COVID-19 can’t keep librarians down
Story by Sarah Allen
The global pandemic has brought with it many changes: In schools, in businesses — and also at local libraries.
Digital materials, social media interactions, WiFi and even hot spots for home use, were already a part of many libraries. However, those services increased with COVID-19. In addition, many libraries adjusted hours, implemented social distancing guidelines or started offering curbside service.
Quarantining returned items, as well as increased cleaning and sanitizing, also became a staple of every librarian’s day.
Programs continued but were often virtual.
Sarah Nichols, library director at Carnegie Public Library in Washington Court House, described one such program, saying that the library’s two children’s specialists held live story times from home during the March and April stay-at-home order.
“We have a very tight community of families and children,” she said. As the virtual story times began, Nichols said that the comments and interactions from the families were “heartwarming.”
“I got tears in my eyes,” she said.
Librarians, she said, have missed “the people part” of the job.
During curbside service, Nichols said, it means a lot to “see a patron you haven’t seen in a while and talk with them.”
Other services that the Carnegie Public Library has offered includes curbside faxing, scanning and printing; card applications through their website; fulfilling requests for local genealogical and historical research; preparing classroom bundles for local schools; and providing tech support.
The library has also created informational videos for schools, as well as starting a Little Free Library on their grounds.
“Just because the doors are closed doesn’t mean that we are not still serving the community,” she said. “The dedication and creativity of the library staff is pretty special.”
Often, she explained, when stresses occur, they happen only in one person’s life or within one community.
“Rarely do we see something like this that impacts everyone. It reminds you of everyone’s humanity. We’re all on this roller coaster,” she said.
That thought was echoed by Suzanne Roberts, director of Highland County District Libraries.
“We’ve had so many kind moments with patrons who’ve said how happy they are to have the library open again and how they appreciate the work we’re doing for them,” she said. “One especially nice moment was when a patron brought flowers to the staff at the Hillsboro Public Library to just say thank you for all the library’s work. We love our amazing patrons and appreciate their patience as we learn the best ways to offer library services from a distance.”
Like many libraries, Highland County’s branches have offered virtual programs; digital materials (through the Overdrive, Libby and hoopla apps); and item pick-up through curbside service.
Printing, copying and faxing are also available with curbside service.
“And we’ve just received mobile hot spots that patrons can check out and take home, so we’re really excited and happy to be able to provide that for the patrons who don’t have internet service at home,” Roberts added.
The circumstances also provided an opportunity to come up with creative programming, Roberts said. “From online craft videos, to question-and-answer sessions with experts on topics such as genealogy and job searching, and even to online trivia contests. We’ve had a lot of fun coming up with new activities that patrons can do from a distance and hopefully they’ve had fun too.”
Roberts also described some of the surprises that came with being a librarian in 2020.
“We’re getting larger and larger shipments of requested items from other libraries,” she explained. In fact, twice this year, the Hillsboro Public Library broke their record for received cargo; it now stands at 244 bags delivered in one day.
Roberts also explained the support that public libraries have at the state level.
“We have wonderful organizations like the Ohio Library Council and the State Library of Ohio that help libraries make sense of all the changes continually happening and help find the best ways for libraries to handle all of those changes,” Roberts said. “And we’ve received a lot of help and support from the state government as well. We’re really lucky in Ohio to have such strong proponents and advocates.”
“More innovations may be on the horizon as well,” she added. “Libraries are constantly communicating and sharing ideas with each other so that we can all do our best to serve our communities.”
And those communities, Roberts said, have met the changes with understanding.
“It’s frustrating to not be able to attend library programs or to not be able to browse or use computers like they could previously,” she said. “But they know we’re trying to find ways to accommodate their needs during this time, and they’ve been very patient with us as we’ve developed new services and programs.”
Brown County Public Library Executive Director Lynn A. Harden explained that their chat feature has been a “terrific addition.”
“One patron in particular is overjoyed. He is deaf and this allows him to communicate easily and regularly with library staff,” Harden said. “Many of our older and/or health-compromised patrons just love the fact that they can order items online or over the phone and we will bring them out to their cars.”
She added that Brown County Public Library also held an indoor/outdoor, socially-distanced book sale last fall. “Patrons were happy to have this bit of ‘normal routine’ in their lives,” Harden said.
She also described how the library worked with Children’s Hunger Alliance to deliver weekly meals to kids under 18. “Families could make appointments for pick-up times and would get meal kits for their children’s physical health, along with library activity kits to support their mental health,” Harden said.
And while libraries and their communities have always been connected, Harden explained that the bond has been even stronger during the pandemic.
“The phones seem to ring all day long,” Harden said.
She described how her staff has gone “above and beyond to ensure that people get the support they need in a safe manner.” Harden said that Brown County librarians have called “regulars” who they know are by themselves and do not have internet, “just to see how they are doing.”
Chillicothe & Ross County Public Library Director James Hill said, “One thing that might surprise people is that libraries were never specifically included in any of the state-wide orders. The governor is a library supporter and has trusted each library system to devise its own response based on its own community. For some, libraries are undoubtedly essential; for us as decision-makers, we had to weigh that against keeping our patrons safe. We know we’re essential, which is why we needed to close — we didn’t want to encourage people to leave their house.”
Hill described their “Stay in to Checkout” options — a drive-through pick-up at one of their locations, as well as a “Checking In” program that provided books and materials and an opportunity to check on homebound patrons.
He added, “As a librarian, a surprising thing this year is how much we normally do that we just can’t right now. We keep statistics, so we know our programs are popular and which formats get used the most, but when you’re having limited interactions with the general public, you forget about little reference questions: ‘Where are dictionaries?’ ‘Do you have this in Large Print?’ We are missing out on the small gestures that we would normally take for granted.”
Debbie Nunziato, community relations/development at the Chillicothe and Ross County library, further explained the many programs and services that patrons can enjoy during the pandemic.
Nunziato also described the library’s “Take and Makes.”
“Patrons can pick up a craft or cooking kit and then watch online to complete the project,” she said. “One program was a Take and Make done in conjunction with the OSU Ross County Extension. Patrons picked up complete breadmaking kits, which even included a disposable bread pan.”
Nunziato added, “Some people might be surprised that there is still so much they can do through their library. We hold online contests, book recommendations and displays, links to fun activities, plus our scheduled virtual programs.”
Nichols commented on how change has always been a part of the library story. “I’m constantly impressed by the ability of librarians and libraries to evolve, not just with trends and technology, but also in times of great crisis.”
She cited floods and other similar emergencies as times when libraries have brought communities together. And the current global pandemic, she added, is no different.
Libraries, Nichols said, are, and have always been “beacons in the community.”