Library Lessons from the Pandemic

Two staff members from the San Carlos Library demonstrating social distancing with book carts.

Yesterday, as I sat on the floor of our empty library, stuffing handfuls of pom-poms into paper bags to go out on our curbside table for Art Break Day, I found myself thinking back to the events of a year ago, when I first became aware that “the virus” was about to have a serious impact on my life, and my job.

At the time, we were just starting to cancel library programs with large audiences, like storytimes, along with visits to schools and preschools. Since those made up most of my job, that was already a shocking change, but then the whole world (or at least the whole Bay Area) shut down on March 13, and my whole profession was transformed almost overnight.

What is a Librarian Without a Library?

Although popular culture has librarians armed with angry shushing fingers, forever stationed at large wooden desks guarding giant rooms of books, for years the bulk of my job has taken place outside of the library building. Before the pandemic, I was visiting 11 to 12 preschool classes a month, to perform storytimes for kids who couldn’t ordinarily come to the ones at the branch. I also led book clubs at several different middle schools, and played and sang songs at a rehabilitation center for seniors, where one of my coworkers regularly brought books and movies for patients. My coworkers all performed similar outreach services, bringing library materials to our local Senior Center, leading science classes after school at the Boys and Girls club, and leading book clubs at the County juvenile hall. So having our library buildings closed due to the new health order was not as jarring as you might think.

What was jarring was not having books. Not physical ones anyway. While we had several wonderful e-book collections, including Overdrive, Axis 360, and Hoopla, a lot of our patrons had never used them. The library staff from all 12 of our branches were reorganized into different types of services, including live tech help (one-on-one appointments offered over Zoom), email reference, text reference, and a Customer Care line that operated like a call center, but over Zoom phone. The volume of calls, texts, and emails from all over the county was overwhelming at first, and the vast majority of questions were about how to access e-books, and e-audiobooks. This was especially challenging, given that there might be an issue with their library account (expired card, forgotten PIN), the particular e-book database (Overdrive, Hoopla, etc.), their device (smartphone, iPad, Kindle, PC), or their Internet.

For the first time, I had to learn how to use e-books for storytime, and how to read them on Zoom, which was another new challenge. But we quickly discovered that physical books did not show up as well on the camera as reading an e-book on Share Screen (one mom actually said that it was the first time her son had ever really been able to see the pictures in a book at storytime, since usually the kids sit several feet away). The problem was that searching through e-book collections for picture books is a whole lot slower than flipping through a stack of physical books. Plus, with everyone suddenly relying on our databases, it was also hard to find e-books that weren’t already checked out. I quickly came to love Hoopla, for the simple reason that everything on it is always available.

What is a Librarian Without Library Patrons?

What was even more jarring than not having books was not seeing people. Although books were what first drew me into my first library job in college, what has kept me in libraries are the human connections: talking to patrons about new books they enjoyed; helping people apply for jobs online; seeing parents who met at storytime sharing advice and tips on local preschools with other families; watching middle schoolers patiently teaching second graders how to play Super Smash Bros. at our Afterschool Hangout; singing with adults in our Ukulele Play-Alongs; hearing the kids at the preschools I visited yell “the libarium is here!” All of that was suddenly gone.

Helping with the new reference services helped some, especially talking to people on the Zoom phone, where sometimes I’d even take a call from one of our regulars. For the first time, I also got to know and (virtually) work with staff from all of the libraries in our system, which are scattered over a very large area. But pre-recording storytimes (which we relied on until we found ways to offer interactive programs for kids that didn’t violate COPPA rules) was depressing. I even started asking local families on Facebook if anyone wanted a shout-out for their kids in the video, just so I could feel like I was talking to actual kids instead of just my bedroom wall. (An unexpected plus was that over the summer my daughter started helping me with storytimes and other video programs, and we both had a wonderful time).

Once we did work out the legalities and technical challenges of offering virtual programs, they became an unexpected joy. Although I still miss my in-person storytimes and preschool visits, and can’t wait to get back to doing those, it’s been fun to have the chance to interact with kids in their own homes, where they delight in showing off their favorite toys or their pets. And I love my two virtual book clubs, which allow me to “meet” people from all over the Bay Area, and even outside of our county. Several of the adults in the ESL Book Club have said that they hope these types of programs continue, since several of them have young children or other commitments that make it hard to attend library programs in person. Many of them also regularly attend our weekly English Conversation Clubs, giving them the chance to practice their English and meet other people in a very low-pressure environment. In addition, our library system has been able to offer webinars featuring authors and illustrators we never could have afforded to bring to our libraries in person, and to open their presentations to audiences of 1,000 people (well beyond the capacity of any of our buildings).

The ability to offer interactive programs remotely also allows us to provide short, personalized experiences, like mock job interviews, personalized resume assistance, and personalized tech help, valuable experiences that people can easy fit into their schedules because they don’t have to leave home. We can also offer programs outside of our normal operating hours, like the High Low Movie Club, an 8pm program where patrons could watch either a “high brow” or “low brow” movie together online and share their thoughts. It’s been amazing to see all of the different experiences my coworkers from across our library system have used this new format to bring entertainment, interaction, and valuable life skills to our patrons.

Bridging the Digital Divide

Among the many disparities brought to light by the pandemic, the one that I felt most acutely in terms of my job was the tremendous gap in what services were available to people with high-speed Internet and computer access versus those without. For years, our libraries had been circulating laptop combos and Internet hotspots, which people could check out for a week at a time on a first-come, first-serve basis. But the public computers and laptops in our libraries buildings were still in constant demand, and many of our patrons relied on them for all of the services the world now expects you to access via the Internet. That includes job applications, forms to apply for government benefits, and even applications for low-income housing! Knowing we had only a limited supply of laptop combos and hotspots, our library administration decided to give the ones we had to local agencies who could hopefully get them into the hands of the families who needed them most, especially students.

But I still worried about our regular Internet patrons, who were now completely cut off. We tried to direct them to services offering Internet access at a reduced cost, but most of them had strict guidelines about who was eligible. In the meantime, with our buildings closed, and all of our services being announced online, we had no way of even communicating with many of our patrons to let them know when we started offering walk-up service, where they could ask for books and DVDs at the library door, or about the free lunches and snacks provided for low-income families at one of our libraries. Now, with most people relying on the Internet to find and schedule appointments to get the vaccine, it’s even clearer how much of an impact the digital divide can have on a person’s health.

The Future of Libraries

As our libraries prepare to reopen in person (possibly sometime in April), I can’t help but wonder what impact the past year will have on our services going forward. I hope that we can continue offering virtual programs, for people who aren’t able to come to the library in person, and to provide opportunities to “meet” authors and other presenters from around the world. But I also hope that eventually people who can visit our buildings will come back to rediscover the human connections and sense of community that I still miss from before the pandemic. And I hope our libraries can find new ways to help bridge the digital divide, both by offering more opportunities to borrow computers and hotspots, along with services to help them learn how to use them, but also by finding new and creative ways to reach people who may not know about our services, and bringing the library to them.

What have you learned from the past year, and what changes, if any, do you hope will continue? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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