It’s National Library Week, friends! The theme this year is Connect with Your Library and, with that in mind, today I am sharing the speech I gave at our Library Legislative Breakfast a week ago. Our gathering was virtual (sadly, again) but the spirit of librarians and legislators and library supporters came through in a big way. I hope you enjoy my take on being a librarian during the pandemic and how we can make libraries relevant and successful going forward!
It was almost exactly 2 years ago that my library, along with most others in the network, across the state, across the country, closed. At that time, we thought it would be just for the weekend, that the library would be deep cleaned and we would re-open again on Monday. How naïve were we back then? Because that weekend turned into weeks and then months. I can distinctly remember changing the message on the library phone, saying that we were closed indefinitely, and then standing at the circulation desk and crying because closing the library went against everything I believed in.
I worked alone in those days, the entire staff furloughed except for me. Sure, there were zoom meetings and virtual trainings and conference calls, but when I was in the library, I was alone. And I was constantly thinking how I had no idea what I was doing, completely overwhelmed by rules that changed daily or even hourly, and wondering how to make a library relevant when I couldn’t open the doors.
Before long, though, I realized that all I needed to do was start paying attention to what my colleagues were doing. Because, librarians being librarians, we started to get creative, and we started sharing our ideas with each other. We (and when I say we I mean the collective we, not just my library) pushed Overdrive usage through social media channels and email blasts. This clearly worked, as the SAILS Overdrive collection saw a 30% increase in checkouts during 2020. Picture books alone had an increase of over 600%! And this increase was seen across all formats, from nonfiction to videos to magazines.
Despite this increased usage, SAILS saw an overall decrease in its average waiting time for getting items into the hands of patrons. In December 2019 the average waiting period was 55 days but by the spring of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, it was down to 34 days. This decrease is largely attributable to grants funded through the 9506 account to support eContent for libraries. This grant continues to keep our waiting period for items low, even today.
Taking a cue from restaurants and businesses, we started offering curbside pick-up for library materials. We did this for specific books that people requested, we also put together grab bags of mysteries or historical fiction or biographies and more. All of this was extremely successful: between March 18, 2020 and July 6, 2020 (the date libraries were allowed to have walk in traffic again) area libraries checked out 61,584 physical items (as in, not e-resources) despite the fact that patrons weren’t allowed to walk through the doors.
In addition to this, we began offering online library card registrations so that everyone could access online resources when they could not visit the library. We waived fines. We offered reference services remotely and live virtual programming and even recorded programming. We expanded Wi-Fi access to patrons outside the building. We set up outdoor spaces for socially distanced programs. We distributed craft supplies and STEAM kits. We quarantined materials and rearranged furniture and installed sanitizing stations.
And eventually, we reopened. Some of us as early as summer 2020 and some not until later but eventually we all had patrons flowing through our doors again. Just as I cried when I closed the library down, I cried again when the library opened back up. I’m emotional, what can I say? And now, while we are still muddling our way through this pandemic but staying open, our Overdrive usage continues to be about 25% higher than it was pre-pandemic. And our overall borrowing activity is up, coming in at 59% higher in the first 6 months of FY22 than the first 6 months of FY21.
This gladdens my heart because, it seems to me, the pandemic taught people that libraries are as relevant as ever. That libraries are an integral part of any community and that the services we provide are indeed essential. And perhaps, best of all, that Libraries bring people together, even when we have to stay apart.