Navigating The Next Phase of COVID-19 Library Service

It’s now officially summer, and we’re approaching nearly three months since statewide shutdowns were in place. The impact on daily life certainly has been jarring. For many families and individuals, the public library is a mainstay in our lives. Visiting our local library was part of a regular routine. While nothing can replace the real-world library experience, libraries have done an excellent job adapting to continue to serve communities. Creative ideas keep communities connected–like offering “drive-in WiFi”, expanding digital access, moving adult and children’s programming to an online format, and offering all kinds of digital resources. Now, libraries begin to navigate into the next phase of COVID-19 library services. 

As some states ease the shelter-in-place restrictions and businesses re-open (with social distancing guidelines in place) what does this mean for libraries and the communities they serve?  

The library is a summertime staple for many families who come for the children’s programming, storytime, kid’s events, or just a safe place to play on a hot day. And, public libraries are an important support system for individuals experiencing unemployment or homelessness, which has skyrocketed since the COVID-19 outbreak. Free WiFi and access to computers and other services help patrons apply for benefits and seek employment. 

There are certainly many things for libraries to consider when re-opening and navigate the next phase of COVID-19 library services. This will look different for every library depending on the severity of the virus’s local impact on that location and specifics about each library and community. The library’s role in the community is just as important, arguably more, as it was pre-pandemic. But the way in which it functions within this new environment will change. We hope that insight gained from WiFi analytics can guide the direction.

The Effects of COVID-19 on Public Library WiFi 

The WhoFi team released a series of blogs outlining the effects of COVID-19 on public library WiFi use. We analyzed data from our library partners to understand the effects and to determine how, or if, the spread of COVID-19 affected public library WiFi usage and patron behavior. We found that patron use of library WiFi did decline, but this is expected when a building closes. The interesting thing is that WiFi analytics is showing the continued use of library public WiFi despite the closure. This is in part due to the library’s efforts to continue and expand services. It also highlights the library’s essential role within the community and the value of extended COVID-19 library services. Libraries can use data to assess patron behavior amid COVID-19 and determine how to best help them and advocate for themselves.

Here are the highlights of what we learned: 

  • There was a correlation between key events related to COVID-19 and decreased WiFi use which provides an interesting insight into patrons’ behavior. 
  • Patron WiFi use did decrease, but only by 67% at the end of March.
  • Even after the ALA officially recommended closing libraries to the public, patrons were accessing the WiFi which both illustrates the value of this service and the community need.
  • Our data shows that library WiFi use in both urban and rural populations showed a decrease, but urban areas had a much greater drop, perhaps reinforcing the reality of the digital divide. 
  • The data shows continued use of the library WiFi which validates the importance of this service.

Libraries can use WiFi insights to learn how patrons are feeling as we move into the next phase of COVID-19 library services.

These insights can provide answers to questions like: Are patrons continuing to use drive-in WiFi and at what rates? How does patron visit time compare to pre-pandemic visit times? Are there new users and how many? Are returning visitors coming back at the same rate as before?  Are we continuing to meet the WiFi needs of our community? After a few months of insight gathering, what is our new normal benchmark? These are just some of the questions that can be answered by using WiFi insights. 

One thing remains true, the community needs its library, and the library needs its community. 

Libraries can use WiFi insights to make data-influenced decisions. They can guide protocol on how to best serve the community as we enter into summer and whatever lies ahead. We don’t know when things will be back to pre-COVID life. But one thing is for sure, our libraries will continue to adapt to the ever-changing reality and provide a sense of certainty and security in an uncertain world.