Workforce Responders: The Role of Libraries During and After COVID-19

April 23, 2020

Discusses the nation's libraries in their role serving unemployed workers during the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery.

by Stephanie Holcomb

In recognition of National Library Week, the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development is thinking about the important role of libraries both in our workforce development system, and in their response to the COVID-19 crisis. For job seekers and the workforce system, libraries have historically offered a hub of career services and technological resources to support job search, small business development, and education and training. In their response to COVID-19, libraries have built on their foundation of community service to fill the gaps in public response. As one review of their response noted, libraries have opened their digital resources, are helping to feed the hungry, are using makerspaces to 3D print personal protective equipment, are providing hotspots to those without digital access, and as always, are serving as a provider of information about community resources. Indeed, libraries have not skipped a beat. According to a recent Public Libraries Association survey with 2,500 responses, most libraries (98%) reported continuing or expanding services, adding services such as online renewal policies, online services for e-books and media, and virtual programming.

Given their strengths, libraries are well poised to serve as arbiters of information for the community, using their research expertise and familiarity with their communities to gather and disseminate resources. The Public Libraries Association found that 17% of respondents were providing resources related to COVID-19. In New Jersey, the Princeton Public Library and the New Jersey Library Association have developed websites pointing visitors to local COVID-19 resources. Many other libraries have developed similar websites, providing guides to apply for unemployment insurance and compiling “links you can trust” for relevant resources. 

Whatever this recovery looks like, and as long as it may last, libraries are prepared to respond to the immediate needs and stand ready for the long-term needs. Thinking of how they can stand more firmly once that long-term recovery begins, libraries are circulating “staged reopening” plans and preparing webinars and trainings to determine when and how they will carefully transition back to standard operation, and how they will continue to meet community needs in the meantime. 

It is likely we will enter a period of high demand for workforce services following the ongoing public health crisis. If this is the case, the current place-based public workforce system will be overwhelmed with a huge demand for services across the nation in volumes never seen before. Fortunately, through established partnerships and existing knowledge and resources, libraries will continue to be an important actor and partner as we assess and begin to address the damage COVID-19 has caused our labor market.