Some areas of the country are “finally opening up again” after lockdown. Others are going back into lockdown after having “opened” while not properly prepared. Wherever your area is in this cycle, your public library has been working behind the scenes trying to figure out how best to serve you while keeping everyone safe.
Unfortunately—we’ll get this right out of the way—there have been some libraries that have laid off their staff during lockdown, maybe yours. Not only am I sorry for you and the people of your town, but this move, in my objective opinion, is idiocy. Unlike a retail establishment, a public library does not rely on sales to pay their staff— no, not even overdue fines. Staff wages are budgeted into the public funds the library receives annually. There’s no reason staff can’t continue to be paid even if the library is temporarily closed except for avarice/the stubborn belief that people shouldn’t be paid for “not doing anything.” And if your community library’s staff hasn’t been doing anything, that just shows a severe lack of imagination on your community’s part.
When our library closed for COVID, the staff did not stop working. We started meeting online to brainstorm a new plan for the year. Storytimes— with their audiences made of unrestrainable snotty-nosed toddlers and disproportionately susceptible grandparents— seemed like a terrible idea, and yet they were one of our most popular services. But it didn’t have to be an either/or dilemma: within a month of lockdown, we’d started Online Storytimes.
We already had online services offering access to ebooks, audiobooks, magazines, databases, and even movies, but now they meant so much more. We sent a notice out through the schools not only to remind current cardholders about these services, but to alert others that we’d be also assigning temporary “virtual” cards to anyone else who wanted to use these services, over email and phone.
It’s now Summer Reading time, and for that we needed to change our usual routine as well. We invested for the first time in an online reading tracking program for contests. We’ve designed activity packets that can be picked up from the library with minimal contact. And of course we’ve kept up with offering online content, from storytimes to book and movie clubs to virtual escape rooms.
The most glaring barrier to continuing to serve our community? All these options require internet access. And one of our biggest services in the past had been offering internet access to those who don’t have it in the first place—which is more than you might think, all you reading this article on the internet right now. You do know that’s a privilege, right? Our library is still looking for solutions, but some libraries— maybe some near you— have been leaving their parking lots open with their wifi accessible from them, or lending out hotspots, or running hotspots around town on their bookmobile routes.
The barrier that inspired me to write this article, though: how do we get the word out? Social media can be limited—Facebook especially, even though it’s our library’s most used social media account, has a tendency to be super-inconsistent about what posts it decides to even show people. Personally, I’ve been putting a lot of work into my online programs, and I just want to make sure people know they exist!
So, I can’t link you each individually to your own libraries’ services, so instead here’s me telling you to reach out to your local library! Check their website, see what’s new! There could be so many services you didn’t realize were possible. Take advantage of your privilege of having internet access so you can do so!
I keep harping on that because it’s a definite issue. How do we get the word out that we’re doing our best to serve everyone as safely as possible? What if the only service people need is our in-person services, not the electronic ones? And how will that word get out without those people having access to social media in the first place?
In-person library services are even trickier, because even if an area is technically “open,” libraries are a wonderful way to spread germs! There is no way a library can run as usual—with patrons spending hours sitting close together at shared computers, coughing over the daily newspaper before putting it back in the box, touching and flipping through shelves full of books, chewing on everything toy or no in the play area (most of whom are small children, but not all)—in the middle of a pandemic. But some libraries have reopened with little to no concern about the safety of their staff or patrons, much to the dismay and sometimes the pushback of the staff. Other libraries have reopened with many new restrictions, which of course makes the folks who think everything should go back to “normal” whine.
Curbside pickup is great. Tell us what you want—if not through our online catalog, then over the phone!—we’ll pull it for you and bring it to your car (while masked and gloved). As for all those books and DVDs going out into who knows what hotbeds of infection, we (and many other libraries lucky enough to have such rooms), have turned one of our large empty meeting rooms into a quarantine for all physical materials returned to the library. Nobody will touch them for three days before we let them out to anyone new. And of course, behind the scenes, we’re all mask-wearing and hand-washing as much as possible.
Even if your library IS open for browsing, take advantage of curbside pickup or other hold systems whenever you can. Don’t come to the library just to hang out. We love being here for you in that respect most of the time, but it’s just not safe right now. Our library has limited browsing hours right now, and we do mean limited. No public bathrooms, very few chairs. Only two computers, on opposite ends of the section, with strict time limits, appointments, and disinfections between uses. Our entire upstairs is off-limits: and as that’s where my babies, the children’s and YA sections, are, it does break my heart a little. But again, we’re doing our best to serve you, anyway, which is why I brought a large supply of new and topical books from upstairs downstairs for people to browse on tables. And we’ll go up to fetch anything else you ask for! Just ask!
The last thing anyone in public libraries wants is to make it harder for people to use the library, but when our usual methods are unsafe, we have to take precautions. So while we do our best to advertise all the things we still have to offer, don’t be afraid to ask. We may be ready to help in ways you haven’t expected!