Library Lockdown in New Zealand
As the world continues to grapple with COVID-19 and how library services are now and what they will look like after the pandemic, here in New Zealand, we’re seeing what public library life is like in a country where COVID is still very much around, but not exactly part of our daily lives. We’re aware that the pandemic is still going on, but at the same time, we’ve moved into what post-COVID life looks like.
To give you an idea of this, I had some great chats with folks from the South Taranaki District Libraries system. While it’s small system, it sure is mighty—it has great employees and bold ideas and programs. Without further ado, let’s talk with Tyla Winter.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN WORKING IN LIBRARIES? WHAT IS YOUR ROLE AT THE SOUTH TARANAKI DISTRICT LIBRARIES?
I have been working for South Taranaki District Libraries for just over 3 1/2 years now. I completed my final year of high school in November 2016 and straightaway started working for South Taranaki District Libraries in December of that year as a library cadet. I have since completed my cadetship and am now a LibraryPlus officer.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE PROJECTS YOU HAVE BEEN WORKING ON?
I have been working on filming and editing our South Taranaki Books Alive sessions based on the 2020 New Zealand Book Awards for Children & Young Adults, so that kept me quite busy. South Taranaki District Libraries often has training sessions, either districtwide or within a branch, so that is where I have learned to film and edit these videos. Also, South Taranaki District Libraries is running virtual STEAM sessions each week on our Facebook page, so at the moment, I’m trying to come up with new activities that can be part of these sessions. It’s been a bit slow to get going, but we are starting to work with our local primary schools and kindergartens again, as well as doing our afterschool programs (book club, STEAM, arts and crafts, games, virtual reality sessions) for children and teens.
CAN YOU SHARE YOUR LIBRARY LOCKDOWN EXPERIENCE? WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO CLOSE DOWN AND THEN REOPEN?
Let’s just say it was crazy! It was a huge learning curve for me. I was actually on my lunch break at home when I was watching [Prime Minister] Jacinda Ardern announce that our country would be moving into Level 3 [restricted activities]. That meant that libraries would be closed. I decided to cut my lunch break short and get back to work and inform the staff. About 2 minutes later, our libraries and cultural services manager called and said we had to get everyone out of the library and lock the doors. Once everyone was out of the library, we had a team meeting and rewatched Jacinda’s update. That afternoon and the next day, staffers were cleaning the libraries from top to bottom. At this stage, there was some confusion around who was going to be working from home.
The day after that, we were in Level 4 [full lockdown]. This meant we had to stay home and could only really access petrol stations, doctors, chemists, and supermarkets. I received a call from my manager saying we were all going to be working, so within days, South Taranaki District Libraries staffers were fully equipped to work from home. We did welfare calls to our patrons, signed schoolchildren up with library cards, had Zoom meetings and professional development, signed people up with Skinny Jump Wi-Fi modems, did some indexing of our genealogy books, and offered online activities such as storytimes, cooking videos, science videos, shared reading groups, book clubs, etc. We were all very busy during Level 4.
After 4 weeks, we moved back into Level 3. This meant we were now able to do a “click and collect” service for our patrons, which we were running Monday–Friday, 11 a.m.–2 p.m. At the Hawera Library, we split staffers into two groups, with group one working on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and group two working Tuesday and Thursday. We were split into two groups so staffers didn’t go expanding their “bubble” too big. Patrons were able to ring us or use our online library catalog to put books on hold. We would then pick them off the shelf, quarantine them for 3 days, and then the patron would come to the front step of the library to pick them up. It was really nice to be back in the library, even if it was just for 3 hours. It was still expected of staff to work from home when not working in the library.
A couple of weeks later, we went to Level 2 [reduced restrictions]. This meant we were allowed to have the public back in the library. But we had to do contact tracing, we weren’t allowed any more than 25 people in the Hawera Library at a time, there was 2-meter distancing between people, we moved our couches and big tables out of the library so people stuck to social distancing, and our public toilets were closed. If someone touched a book on the shelf and decided they didn’t want it, they had to put it through our returns slot, and we would quarantine it for 3 days—this was the same for normal returns too. We were in Level 2 for almost 4 weeks. Now we are in Level 1 [staying prepared in case of restrictions], so that means the toilets are open, our tables and couches are back, programs have started back up, there is no longer a limit on people allowed in the library at one time, and no more contact tracing. Everything is pretty much back to normal.
