem to appreciate not having to line-up or wait.
  12. Consider your self-check machines, if you have them.  Are they 2 metres apart?  Can they be re-positioned?
  13. Set up Instagram spots in your library (outside too).  Your community’s networked Instagram feeds will promote the library as place!  Photos also work very well on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

You have staff and library teams that can research and investigate now.  They have great skills and know your community.  Spread the work (from home!) not the virus.

Sample return to Work Plan: Public Services [New Mexico State Library (NMSL) in Santa Fe]

FOPL Members: Re-open with Flair
A Roadmap Imagined: Scenario Planning for Post-COVID-19 Ontario Public Libraries
Webliography: Plans for Re-Opening the Library
There’s lots more stuff on FOPL.ca including plans from other sectors.

If you need to bounce ideas or connect, you can contact me on my cel (416-669-4855) or e-mail (sabram@fopl.ca)

Stephen Abram, MLS

Executive Director