Responses of Libraries to the COVID-19 Pandemic and Implications for Research

This article was originally published in the August 2020 Newsnet. To view the citations, please find the August 2020 NewsNet here.

The COVID pandemic has placed unprecedented challenges on libraries and archives to keep vital sources of information, educational resources, and research and archival material available to their users and the global public. This article focuses on efforts of libraries and archives in Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia to maintain access to resources during the crisis and offers a general look at the pandemic’s effect on access to research material, based on available information.

Libraries across the region have managed closures and restrictions differently based on national and regional orders and institutional guidelines. Governments have taken varied approaches, in some cases mandating the closure of all institutions, in others attempting to keep library activity as close to normal as possible, and in still others delegating decisions to local authorities and individual library directors.

Closures and reopenings

When the COVID-19 virus emerged as a worldwide pandemic, libraries were forced to make immediate decisions. By mid-March, libraries in the region had started to close. For example, public library buildings started closing in Poland from March 9-10, in the Czech Republic from March 11, in Estonia when a state of emergency was declared on March 12, in Slovenia from March 13, in Serbia when a state of emergency was declared on March 15, and in Lithuania from March 16-30.

National libraries are reported to have closed to the public in nearly all countries of the region. Reopenings began in April and May, most commonly as a phased process subject to change. As of July 24, the following conditions were reported to be in effect for this sample of national libraries:

  • The National Library of Armenia closed on March 16. Reopening details were not clear.

  • The National Library of Azerbaijan closed on March 11. Reopening details were not clear.

  • Although a quarantine was not mandated in Belarus, the National Library of Belarus closed as a precautionary measure from April 7-June 15.

  • The National and University Library in Zagreb, Croatia, entered its first phase of reopening on April 27 and from May 25 was operating with fewer restrictions.

  • The National Library of the Czech Republic, closed on March 11,2 partially reopened from May 4-11, offering limited services.

  • The National Library of Estonia, the University of Tartu Library, and Tallinn University Library all closed on March 13 in response to the state of emergency declared on March 12. The National Library of Estonia reopened on May 19.

  • The National Széchényi Library of Hungary reopened services gradually from June 8-16.

  • The National Library of the Republic of Kazakhstan in Almaty closed on March 16 and reopened on June 14.

  • The National Academic Library of the Republic of Kazakhstan in Astana closed on March 16. Reopening details were not clear.

  • The National Library of the Kyrgyz Republic closed on March 17 and reopened for a short period from May 26-June 5 with restrictions, but under a mandate from the Ministry of Culture, Information and Tourism it closed again on June 5.

  • The National Library of Latvia closed on March 13 and reopened on May 25.

  • The National Library of Lithuania reopened under restrictions on April 27.

  • The National Library of the Republic of Moldova closed on March 16 and reopened on May 18 on a restricted basis, fully reopening to the public on June 1.

  • In Poland, a reopening date of May 4 was announced subject to decisions of local authorities but reconsidered on May 5 and closings were extended; the National Library of Poland reopened on June 8.

  • The Russian State Library in Moscow closed in response to the self-isolation order announced by the mayor of Moscow on March 29 and reinforced by President Putin’s March 25 announcement of a “nonworking week” to take effect from March 28-April 5. Similar strict measures were quickly adopted in other regions of Russia. The library reopened on June 16.

  • The National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg announced on June 20 that it had reopened, with limited access by appointment.

  • The National Library of Serbia closed when the state of emergency was declared on March 15. Reading rooms were partially reopened for users on April 21. The emergency was lifted on May 6 and the library fully reopened on May 25 with restrictions.

  • The National and University Library of Slovenia reopened on April 30.

  • The National Library of Tajikistan never closed for quarantine and continued to operate under safety restrictions and requirements.

  • The Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine closed on March 17. Reopening details were not clear.

  • The Yaroslav Mudryi National Library of Ukraine in Kiev closed on March 17 and reopened on July 1 with restrictions for staff and visitors.

  • The Alisher Navoi National Library of Uzbekistan closed on March 20. Reopening details were not clear. 

Managing with onsite restrictions in place

While operating under restrictions and in preparation for reopening, libraries and archives have adopted a wide range of measures related to onsite services and use of physical material, including risk assessments, limits on onsite users, and mechanisms for counting users such as advance reservations and appointments, ticketing, and counters. They have implemented means to minimize contact and maintain social distancing, such as traffic control and one-way lanes, separation and removal of furniture, and by closing reading rooms and rest rooms and postponing events. They have enhanced cleaning procedures and distributed hand sanitizer; instituted procedures for quarantine of materials after use; implemented contact-less services for safe distribution of library material, such as curbside, drive-through, “click and collect” services, “take away” service, “book bags,” remote lockers, home delivery, and postal delivery. They have developed protocols for handling people exhibiting symptoms; distributed protective equipment such as screens, face shields, masks, and gloves; conducted safety training; taken measures to restrict contact among staff; and allowed staff to work remotely. In addition, policies require regular updates and plans for lockdown in the event of an increase in infection rates. 

Enhancement and promotion of online access to digital library and archival material 

Efforts to maintain access to and availability of resources entail promoting awareness of subscription-based collections and digitized freely available collections, acquiring new e-resources, making use of temporary free access to e-content offered by publishers, and compiling information about open access internet resources.

