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Going Virtual: Libraries See Challenges and Opportunities in the Pandemic
by
Posted On May 5, 2020
“Librarians are the bridge between people and the information they need.” This motto from my library school professor Ed Miller was hammered into our heads in every class he taught. To revisit that analogy a few decades later, think of a time when librarians suddenly found that the river beneath them had been mined by hostile forces.

In the middle of March 2020, librarians for the first time in history found themselves without their most basic tool—a physical space to share the treasures of their culture. All academic libraries and most public libraries had already given their patrons some kind of access to online journals, ebooks, and audiobooks, as well as streaming access to audiovisual products.

Many librarians are at home and still earning a paycheck. There is a lot of motivation to take their libraries’ mission further into cyberspace. The ones who succeed at this effort will return to libraries that are stronger than ever.

Case Study: East Meadow Public Library

Your Next Read from East Meadow Public LibraryThe East Meadow Public Library in Nassau County, Long Island, was in a unique position to respond to the March 2020 shutdown in New York. In summer 2019, it had embarked on a total renovation of its building. For months, the library was closed entirely (with satellite locations set up to handle reserves), or it was opened with a much-reduced portion of its building accessible to patrons. Streaming sites were made available for movies, music, and magazines. Programming was done at several remote sites. In short, its librarians knew how to adapt.

All of this was put to the test in March. Librarians were sent home, where they were asked to provide some sort of minimal service. Originally, they planned to discontinue all programming. The Reader Services department members had scheduled a major book discussion for the following week, and they began to think of ways to have it online. The patrons were willing, but the first attempt, using a Google Groups email list set up for the occasion, worked out very badly. There were considerable technical issues, and they could not reproduce the type of give-and-take discussion that they had once enjoyed. A week later, they tried again, using Zoom, and that was totally successful.

The Zoom approach was used in the ensuing weeks to enable video chats with authors Joshilyn Jackson and Fiona Davis. However, the library encountered a malicious hacking incident in a program days later. The library administration had by then decided that videoconferencing should be a feature of programs even after the library reopened, as it was reaching a previously underserved population of homebound patrons. Fortunately, a number of Zoom alternatives were springing up to fill this kind of demand.

The Reader Services librarians then set out to create an entirely new online product to emulate the type of service they had been providing in the physical space. Their team of three librarians worked out the mechanics, content, and design of Your Next Read (see the image, at right) using the free online product JotForm. Within days, it had gone online and was discovered by patrons almost immediately. Referrals were passed out to the librarians depending on their literary specialties.

One program called Read ’n Share had been turning in low numbers before the shutdown. Librarians would meet with their frequent readers and discuss new titles, then create a bibliography. When this was tried as a video chat, the numbers doubled.

Other Long Island Librarians Share Their Experiences

I spoke to two area librarians about the changes in services that they’ve been seeing at their libraries. Manny Mavrikakis, head of reference services at the Levittown Public Library, says the following:

We added a live chat using Tidio, where we monitor the chats between Reference, Children’s, and the Young Adult departments, between the hours of 10–7 on weekdays and 10–4 on Saturdays. We also have started a Tech Help email service where patrons are able to email us with specific questions on how to use Libby, utilizing our databases, and using our video streaming services. We have also been able to offer help on how to use their digital devices. We are utilizing Zoom to conduct programs, such as Talking About Books, [in which] patrons can discuss what they are reading and share their recommendations to the other participants. Our staff is also offering video tutorials via YouTube. Patrons will be able to refer to these videos for assistance on loading OverDrive onto various devices along with using Hoopla and other streaming services.

James Hartmann, head of UX and technology at the Hewlett-Woodmere Public Library, says the following:

Most, almost all, of our programs and services were impacted due to our closure for COVID-19. Films, musicals, concerts, shows, lectures, and workshops were all cancelled or postponed. Once we cancelled programs, we began working on modifying any programs or events that we could. Museum Pass reservations were cancelled, as the institutions themselves were closed. Homebound delivery was suspended, as well as our Book Club in a Bag program for local book clubs. Some services were easier to transition online than others. Book discussions and some lectures were easy to swap over, and attendance has actually gone up, especially as more people in our community have some extra free time working from home. Our teen department has been running our most popular programs, escape rooms, and we were able to bring those online using Google Forms. (They’re available for everyone to play on hwpl.org/covid19.) Other resources, such as ebooks, online storytimes, and streaming video were already on our website, and gained even more users during our closing.

I asked both librarians about their headaches and triumphs during this upsetting time. Mavrikakis says:

I think as librarians, we are always thinking outside the box and we have definitely been experiencing that during this crisis. We are learning and adapting our methods to reach the public via various virtual platforms. Working from home with the reference staff and continuing to help patrons on the virtual platform has been challenging. However, we continue to have more traffic to our website and online services, which is exciting, as it offers a first-time user and our regular patrons the ability to see what we continue to offer.

Hartmann says:

One of our bigger issues was getting staff who weren’t fully acquainted with various technologies up and running. We had a few librarians who don’t have internet at home, or only use their phones. It’s something that made me think about patron access as well. If we have staff members unable to get online, we can’t assume that all of our patrons can be served digitally either. Another thing we’ve been trying to be cognizant of is the mental health of our staff, especially our technology department. Across our system, tasks that were carried out by the entire staff of the building are now falling on departments that might only have one or two staff members. But overall, I think our triumphs outweigh the issues. We’ve gotten up and running, our ebook wait times down lower than they’ve ever been before, and we’re pushing out programs and responding to community needs. It will be a different world when we get back into our buildings, but I think we’re all up for the challenge!

Conclusion

At the East Meadow Public Library, I have observed a pride in coping with unthinkable circumstances and still being able to offer a healthy level of services to patrons. On its website, and on most of the public library websites I looked at, the Children’s and Young Adult sections have stepped up their delivery of original content in the form of story hours, book discussions, and crafting programs. Web chats will be a feature of library programming from now on. When the doors are reopened, patrons will enter with a renewed appreciation for their libraries.

Webliography

“Public Libraries’ Novel Response to a Novel Virus”

theatlantic.com/notes/2020/03/public-libraries-novel-response-to-a-novel-virus/609058

“COVID-19’s Impact on Libraries Goes Beyond Books”

wired.com/story/covid-19-libraries-impact-goes-beyond-books

COVID-19 and the Global Library Field

ifla.org/covid-19-and-libraries


Terry Ballard is the author of three books and more than 80 articles about library automation. In addition to several writing awards, Ballard was given the Albert Nelson Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019, and will appear in the 2020 edition of Who’s Who in America. Further information can be found at terryballard.org, and he can be reached at terryballard@gmail.com.

Email Terry Ballard

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