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Libraries Continue to Serve Communities Digitally Despite Closures

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ELLA ABBOTT
/
WBOI
Eckhart Public Library had just reopened after a two-year closure due to an arson fire before COVID-19 closed its doors again.

Libraries across the country have had to close their doors in response to COVID-19, cutting off in-person programming and services that communities may rely on. Libraries in northeast Indiana are working hard to figure out the best ways to continue to serve people and offer resources directly to their homes.

To parents or children, the sound of a library storytime might be familiar. It’s an opportunity for children to sit together and engage in a story while a librarian reads aloud to them.

As the coronavirus became a threat in Indiana, libraries throughout the state began to close their doors. This meant ceasing in-person rentals, group activities and the loss of a space with free wifi and computer access for community members.

But librarians aren’t just giving up on offering services during this time. Jamie Long is the programming and outreach manager at Eckhart Public Library in Auburn. She says they’ve had to switch their focus.

“We really are focusing a lot on ways that we can get to our patrons digitally.”

At Eckhart, they’re hosting storytimes and tutorials on their Facebook page. They’ve even started new services with videos on how to make a mask at home or how to file for unemployment.

Similarly, the Allen County Public Library has moved many things digital, including their own storytimes with the same librarians kids are used to seeing. Stephanny Smith is the director of community engagement. She says they know it's important to keep up a sense of routine.

“We also know it really means something to a kid when they see a face they know. That’s their librarian, you know, that’s Miss Michelle, that’s Miss Mary.”

At Allen County, they’re even working to create new teams specifically dedicated to planning new digital programming.

“So, we have three teams of staff who are working on this. We have a team devoted to children, one to teens and then one to adult programming. And trying to figure out what does that look like now. What do we think the people most want from us in terms of programming while they’re stuck at home?”

One of Eckhart’s programs is a cooking class for kids which they usually host in the children’s library section of their building.

Now, even the Kids in the Kitchen program is being hosted on Facebook. 

“We’re trying to do it remotely where maybe you're doing it in your kitchen at home while you’re watching us as well,” Long says.

Book clubs have moved to Zoom, storytime activities are on Facebook and the library’s poetry contest is even being held digitally. Long says it hasn’t been easy.

“It’s been challenging because a lot of what our instincts are in  times like that are not things that are currently safe to do. So we’ve had to get a little creative.”

The Eckhart library had only just reopened its doors after a two-year closure to rebuild following an arson fire. During that time, the library continued to operate by going out into the community and working with partners to continue to provide services in person. Having to switch to digital programming instead was a new concept for the library.

Allen County has extended its Ask A Librarian feature on their website. Smith says they usually have a group of four or five librarians that answer the email questions or concerns they receive.

“We’ve almost tripled that just to make sure that people can sort of rotate on and off and to make sure that questions and issues are addressed as quickly as we can.”

She says the access to librarians is an important function to them during normal operations, but now it feels even more important to have easy and quick access.

This week is National Library Week, a celebration of libraries put on by the American Library Association. The theme was originally “find your place at the library,” meaning anyone can find something for themselves at the library.

Long says the theme quickly changed to “find the library at your place” as stay-at-home measures began to go into place.

“Because there are so many services that you can access no matter where you are with your library card or just by reaching out to your library.”

Long says Eckhart typically has e-books and audiobooks available with a library card, but that other outside subscription services they use have lifted their limits. Like Kanopy, where users can stream documentaries and kid’s programming. Long says they usually have a cap on how much a user can stream, but they’ve lifted that to allow people better access.

Smith says the Allen County libraries aren’t just planning for what to do during this crisis, but also for how the needs of the community may shift after it. She says following the 2008 recession, libraries became a much needed space for people to find resources, search and apply for jobs and file for unemployment.

“So we very much know and are anticipating and preparing for a return to that scenario, just due to so many people being out of work.”

Smith says they’re working hard to plan for today and tomorrow.

“But trust me, we’ve all been working from home, trying to keep services up, trying to figure out how do we reopen, what does that look like. You know, what changes need to be made. But we’re all anxious to get back there and just keep doing what we need to do.”

In the meantime, libraries have extended due dates for checked out items and are sending out virtual library cards until they’re allowed to open their doors again.

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