Many libraries have sought ways to provide broader access to their copyrighted digital collections. For example, the National Library of the Czech Republic, along with public university libraries, negotiated a national agreement with DILIA, the Theatre, Literary, Audiovisual Agency, a collective copyright management agency, to make their digitized collections available remotely. The agreement, dated March 16, 2020, opened over 206,000 monograph and serial titles, including copyrighted works, to students and faculty at public and private universities, to read, although not to download or print.

A more typical approach was to aggregate materials through portals that provided access to a wide range of digital reading and educational material through a single site, such as the site created by the Moravian Regional Library which until May 17, 2020 also had access to the national digital library for university students offered by the National Library of the Czech Republic.4 Croatian libraries report having expanded e-lending to the entire population.

In  academic libraries, efforts to provide remote access through new types of online article request services have led to broader accessibility. For example, AGBU Papazian Library at the American University of Armenia reported setting up new ways to contact librarians remotely through an array of request forms and “Ask-A-Librarian” services.

In late April, IFLA’s Document Delivery and Resource Sharing Section launched a new service to support enhanced interlibrary cross-border document delivery with the expectation of maintaining the service through August 31, 2020. The project is run on a voluntary basis by libraries and is free of charge to borrowing libraries, although there is no clear legal mechanism under copyright law supporting the enhanced cross-border activity.

The re-prioritization of library budgets in favor of licensed digital resources has been a successfully pandemic strategy. It has also caused concerns over long-term collection building for regions in which print publications are still prevalent. Several area studies groups in the U.S. have issued statements opposing the prioritization of e-content over print collections. The ASEEES Committee on Libraries and Information Resources developed a statement urging continued collection development in all formats.

Publishers to the rescue

Perhaps most significantly, publishers across the globe generously stepped up to offer temporary free access to e-books and e-journals in a broad range of disciplines to enable continued research and education in all fields of inquiry for the duration of the pandemic. Libraries were quick to negotiate temporary access, for which end dates vary by provider, and also to enhance existing access by broadening access to the general public, providing remote access to content typically made available only onsite, lengthening log-in periods, and extending single-user access to multiple simultaneous users. 

The list of publishers and vendors who provided such enhanced access is long. They include East View Information Services, ProQuest E-book Central, Springer, DeGruyter, Sage, Elsevier ScienceDirect, Wiley, Gale, and JSTOR.

Benefits to users have been notable. The National Library of Belarus reported having free access to some 300 scholarly databases covering all fields of inquiry, including those of Elsevier, Wiley, Cambridge University Press, and Oxford University Press. The National Library of Kazakhstan reported having access from April 15 to seventeen databases provided by EBSCO to all scholarly institutions in Kazakhstan. The Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine reported gaining access to scholarly and educational resources of Oxford University Press, EBSCO, and Project MUSE.

Copyright issues

Governments have stepped up with innovative strategies for promoting lawful access to digital resources, engaging in regional, national, and international cooperation. In addition to the Czech Republic’s initiative for an agreement negotiated with its collective copyright management agency, Hungary took the unusual step of amending its copyright law on April 16, 2020, to allow for digital uses of textbooks, portions of books, and newspaper and journal articles and other materials for educational use within secure electronic networks of educational institutions.

In some cases, individual libraries made decisions less officially. A survey conducted by the Russian State Library reports that during the pandemic some libraries, without special agreements, provided registered users with remote access to all of their electronic documents, many of which are normally accessible only onsite due to copyright restrictions, while others complied strictly with copyright law.

A controversial effort is that of the Internet Archive, a private digital platform based in San Francisco that extended access to approximately 1.4 million copyrighted books to the global public without licenses or permissions through its National Emergency Library (NEL), launched on March 24. After the Internet Archive refused to comply with author and publisher requests to close the site, four publishers filed suit on June 1, charging the Internet Archive with copyright infringement on a massive scale.  Publishers maintain that the NEL is an expansion of the Internet Archives’ already illegal activity involving “controlled digital lending.” The Internet Archive claims that its providing fulltext unlicensed global digital access to copyrighted works is a “fair use.” The NEL closed on June 16.

In the U.S. on March 31, the HathiTrust digital repository announced its Emergency Temporary Access Service to allow students, faculty, and staff from eligible member libraries online reading access to materials unavailable to them in their print library collections due to closures. The HathiTrust is not planning indefinite access to this service, which is more carefully calibrated to comply with law, but it did not establish a cutoff date.

Finally, international library advocacy groups have addressed copyright and other intellectual property issues raised by the pandemic. For example, an open letter to the Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization, dated April 3, requested action to guide member states on implementation of flexibilities to support remote education, research, and access to culture.

Looking to the future

There is no question that libraries and archives across the globe have done everything they could, sometimes exceeding legal restrictions, to mitigate the disruption caused by COVID-19 pandemic. There also little doubt that the focus on online services and digital content during the health crisis has brought to the surface challenges that they will continue to address. The massive increase in use of online library services and the surge in online content will likely have an ongoing impact into the future, long after the pandemic eases and physical library and archive buildings have reopened their doors.

Janice T. Pilch is a Member of the Library Faculty and Copyright Education Librarian at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and chairs the ASEEES Committee on Libraries and Information Resources Subcommittee on Copyright Issues.