The impact of COVID-19 pandemic on digital transformation in libraries

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The past

The widespread COVID-19 outbreak imposed sudden library closures and brought about the need for the library sectors to find suitable modi operandi during times where the new norm was the confinement of patrons and staff alike, combined with rigorous social distancing measures in the libraries. A library being a third-place became a nostalgic memory. Under the new circumstances, the libraries’ role had to be reshaped in a completely digital operation space which is very different from providing a set of digital services; in fact this requires redesigning the services in a process called digital transformation. This brought forward plenty of questions which do not have trivial and easy answers:

  • Which in-person services can be successfully transferred into the digital space?
  • How exactly to do this?
  • How to optimise the use of digital resources which already exist?
  • What new digital resources are needed this time?
  • How to develop resources which support the patrons best – rather than overwhelm them in a world where the patrons are anyway spending plenty of their time online?

These are hardly all the questions but I picked some of those which are indicative of the strategic thinking which needs to take place in many libraries. Having to plan for and implement a transformation in times when the business is definitely far from ‘as usual’ is a big challenge and the institutions would have different capacity to handle this change. Library sector responses ranged from adopting coping strategies to embracing innovation: existing digital services were expanding, and traditional in-person services had to be migrated online, galvanizing the institutional planning for digital transformation. Till today, there are no systematic evaluations on the changes in the digital delivery in the libraries but I talked about how we can analyse the changes in library services giving some recent examples from the library sectors of Qatar in the webinar for Ankara University on 14 April 2020, Glamorous or Gloomy Future? GLAM institutions post COVID-19.

What happens in the museum sector?

If we take a look at the museum sector which faces similar challenges, a recent report by UNESCO, Museums around the world in the face of COVID-19, explores the responses to the pandemic. It clearly identified the limited digital transformation taking place, and the growing digital divide.

Infographic from UNESCO report: 90% of museums closed during covid, 10% of museums may never reopen, only 5% of museums in Africa and small island developing states were able to provide online content.
Infographic from p.4 of the UNESCO report Museums around the world in the face of COVID-19. CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO (UNESCO)

The resiliance and migration to the digital space of museums took several forms: use of previously digitised resources, enhanced social media presence, new online exhibitions, and special activities. The last group is of biggest interest because it is indicative of the potential of institutions for digital transformations – but as one can see from the diagram below, special activities were limited in museums from most of the World’s regions. This poses some hard questions to the museum strategists, how exactly the museums will transform in the future and what will help to bridge the even larger digital divide the pandemic triggered?

Diagram on digital response types to COVID-19 closures from museums around the globe from page 17 of the UNESCO report Museums around the world in the face of COVID-19 which shows that most popular digital response was the use of previously digitised material, some institutions offered online exhibitions, new social media engagement campaigns and special activities. African museums relied very heavily only on existing digital resources and social media.
Diagram from p. 17 of the UNESCO report Museums around the world in the face of COVID-19. CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO (UNESCO)

While no similar studies were done in the library sector, looking at the museum sector will help to compare and maybe seek some common approaches and solutions for the future.


Planning for reopening of libraries is particularly challenging amid the unknowns of the continuing pandemic. In this time, IFLA is collecting and providing access to resources from library institutions and organisations around the globe.

With a team of international colleagues, we are planning to put forward a special issue of a journal which will explore the nature of the ongoing change and transformation and to support library professionals in charting their institutions’ post-COVID19 strategic planning.

We are also working on some training materials to help librarians plan for reopening – watch the space and stay safe!

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