Leominster Public Library (Photo courtesy Library Land Project)

Each spring, hundreds of Massachusetts library workers and supporters gather at the State House to urge legislators to support funding for the Commonwealth’s libraries.

This year, Library Legislative Day was different, with library advocates joining forces online. The message was different as well, with a greater sense of urgency.

The 369 public libraries in Massachusetts – located in virtually every city and town – offer valuable resources and level the playing field for access to information, resources and services, advocates point out. Libraries support education, employment, enrichment, literacy and much more. They also provide space for communities to come together and learn together.

The following are some examples of how libraries and library organizations responded during the COVID-19 emergency:

• Since suspending in-person service, the Boston Public Library has seen more than 31,000 new online library cardholders and loaned more than 1.4 million online items. Its Books for Boston program put more than 11,000 new physical books in the hands of readers with the help of 22 partner organizations, all bought from local bookstores.

• In Framingham, library staff reach out to seniors to ensure they have the information they need on COVID-19, and to provide a connection for people in isolation.

• The Leominster Public Library started a Pen Pal program, where patrons and library workers are corresponding. Care packages (books and activities) are being distributed through school free-meal distribution sites.

• The Storrs Library in Longmeadow has virtual Lego challenges, storytimes with staff members reading to their pets, virtual book groups, and craft programs. They are also planning an online summer reading program and are partnering with community organizations to prepare a townwide “Virtual Read.”

• The Tewksbury Public Library hosts several virtual networking/educational events for job seekers each month to support workforce development during troubled economic times.

• The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners launched a centralized Online Library Events Calendar of virtual library programming around the state.

• The Massachusetts School Library Association introduced the Virtual School Librarian to connect school librarians and students, providing them access to vetted online resources, and the opportunity to pose questions to licensed school library teachers, who are qualified to assist in intelligently sorting through masses of data. School library teachers have been working with faculty to develop and support remote teaching with tools to instruct students in the use of essential online resources, many of which are MBLC-funded.

• The Massachusetts Library System website has been updated with tools and best practices for public library operations during the pandemic.

Many libraries are struggling in the face of the twin challenges of the pandemic and fiscal uncertainty, a situation that’s expected to get worse before it gets better. Following two recessions, it was only in 2019 that state library funding returned to its 2002 levels, yet library visits and utilization continued to accelerate, according to the Massachusetts Library Association. Demand for these free library services is expected to continue growing in the wake of the current crisis.

When library advocates gathered for the virtual Library Legislative Day, their funding priority was “State Aid to Public Libraries” – and giving the most flexibility to local libraries to decide where the need is greatest. While advocates recognize the unprecedented nature of the looming fiscal pressures, they are asking that all of the state library line items funded through the MBLC be supported.

Written by Jennifer Harris, chair of the Massachusetts Library Association’s Legislative Committee and library director at the Plymouth Public Library, and Laura Luker, president of the Massachusetts School Library Association and a library teacher at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School in Hadley