Library directors and staff are facing incredible challenges in meeting their community’s needs during this unprecedented time of library closure. As a recent article by NISO Director of Content, Jill O’Neill, points out “[o]ne take-away from this global pandemic might be the humble recognition that there are existing needs in the marketplace that are not satisfactorily served by current access models.” In the meantime, with the majority of the nation’s libraries closed, librarians are turning to a variety of currently available digital content resources to meet patron needs while their physical collections are unavailable for use.
One of the librarians leading the charge is Michael Blackwell, Director of St. Mary’s County Library, in coastal Maryland. Michael is active in a variety of eBook working groups at the state and national level, and champions the role of digital content in meeting the needs of the residents of his rural Maryland county. Another voice in this conversation is Lisa Radha Weaver, Director of Collections and Program Development at Hamilton Public Library, in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. With a circulation of more than 7 million items each year, Hamilton Public Library serves its community of more than 750,000 residents through a variety of programs that are all currently suspended due to COVID-19. Similarly, Kelvin Watson, Director of Broward County Libraries, in southern Florida, is leading his staff and community through this remarkable moment in library history. Serving a population of nearly 2 million people, the Broward County Library system circulates more than 10 million items each year through its 38 branches, all of which are currently closed.
All three librarians took time from their hectic schedules to talk with the Internet Archive about their operations during closure, the role of digital content in meeting the needs of their patrons, and the value of digital libraries in the COVID-19 era.
Chris Freeland, Internet Archive: As of this writing your libraries are currently closed because of COVID-19. How are you reaching patrons while your libraries are shuttered?
Kelvin Watson, Director, Broward County Libraries (FL): All of the 38 physical locations of Broward County Library (BCL) closed at the end of the day on March 19, 2020, but library staff remain working to keep up with the public’s demand for its free online resources and remote reference services. With its customers confined at home, BCL is experiencing a surge in usage and new users of its digital resources.
As the threat of COVID-19’s spread increased in mid-March, BCL marketing staff launched a public-awareness campaign via social media posts and targeted ads, a virtual newsletter and customer emails to inform the community about its extensive collection of free digital content that can be accessed with a BCL Instant eCard.
The marketing efforts paid off. There has been an increase in Overdrive eBooks and eAudiobooks checkouts of 22% from March 2019 to March 2020 and a 68% rise in check-outs of eBooks from Axis 360, which offers titles for children and teens, a clear indication of how many youth in our community are accessing BCL materials for homework and entertainment during local safer-at-home mandates.
In addition to providing digital content, another way that BCL is engaging customers while its buildings are closed is through virtual outreach that replaces popular in-person library programs. These include video story times, like this reading by librarian Autumn Dec of the book Dragons Love Tacos, which has garnered 1.1k views on social media as well as librarian-led “Book Bites” book reviews. BCL is even planning a virtual version of their popular “Summer at Your Library” program, which will offer prizes and incentives as well as an online game board and activities for readers and learners of all ages.
Just like the Internet Archive, during this crisis, BCL is also expanding its scope by reaching out to customers in unexpected ways. Staff at BCL’s Creation Station makerspaces are using the library’s public 3D printers, sewing machines and other gear, to produce protective face coverings and using BCL’s 3D printers to make S-hooks (which helps face coverings fit comfortably) to distribute locally to healthcare professionals and first responders.
Michael Blackwell, Director, St. Mary’s County Library (MD): The COVID-19 pandemic has foregrounded the need to provide all types of library content virtually. We are doing weekly digital storytimes so that children can and their parents can have fun while practicing literacy-building activities. We are grateful to publishers such as Penguin Random House that have lifted restrictions on storytime reading of content online. We are doing online trivia contests. We are subscribing to additional online services, such as CreativeBug, which has videos about crafting. We are doing a weekly “Quaranzine” with writing and art submissions by our patrons.
One of the most important ways we are responding, however, is by providing additional digital content. We have added to the number of Hoopla checkouts per month and added content to OverDrive, RBDigital, and the DPLA Exchange. We are a small three branch system serving a county of some 113,000, however, and we do not have the funds to keep up with an increased demand, with downloads exceeding 33% in March and April what they did in January and February.
Lisa Radha Weaver, Director of Collections and Program Development, Hamilton Public Library: During this unprecedented time, Hamilton Public Library (HPL) staff is available by phone, email and online chat. Our website (hpl.ca) also offers 24/7 access to online programs and resources. While our branches are closed, HPL continues to connect customers with our Digital Collections including the National Emergency Library (NEL). Staff is also calling all customers aged 75+, 3D printing masks and sewing protective face coverings, offering online programs and discussion forums for all ages, launching our Hamilton Reads and Summer Reading programs early and donating our book sale collections to clients at our partner food banks.
