Creating a Physically Safer Library with the Power of Data

Written By: Guest Blogger Jenie Broyer

Among the countless changes coming to the world as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, some will concern our libraries. In Soutron Global’s blog post ‘Why Your Library Should Have a Strategic Plan,’ it was suggested that having a clear, thorough plan in place can help a library to accomplish its mission and vision even when extraordinary times arise.

The post describes how more adaptable libraries were better positioned to handle the pandemic in real-time. But it also speaks to the need for strategic plans moving forward. Now that we’ve experienced something like COVID-19, there is greater urgency to prepare for future difficulties — and, more fundamentally, to make libraries safer. And across various types of facilities — not just public libraries but corporate and academic libraries, museum record centers, and information archives — data is going to play a key role in fostering greater physical safety.

Below are a few words on how this will come to pass.



The phrase “E-everything” is something we’re borrowing from an article by the Clemson University Dean of Libraries concerning changes in light of COVID-19. This article touched on a number of important topics but focused primarily on the need for further digitization of library materials. “Over the next few years,” the Dean writes, “we will spend more time and money developing our electronic collections.”

The Dean is naturally speaking about academic libraries in particular, but he is still expressing a simple notion that will also apply to corporate libraries, archive centers, and more. Further digitization of print collections will simply lessen the need for physical contact in the first place, which serves dual purposes. First, with regard to the pandemic and any future scenarios of similar consequence, it provides people with the chance to acquire reference material without risking physical health. Second, as an added benefit, it expands libraries’ reach to make information more equitable.

As the Dean also noted, the downside is that this sort of digitization will also challenge libraries and the institutions behind them to plan financially and negotiate with publishers more effectively, because in many cases, the effort will strain budgets.


Digital Visits

Expanding on the concept of “E-everything” in our libraries, related corporations and institutions will also need to work on ways of conducting virtual visits for certain practices. As a New York Times piece on libraries’ need to change suggests, this can be looked at as a way of extending a mission beyond the walls of physical libraries. And while this is most relevant to public libraries (the NYT piece was referring to the New York Public Library), it pertains to corporate facilities, museums, and archives.

There should be digital alternatives, for instance, to physical tours of corporate library facilities for new employees. Museums and other information archives should focus on ways to conduct virtual visits with anyone from artists and clients to professionals at work on research projects to student groups of all levels. As with digitizing collections, this is not an idea aimed at changing physical space but will still improve safety by making physical space less essential.


New Solution Readiness

The two points above dealt with data in the sense that it’s where reference material is headed. Libraries will increasingly turn physical material into data that can be accessed and shared digitally. However, there are also internal ways in which the power of data stands to make libraries safer. And one is by the expansion of information management systems.

This is a field that is closely tied to what we might call the “data revolution.” It has become a popular subject at online institutions, training professionals in emerging practices relevant to businesses of all kinds. And the core idea at the heart of the field is the development and maintenance of multi-faceted systems that handle and deploy digital information as needed. As an overview for the online Bachelor’s in Management Information Systems at Maryville University states, education in this field leads to the ability to “design, develop, and manage business applications on desktop, web, cloud, and mobile platforms.”

Naturally, that’s a skill that is relevant to countless businesses and industries. In the context of developing safer libraries, that kind of information management — combined with adequate data — is going to be extremely important. More robust digital library applications will be able to track digital libraries and the physical locations of reference materials. In addition, they’ll be able to store and manage user profiles and match users with interests, jobs, projects, and/or previously referenced materials. In short, a well-run modern information system with adequate data will serve as a full library guide, and in doing so, will significantly cut back on time spent wandering in enclosed physical spaces.


Improved Floor Plans

Lastly, institutions behind libraries of all kinds will also be able to use data to create safer floor plans. This concept has been discussed quite frequently about workspaces in light of COVID-19, and it’s actually a fairly simple one. Businesses can employ various tracking materials, cameras, and sensors to gain a sense of what foot traffic looks like in office spaces. That is to say that they can gain insight into where people gather, where people walk by one another most frequently, where there’s wasted space that might be put to better use, and so on. Ultimately, this data can be used to produce more efficient and effective floor plans.

Libraries can benefit from this same concept by minimizing tight spaces, opening up floor plans, and decreasing the likelihood that visitors will have to be unnecessarily close to one another in enclosed areas.

It may be some time yet before we see these changes, and not every library will embrace all of the ideas. Through these methods, though, libraries can create and use data to digitize materials, build information systems, and optimize space — all in the service of creating safer post-COVID environments.