A public space trying to serve the public during COVID-19

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s book Palaces for the People features public libraries as important public spaces. But, during COVID-19 libraries cannot be these spaces in the same way:

Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago – Google Street View

Libraries, especially during times of crisis, have long been far more than just places where people can check out books and DVDs. With their high-speed internet connections, meeting rooms and massive depositories of information, print and otherwise, they are a beacon to those needing assistance or companionship.

That has changed during the pandemic. Libraries across the state closed for months after Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued his stay-at-home order in March, and though many reopened during the summer, some services remain diminished or unavailable for fear of transmitting the virus.

But libraries have made creative adjustments in these strange times, boosting their Wi-Fi signals so patrons can use the internet in their cars, expanding their curbside pickup services and offering all manner of virtual programming…

The libraries that are staying open typically have large buildings and relatively few patrons coming inside, leaving plenty of social distance. But as winter approaches, they must decide whether they can accommodate those who depend on the buildings as warming centers.

During COVID-19, spaces cannot accommodate the same amount of people or any people at all. They cannot be public spaces in the typical sense of the phrase: the public cannot congregate there.

Before this, public space was often at a premium for a number of reasons: preferences for private homes, limited funds for public spaces, declining trust in institutions. The number of spaces, public or private, that do regularly have a mix of people is limited.

As Klinenberg notes, online community cannot match community developed in spaces and proximity. In this moment, it is as not as if those who used to go to the library can easily find other public spaces. Where is there physical space to be had? What are people doing for alternatives?

And after COVID-19, will libraries and other public spaces be the same? Will they garner more public support or less? Even as some will want just to return to a typical library trip, the public library present in many communities and neighborhoods can continue to provide for the good of many people.

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