Rochester Library Points the Way to Online Delivery of Services Despite Coronavirus Shutdown

Prognosticators say the Coronavirus outbreak will likely transform how we work and live in lasting ways.  It’s the ultimate test of the remote workplace and digital world that allows us to work and shop safely online and tap into other services through technology, rather than in person.

The coming changes include delivery of government services with the big box public library being one of the most obvious models in need of an overhaul. In fact, the Rochester Public Library can already give us a glimpse of the digital future, due to disruptions in service that preceded the pandemic but prepared the facility to meet residents’ needs in the current closure.

Street work effectively cut off the Rochester library to residents for much of last year, followed by a disastrous water pipe break last fall. But countless numbers of residents were able to check out materials from the facility anyway, according to an editorial in the Rochester Post Bulletin.

The library closed entirely for three full days after the accident – yet for thousands of library patrons, this disaster had little to no impact on how they use the library. Those same patrons also are largely immune to the parking woes created by the city’s ongoing sewer projects.

These patrons don’t have to drive or park. They don’t have to return books and other materials that they check out. They don’t have to set foot in the library at all.

They use the library from the comforts of their own home. Or while riding a city bus. Or while relaxing at the family cabin.

Rochester’s pivot to a virtual library goes back for more than a decade, but undoubtedly accelerated with the chaos last year, positioning it well to meet demand during the COVID-19 crisis. The library’s emphasis on digital access has received national attention.

The national Public Library Association, along with digital vendor OverDrive, recently chose the Rochester Public Library to receive its Libraries Transform Award. The award recognizes RPL’s efforts to encourage patrons to embrace the use of digital materials, and compared to similar communities nationwide, Rochester has the highest number of digital checkouts.

In fact, some 6,000 new patrons sign up for the Rochester Public Library’s digital services monthly. Yet despite the community’s enthusiastic embrace of the virtual library, some local leaders want to discuss a plan to substantially expand the facility’s footprint, no doubt at a significant cost to taxpayers. Perhaps the anticipated high volume of online traffic during the library’s shutdown due to the Coronavirus will give them second thoughts about the outdated bricks and mortar model and increase the momentum to double down on digital.

Make no mistake — the future of public libraries will not be built upon stacks of dusty books. While there will always be a place for the printed word, the library of tomorrow will consist largely of data, which is less expensive to buy, store and maintain. To reach that point, the primary challenge for library systems will be getting people to try something new.

Rochester is ahead of the curve. We commend the Rochester Public Library for not only being an early adopter, but for helping its users embrace this new technology.