This webinar was moderated by Davis Erin Anderson, the Assistant Director for Programs and Partnerships at METRO Library Council. The panelists include Leanne Ellis, New York City’s Department of Education- Office of Library Services , Kate Adler, Director of Library Services at the Metropolitan College of New York, Rhonda Evans, Assistant Chief Librarian at Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and Sharell Walker, Student Outreach, Reference and Instruction Librarian at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. 

New York City has become one of the epicenters of the Covid-19 pandemic. As of this webinar, more than 180,000 cases have been confirmed. We’ve suffered more than 12,000 losses, with most cases coming from lower income communities in the Bronx and Queens. Preliminary data reveals racial disparity; death rates in Black communities are more than double the rates in predominantly white communities. Similar disparities emerge regarding essential workers: Black, Asian, and Hispanic people make up more than 70% of the city’s essential workers. 

These statistics are a stark realization of who’s being hit the hardest during this pandemic. And, sadly, inequality on this level is already in place across the city. These issues come to bear in our library systems.  

One of Leanne Ellis’ tasks in her role at NYC’s Department of Education Office of Library Services is to provide support to librarians in all NYC schools. Eighteen hundred schools serve 1.1 million students, yet fewer than half have a school librarian or teacher assigned to library duties for students younger than grade seven. Many students lack a connection to the library, access to books, informational instruction, digital resources, and research skills. The DOE Office of Library Services trains teachers to provide library services for the schools. The inequities reach beyond the student body and affect access to library spaces, instruction, staffing, and professional development for both teachers and librarians.

“In the Borough of Manhattan Community College, inequity has always been one of the issues that have been faced,” Sherrell Walker says. In a population of roughly 26,000 students,  over half of the student body have reported food insecurity. Over 70% of students come from families that are making either less than $30,000 or living below the poverty line. “There’s always been an issue of making sure our students get the best quality of schools and life as they possibly can” Walker says. 

The Metropolitan College of New York faces a similar situation to BMCC, Kate Adler shared,  many students are home and food insecure. Social programs that help with food, financial assistance, and emergency funds are meant to offset this. 

In Rhonda Evans’ experience, patrons working at the Schomburg may need access to the Internet, computers, free courses and different services. Schomburg’s librarians and the Corrections Services Team also provide reference services to incarcerated people in New York City. In-person services have stopped since the pandemic. Each panelist has experienced the way in which the effects of Covid-19 have revealed the large gap within the level of access to information available to New York City’s communities.

Libraries as a community space has been an important topic that has been highlighted during these times. The library is the only peaceful or stable place available to some. Students’ home lives are not always easy. Walker emphasizes that it’s important to have grace, compassion, and patience during this time. Access to technology is closely intertwined with this issue. In-person instruction erases the divide between those who can afford their own devices and internet connection and those who cannot. In addition, library staff has traditionally provided direct assistance to those who need it. Moving library services online eliminates these supports and requires a baseline technical skill set that patrons and students may not have.

Information inequity extends from the online environment into the physical. Textbooks are expensive; students may not be able to afford them. Pre Covid, students often photocopied what they needed from a textbook in the library for free. Without access to physical resources, many students are facing challenges with meeting course requirements. To add to this, many textbooks that are required for classes are not accessible online or come with copyright  restrictions. 

If Covid-19 has taught us anything,  it’s the need for institutions to develop contingency plans in case of long-term closure. This unprecedented time offers us an opportunity to face these issues head on. We have an opportunity to be mindful of our practices in the future and envision how we improve the systems at play, for all of our students and patrons.

Many thanks to our presenters for sharing their work with us. Please join us at one of our future events; a full listing can be found at metro.org/events.