From Patron to Staff Member
Hot off the heels of my interview with Tyla Winter from the South Taranaki District Libraries system is Emily Clough, another wonderful staff member at the same library system. I was very excited to talk to Emily because she does not have a library background and because of how involved she’s been with delivering library programs, events, and services since the pandemic began.
YOU ARE NEW TO PUBLIC LIBRARIES. CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT HOW YOU CAME TO WORK IN ONE? WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR PAST EXPERIENCES WITH LIBRARIES THAT LED YOU TO THIS JOB?
I had never worked in a library before I started at the South Taranaki District Libraries system, although I have always been a big library user. I am an exercise physiologist by trade and worked as one in Sydney, but after moving back to my hometown of Hawera, working part-time at the library just felt like the perfect fit for returning to the workforce once my youngest turned 2. Although on the surface, working in a library is very different to exercise physiology, it is similar in the way we are here to be of service to people, and we can help make meaningful change in people’s lives, which I just love. I have always loved libraries, and no matter where I’ve lived in the world, I always find the library—I think I am a member of at least six libraries! I love being surrounded by books, but have also come to realize that libraries are so much more than just books, and it’s an exciting environment to work in and to learn in.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE BEEN WORKING ON?
I have just finished working on live Facebook virtual storytimes for preschoolers, which were a feature of our COVID-19 experience. The last of these were filmed with our South Taranaki mayor, Phil Nixon, where we celebrated New Zealand Book Awards for Children & Young Adults finalists.
We will be moving into a brand-new building within 2 years and are working on updating our primary school reading program, where children read 50 books over 10 genres. We are going to modernize it and create something fitting of our beautiful new building that will hopefully get children really excited about reading good-quality books that will expand and challenge our children’s reading abilities, while at the same time create an environment for children to share their love of reading with each other. We have 18 months or so to work on it and are very excited about what the finished product will look like.
I run the Casual Cuppa sessions, which are now up and running again, and am excited about being able to book guest speakers again. We have an international adult storyteller, Andy Wright, joining us virtually … which is an exciting new experience for us and enables people districtwide to be able to join in. I am also looking to introduce some technology sessions into our [programs], similar to the ones we run with schoolchildren.
CAN YOU SHARE YOUR COVID-19 LIBRARY LOCKDOWN EXPERIENCE?
COVID-19 was/is certainly unnerving, but we’ve learnt some valuable new tools for how we communicate with our patrons and how we run our programs that have been extremely beneficial and have changed the way we do things going forward. Like everyone, initially, we had to adapt to the new normal of social distancing and round-the-clock cleaning and quarantining books, for example, before we went into lockdown, and our focus became keeping ourselves and our customers safe, while all our programming ceased. During lockdown, our focus was to keep in contact with our customers and to make sure they knew about our online services and that they were doing OK during lockdown. Between our seven libraries, we posted weekly virtual storytimes and cooking and science videos, hosted book clubs for our children with New Zealand authors via Zoom, and saw a huge increase in the number of ebooks being issued.
[The country’s] Level 3 [restrictions] saw us return to our building in split shifts 4 hours a day as we offered a “click and collect” service at our front door. It was great to be able to issue physical books again and to see each other as well as our customers. Level 2 life began to look a bit more like normal as we opened our doors to customers, albeit with contact tracing, constant cleaning, social distancing, and limited seating and computer usage to limit the number of people in the building at one time. We also reintroduced some limited programming and continued the quarantining of books initially. Level 1 very quickly returned life pretty much to normal as we stopped contact tracing and social distancing requirements, and all programming returned with no limitations, although of course we are keeping up our hygiene standards!
Our libraries have learnt a lot throughout lockdown, particularly new ways of reaching people and delivering our content, and we are keen to continue to use these new tools. For example, between our seven libraries, we are producing weekly videos for social media related to STEAM activities and have held virtual book clubs with schools in our district that normally wouldn’t receive an author visit due to distance.
We are really enjoying being able to see people in our library, and though it has been quiet initially following lockdown, there is a real buzz starting to develop, and we are now getting back into the swing of things. We really are truly blessed in New Zealand and certainly won’t be taking our good fortune for granted. If the worst happens and we get a second wave, we now know exactly what is required of us to keep operating.