Chris Freeland: Are your staff or patrons using the National Emergency Library while your libraries are closed? If so, what response are you getting?
Michael Blackwell: The Internet Archive provides another arrow in our quiver. Without additional cost, we can provide another source of eBooks that helps us match the depth and breadth of print books sitting idle on our shelves. Patron response has been sparse, but at least one person has commented with joy upon finding books from his childhood that he had not seen in years, that are otherwise completely unavailable in digital form, and that could be read only by ordering tattered copies from online bookstores. We are not using it to supplant our licensed content but to add richness that we otherwise could not. In a time when we cannot circulate our physical collection, when many are staying in place for their own health, when many are now unemployed, and when an economic recession might restrict people’s buying power and create ever greater reliance upon libraries, a source of information and reading delight is welcome to us and our patrons.
Lisa Radha Weaver: At HPL, we share the National Emergency Library with customers via our website, catalogue and during reference inquiries. Our reference desk is open seven days a week and staff Book an Appointment for those customers needing additional assistance. Customers are directed to the NEL for content that we cannot physically share at this time.
Chris Freeland: The value and role of digital libraries have never been more apparent, and yet, in an attempt to discredit the work of the Internet Archive and the National Emergency Library, critics are using a line of attack that the Internet Archive is “not a library.” As a professional librarian, how is this criticism harmful?
Michael Blackwell: Criticism that the Internet Archive is not a library is so absurd a claim as to be almost unworthy of a response and yet it should be of concern to all librarians. Attacks on libraries are of course commonplace these days. An online search will quickly reveal organized groups that would, for instance, like local government to seize control of libraries to make all collections and programs suit the outlook of a particular religion. My library has been attacked by such groups.
This attempt to subvert a library by saying it isn’t actually a library is unprecedented, as far as I know, but equally worthy of rejection as narrow-minded censorship, however fallacious it is. First, members of a group unaffiliated with libraries have no more business defining what a library is than librarians have any business saying who is or who is not an author. Second, what exactly is a library? In defining the term, the American Library Association, which surely has more right to define what a library is than Internet Archive’s critics, says the following: “The word ‘library’ seems to be used in so many different aspects now, from the brick-and-mortar public library to the digital library (https://libguides.ala.org/library-definition).
The Internet Archive is not a public library, of course, but in an increasingly digital world, collections of eBooks and other resources online have every claim to be called a library. Project Gutenberg describes itself as “a library of over 60,000 free eBooks” (https://www.gutenberg.org/). The word library is in the very name of the Digital Public Library of America, another registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Do these critics maintain that DPLA too is not a library? What about the increasingly important collections of local content digitized by public libraries, including books of local interest—are only the physical books sitting on shelves the actual “library”? Nonsense! Libraries must be free to collect in ways that give access to knowledge, and we must defend our mandate and the people’s right to literacy against any agency that would restrict our legitimate efforts to provide and preserve books.
Lisa Radha Weaver: As a public library, our mandate is to provide equal access to information and encourage lifelong learning. HPL staff members appreciate the opportunity to expand our support to customers during this pandemic. Digital libraries ensure customers continue to enjoy access to content. The Internet Archive offers increased access to research and information, regardless of format or choice of genre. Hamilton Public Library supports Controlled Digital Lending (CDL) and while physical collections are temporarily closed, customers need access in new ways. The National Emergency Library ensures vital, equitable access for everyone — just as public libraries will again provide when physical distancing and stay-at-home orders are lifted.
Kelvin Watson: Libraries are more than physical spaces and buildings – like the Internet Archive, our resources and services are virtual as well, serving our customers 24/7, everywhere and anywhere. Our strong virtual presence has been just as important as our brick-and-mortar storefronts – even more so in times of crisis, when people cannot visit a library in person for whatever reason.
During the COVID-19 crisis, with social distancing and stay-at-home mandates, we are again seeing just how essential our virtual services are. Just because customers can’t walk into a library it doesn’t mean they’re not using library services. They are, more than ever according to our statistics. For many customers, accessing library materials virtually is easier, faster and more efficient. Online or in person, Broward County Library is still a library, providing educational, informational and recreational resources constantly and consistently, to everyone in our community, all the time, at any place.
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