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What are college and university libraries for?

If you ask most students, faculty and administrators, you’ll hear a common refrain: lending people books. It’s a logical conclusion, and it’s not factually wrong. But it’s woefully incomplete. As it turns out, libraries have been many students’ most important lifeline during the turmoil of the COVID-19 crisis.

When the pandemic forced higher education institutions online last spring, it also revealed the stark gaps in access facing many students, especially at community colleges. Many students at our two institutions -- both community colleges in the southwestern United States -- don’t have access to reliable internet. Many don’t have laptops or devices other than their smartphones. These aren’t new challenges; in fact, libraries have known about such things for years and have been vocal about them. Now, the pandemic has thrown them into harsh relief.

But in a time of crisis, our libraries have also been an engine of opportunity -- and in ways that defy the traditional characterization of the library as a place that only lends books and reads stories to children. In partnership with our IT departments, we’ve purchased hundreds of laptops and dozens of portable Wi-Fi hotspots to ensure that more students can access the internet at home. Students can now check out devices the same way they can check out books.

We’re also expanding Wi-Fi access, even to places as nearby as the parking lot, so students can safely access the internet even when the pandemic forces physical buildings to close. We’re offering digital resources through new partnerships, like Santa Fe Community College’s initiative with BibliU, which are designed to help students access course materials in ways that are user-friendly and low-cost or even free.

In many cases, issues of access and connectivity are challenges that librarians have recognized for a long time. And they’re also challenges that we are distinctly suited to address. An IT department may have the ability and knowledge to make the tech purchases, but libraries have managed the circulation of material for hundreds of years. We already know how to check out material, send reminders about items due, bill students for unreturned items and work with students to get items returned. This isn't something that most IT departments have expertise in, but it is something libraries do every day -- and it’s been invaluable as we become technology lenders during the pandemic.

It’s troubling, if not necessarily surprising, that it took a global pandemic to bring these access issues to the forefront of the conversation. And while our efforts over the past few months may paint a rosy picture of the role of libraries, the truth is that these challenges are not going to go away even when COVID-19 eventually subsides. We purchased those laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots, for instance, through one-time funds, thanks to the CARES Act. Come spring 2021, we may not have the resources to sustain recurring data plans for those hotspots any more. And whatever we spend on devices prevents us from investing in other initiatives to support students and expand access.

This is, to put it simply, a problem.

COVID-19 may have exacerbated the need for expanded access to academic resources, although it’s been a reality many students have faced for decades, and it won’t suddenly disappear after the pandemic. What will evaporate, however, is the funding that’s been able to support the evolution of the library. That will make it hard, if not impossible, to continue the expanded needs and services libraries have taken on and should take on well past COVID-19.

Enrollment in online learning has been steadily rising for more than a decade, and higher education pundits are already predicting that remote classes will continue after the pandemic, particularly at institutions like ours that primarily serve working adults. Students will still need easy and reliable ways to access these online classes, and the truth is that paying for a computer just to take a class is simply out of reach for many of our students.

That means the technology needs to stay accessible and current. Staff members need support. The services must be up-to-date. That all takes financial support that, paradoxically, was easy to come by in the months after the first economic stimulus. Now, the future is growing increasingly unclear, even though the need is only growing.

In the digital age, it’s easy to take modern-day utilities like internet access for granted. But the pandemic has exposed just how far we still have to go to ensure that all students can access those resources. Libraries are on the front lines of expanding such access -- and, in so doing, creating a more equitable higher education experience -- but they can’t do it without stable funding sources, whether from the government or institutions themselves, that can support existing services while also identifying new and relevant ways to meet the needs of our campus communities. Recognizing that fact, and providing support to libraries during this crisis -- and beyond -- will be vital if we hope to help all students receive the support and resources they need to succeed.

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