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Closed libraries are offering parking lot Wi-Fi, e-books, and Zoom story time

Even when shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic, libraries are coming up with creative ways to serve their communities.

Closed libraries are offering parking lot Wi-Fi, e-books, and Zoom story time

On March 16, the El Dorado County Library in California closed its doors to patrons after a state-wide stay-at-home order. But that hasn’t stopped the library, which serves nearly 100,000 cardholders, from using its resources to help its community.

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The library, which normally runs a 3D printing lab for library users to produce their own plastic creations, has placed some of its printers in a volunteer’s garage, where they’re being used to create face shields for healthcare workers.

“They are printing them literally 24 hours a day,” says Carolyn Brooks, the county’s director of library services. The project has produced more than 800 shields, with a goal of producing 15,000 total. Other printers within the library are producing small plastic tabs designed to help face mask straps sit more comfortably on a wearer’s head.

Libraries have long been more than just repositories of books to borrow. They serve as social hubs, hosting events for everyone from teenagers to senior citizens. They’re often a first stop for people looking to research job opportunities or government benefits, which are critical for many people out of work due to the virus. And for many library users with limited connectivity at home, they’re a key source of internet access, whether that means using library Wi-Fi with their own devices or logging on to a library computer.

Due to social-distancing measures currently in place due to the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of public libraries across the country are closed. But even when shuttered, many libraries are finding creative ways to provide vital services, information, and entertainment to their patrons, from repurposing 3D printers to providing Wi-Fi and social events online. “The most important thing for us is to remain valuable to our communities and to not sort of go away during all of this,” says Jennifer Pearson, director of the Marshall County Memorial Library in Tennessee and president of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries.

Bridging the digital divide

To keep people connected even while buildings are locked, many libraries have turned their parking lots and sidewalks into what amount to drive-in or walk-up internet access sites. “We’ve made sure to boost our internet access to our parking lots,” says Columbus Metropolitan Library CEO Pat Losinski. He says the Ohio library system also tries to ensure people maintain social distancing among visitors as they use the internet outdoors.

We’ve made sure to boost our internet access to our parking lots.”

Pat Losinski, Columbus Metropolitan Library

Some libraries around the country have converted bookmobiles into Wi-Fi hot spots, parking them in lots at schools, grocery stores, and other locations so nearby residents can stop by and get online.

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Some library systems and other institutions such as schools also offer mobile hot spots that residents can borrow to use at home, although supplies can be limited. Using cellular networks, they also tend to offer limited bandwidth compared to broadband offerings from cable companies and their wired competitors, particularly in more remote areas with limited reception. That can be a challenge for households where multiple people are trying to videoconference or simply get homework done.

Still, parking lot access and hot spot distribution hasn’t fully bridged the coronavirus-era digital divide between those with steady broadband and those without. “I don’t feel that’s a problem that we’ve been able to solve,” says Losinski. “There’s been hot spots that have been issued, but the demand is so great.”

Bringing library services online

For those who do have internet access, Tennessee’s Marshall County Memorial Library has kept events such as children’s story times, book clubs, and a crochet club going by moving them to Zoom. It’s also promoted other online materials through social media, including a series of “citizen science” experiments, Pearson says. As people at home during the pandemic take to baking bread, one of the most popular experiments the library’s Facebook page has shared involves extracting yeast from the air.

Some libraries are offering curbside checkout or other ways to pick up books, though doing so in a safe and sanitary way can be a logistical challenge. The El Dorado County Library in California is planning to let patrons go online or call to request books—which are only available after they’ve sat in a holding area for seven days to help ensure they’re free from the virus. The books will be brought for pickup at area grocery stores, so people can retrieve them when they’re out buying food.

“It was really important to us that people weren’t making extra trips out of their homes,” Brooks says.

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Libraries are also making sure e-books, online magazines, and other digital materials are available for people to use. Many are making it possible for new library users or those whose memberships have lapsed to sign up for virtual cards online. Overdrive, the company behind the e-book lending app Libby used by many libraries, reports that digital book checkouts were up 28% for the period between March 15 and March 28 compared to last year. Similarly, a spokesperson for Kanopy, which offers streaming movies users can access with their library cards, writes in an email that the company has “seen a large increase in the number of daily users and new sign-ups” during the pandemic. And the New York Public Library saw checkouts through its SimpleE e-book app jump 10% over this time last year, with top checkouts including Becoming by Michelle Obama, Tara Westover’s memoir Educated, and the novel The Dutch House by Ann Patchett.

“The category that has probably exploded hardest is sort of self-help and therapy type books,” says the NYPL’s president and CEO, Anthony Marx. “People need resources emotionally as well.”

The kids know about it, but the older folks really do have to get taught how to do it.”

Jennifer Pearson, Marshall County Memorial Library

Despite the wealth of resources online, there’s also a learning curve for library users and even staff shifting to new ways of checking out books or joining library social groups via Zoom. “The kids know about it, but the older folks really do have to get taught how to do it, and that it’s not scary,” says Marshall County’s Pearson. She and her colleagues also try to stay in touch by phone or text with some frequent library visitors who can’t or don’t want to move online.

“We’re texting them, and we’re calling them just to touch base with them about once a week,” she says. “We’re in a rural area, so some places our broadband’s not great, and some people can’t afford it.”

After the lockdowns lift

Libraries will likely start to reopen as social distancing and stay-at-home orders ease, but it won’t necessarily be business as usual for them or their visitors. Even if doors are open, some people still wary of the virus might continue to stay away from public places such as libraries, and some may have grown accustomed to using digital materials rather than going to a local branch to pick up paper items.

“I believe that the world is not going to be the same after all this,” says NYPL’s Marx. “It’s hard to predict how people are going to be comfortable with physical action, when, and how much.”

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I believe that the world is not going to be the same after all this.”

Anthony Marx, New York Public Library

And for programs such as book clubs and children’s story hours, some libraries may start to offer a hybrid approach, offering live streams for people who can’t or don’t want to make it to a physical branch. Providing both options may be a long-term boon to accessibility.

“I think there are a lot of things that we are learning that we’ll continue to do, especially with the online programming,” says Pearson. “At least offering an option: If you can’t come, if you don’t want to be in the room or you can’t be in the room, you can still be there.”

But even as people turn to libraries for help preparing to apply for jobs or benefits, continued economic uncertainty could mean funding shortfalls for libraries. “The economic impact to our community is such a huge impact that city leadership has already directed us to reduce spending,” says Ramiro Salazar, director of the San Antonio Public Library.

Budget cuts at libraries potentially mean less money for physical and digital materials, and they can also mean reduced hours and fewer staff members to assist library users as they do research, search for jobs, or work on library computers. But while it’s unclear exactly what the future holds as the pandemic eases, librarians say they’ll continue to do all they can to serve the public and keep people informed.

“We’ll continue with whatever our communities need, because that’s what libraries do,” Brooks says.

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About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.

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