Libraries Helped Keep People Connected During the Pandemic

Libraries Helped Keep People Connected During the Pandemic

Libraries have been learning and adapting this past year throughout the pandemic just as the general public and other institutions have had to. There’s plenty to learn in the quarantine era from how to social distance and sanitize to virtual event planning to find ways to continue supporting their local communities. Since March of last year, libraries have really buckled down to ensure that the widened gaps in the community are filled. There are many wonderful libraries and library staff who are still working just as hard as ever to find innovative ways to serve the community and keep every connected.

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Keeping People Connected, Literally

Long gone are the days when libraries were only places of shelves and endless books. The digital age has brought about new ways of learning and engaging with the world. The library is known for housing plenty of online resources like ebooks, movies, and research databases. In addition to the digital materials that are found in the library, there is also lots of technology that is set up for those that need basic internet access to computers and print stations to higher-tech machines like 3D printers.

The pandemic has made it difficult for communities to continue accessing these resources and technologies in the way they used to. With the need for social distancing and minimizing crowds on top of fears of virus transmission, many are unable to spend hours at the library engaging in resources like they used to. Rural communities especially struggle with this. Many small towns don’t have access to the same broadband services or networks as those living in more populated cities. In fact, 31 percent of rural Americans did not have access to broadband services at home.

Libraries have been working to address this problem, especially now when technology seems to be one of the key ways of staying connected to one another. The Pottsboro Area Library in Texas has taken multiple steps to remedy this problem. They offered local community members a variety of services in addition to computers, Wi-Fi, and rooms for online meetings. Recently in times of COVID-19, the Pottsboro Area Library received an award from the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine to create a telehealth program in partnership with a nearby university.

The Southern Oklahoma Library System has also taken a new approach to create more access to technology during the pandemic. They launched a digital bookmobile service in November of last year and used it as a way to engage patrons who weren’t able to physically visit the library. With funding from the CARES Act, the library was able to equip its bookmobile with Wi-Fi, laptops, and other materials available for checkout. Driving this van out to rural access areas in the countryside made a huge difference for community members. Many patrons have difficulty affording broadband access and having this traveling van in the area meant kids doing virtual learning could turn in homework, adults looking for jobs could still research, and those needing the help of librarians could still easily access them.

Libraries aren’t overlooking any member of the community either. The Lac La Biche County Libraries in Alberta, Canada made sure to extend Wi-Fi services to their Indigenous community. The library lent out wireless hubs and monthly internet packages to the local Indigenous community whenever they needed.

Rethinking Library Browsing

Browsing the shelves is a relaxing activity that many people associate with being at their local public library. COVID restrictions have obviously limited the amount of physical time patrons can spend perusing through books, magazines, and resources. While many libraries have had to close their doors for a few months throughout the pandemic, librarians have found creative ways to ensure that community members can still “browse” a variety of titles.

Librarians have implemented virtual programming, curbside pickup, and reference services that allow patrons to continue utilizing their public libraries during the pandemic. To cater to those that missed browsing the shelves for their next read, many libraries have created book bundles and grab bags for patrons to quickly and easily check out dozens of books pertaining to their interests.

The Coronado Public Library in California organizes this by having patrons email librarians with a preferred genre or the name of a book or author that they like. Librarians then organize book bundles that encompass the themes that patrons are looking for. Some librarians at the library felt that this process was beneficial since it meant they had more time to dedicate towards researching titles and suitable reads for their patrons.

Others took a different approach, especially after finding that this popular new browsing option was leading to too much readers’ advisory work for the librarians. The Madison Public Library categorized its book bundles into two options. One involved a detailed request where readers could choose between types of books like fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, etc. The other served more as a grab bag type of bundle where readers could designate the age level for books. This method allowed librarians to learn about library collections while also serving the community in a timely manner.

The Bethlehem Public Library took their book bundles a step further by including extra materials that were relevant to the types of grab bags being sent out. The add-ons were fun ways to bring regular, in-person library activities and programming to the home. For adults, this could mean finding a copy of the book review publication BookPage in their bags. For kids, this could include crafts, song packets, or fingerplays. The Bethlehem Public Library even included resources such as tips for caregivers, many of whom are caring for elderly, at-risk parents for the first time due to this global health scare.

These new ways of going about library life have been beneficial to many communities. These book bundles not only provided enjoyment for library patrons, but it was also a way to diversify their reading and help them step into different genres and explore different authors. Above all, adapting library services this way was key in keeping people connected during the pandemic.

Taking Service Outside of the Library

With many people being unable to visit the public library the past year, librarians and other staff members around the country have been creative in bringing the library to the community. Librarians have stepped out of their regular day-to-day spaces in a variety of ways, all for the purpose of helping the community when they need it most.

Bookmobiles are more important now than ever. Some examples of the many programs created include food distribution via bookmobile, pop-up libraries, books on bikes delivery systems, outdoor story walks, and mobile Wi-Fi locations. Knowing that some populations would have even more restrictions with library visits, some outreach librarians even took their services to the community nursing homes. These “window visits” allowed nursing home residents to connect with people in a safe environment.

Libraries have been very innovative when it comes to outreach. The drive-by library became a common sight during the pandemic. Library parking lots were transformed into spaces reminiscent of information fairs where different stations were created for cars to drive through. Visitors could pick up program offerings, handouts, and grab bags and kits. The Hiawatha Public Library in Iowa even gave away hot cocoa packets to patrons over the holidays.

Throughout this past year, we’ve seen librarians in places we don’t usually find them in. A library in Astoria set up a station at a local food pantry and, in addition to handing out lunches to kids and teens, they also passed out books for them to take home and read. The Alfred H. Baumann Free Public Library created partnerships with local grocery stores and dieticians to create family cooking classes for those stuck at home looking for new things to learn. And, a library in Canada even created a musical instrument library where community members can check out one of many instruments funded by a $5,000 grant the library recently received.

Protecting Community Members

Sometimes the library’s work is just to make community members feel safe, accepted, and welcomed in their spaces. Misinformation is just another threat that has posed a problem in the past year. Many institutions are put in a tough spot, especially when mask mandates aren’t enforced by the local government. Environments like these can deter community members from participating in library activities. Many librarians have done their part in creating a space where patrons can feel protected by encouraging visitors to wear masks through signage, making accurate information available at the library, and leading by example. Patrons are invited to ask questions, read, and discuss pandemic-related topics, which fosters a safe learning environment for those who are wary.

While there are stories of libraries and library staff stepping up to the place this past year, these are just a few of the great library stories during COVID. Throughout the pandemic, libraries have encouraged compassion and creativity among their communities. By taking the initiative to find ways of adapting to the changes that the virus has presented, libraries have proven that resilience and innovation can keep communities connected even when they are physically apart.