If public libraries had been struggling for relevance in the digital age, they may have found it during the pandemic.

Libraries are often thought of as “the community living rooms” where one can browse bookshelves next to strangers, share computers and attend classes or discussions. But that function as a public gathering place became a liability with Covid-19.

“From the beginning of the lockdown, we knew we had to find ways to continue to serve,” said Stacey Aldrich, Hawaii state librarian since 2015.

One of the first things the Hawaii State Library System did was to beef up Wi-Fi service at neighborhood branches so that people could still access the internet outside the closed library buildings.

When education, government services and so much of modern life moved from in-person to virtual platforms, internet access became crucial. Aldrich saw people sitting on benches outside the library to use the internet or parked in cars in the library parking lot next to Wi-Fi hot spots. If someone didn’t have their own device, the library would lend them a Chromebook to use.

“Libraries provide access,” Aldrich said.

Another mission during the first months of the pandemic was to find a way for people to keep borrowing books in a safe way.

Aldrich hunted for a way for people to request materials and schedule an individual pick-up time at a library of choice. She eventually found a free scheduling program through a library in a remote area in Wisconsin.

“I need to send them some chocolates,” Aldrich said.

She put the online scheduling system in place herself because the library system’s IT person had quit. The Library Take Out service allows anyone with a library card to request a book from any of the 51 library branches in the state. The request is brought to the library of their choice to be picked up at a table set up outside the front door. The reservation system ensures that people don’t end up waiting in line.

In 2021, even after libraries reopened on a limited schedule, there were still 133,333 pick-up time requests.

Hawaii State Library workers use a stick to push books to people that borrow books. Workers declined to give their names.
Hawaii State Library workers use a stick to push books to people borrowing them. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The Hawaii State Library’s e-book collection was also beefed up, and during the two years of the pandemic, over a million e-books were in circulation.

Other offerings were put in place, like free access to Ancestry.com so people could continue their research, and the addition of Kanopy, a free movie streaming service.

Librarians recorded themselves reading books or teaching crafts, and posted the videos online for kids to enjoy “virtual storytime.”

“The library had a wonderful summer reading program that kept all of us reading and even competing a bit for prizes,” said Kathrine Aumer. “Our little one was able to earn a free book and DVD rental. The library system also has an ukulele program where one can check out an ukulele. And these are nice ukuleles.”

In May 2020, the HSLS was one of the first state agencies to open its doors. Libraries opened for “Wiki Visits” with limited in-person services like quick browse-and-borrow, computer access for up to 60 minutes, printer and copier use, and regular periods of cleaning throughout the day.

“The library has been one of the pillars of my family’s well-being during this time,” said Meredith Enos. “I have four kids and there’s no way my wallet could keep pace with how many books they go through. They’ve really gone above and beyond to serve – from online ordering, to recommendations and pulling books they thought you might want, to opening 45 minutes of every hour and then cleaning. The first time I was able to go back in person, that book smell made me tear up.”

It hasn’t all been tearfully grateful patrons and strategic changes easily implemented, however.

When the libraries had to follow the state mandate to check vaccination cards prior to entry, staff faced some tense situations.

“That was really hard,” Aldrich said. “Some people were spitting, throwing things at us. There were kupuna swearing at staff.”

Kaimuki Library sign outlining protocols for entrance. The sign says Covid-19 vaccine or test before entering. The library was closed when I stopped by.
A Kaimuki Library sign outlines protocols for entrance. Some patrons are frustrated by the requirement for a Covid-19 vaccine or negative test and have taken it out on staff. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The librarians’ jobs got so much more complicated over the last two years. Not only have they had to quarantine and clean books that are returned, and clean the libraries throughout the day, they’ve also taken on things that patrons used to do themselves, like searching for books in the stacks and sending them out to meet requests, like Amazon workers in a warehouse.

Adding to the complications, the libraries are short-staffed. Pre-pandemic, there were usually about 70 open positions in a staff of 560 to support 51 branches and support offices. In the last two years, there has been a spate of retirements, so currently there are 151 vacancies, and 69 of those positions are currently not funded.

This has led to limited hours at libraries, which has generated complaints, angry letters and the constant question of, “Why aren’t you open?!”

“Of course we want to be open,” Aldrich said. “Of course we want you to come to the library.”

Tania Ginoza, a lifelong library patron, said she stopped reading with the first stay-at-home order. “Here’s the thing about anxiety, stress and sadness. It can keep us from the things we love, the things that bring us joy,” she said.

In 2021, she set a goal to read a little bit every day, and returned to the Kaimuki library.

“Standing in the quiet and calm library, I felt it, that feeling of having no limits and endless curiosity. The library can open your mind to books you had never considered before as well as bring you back to what is comfortable and loved. The library was there for me as a painfully shy kid and it’s there for me now.”

With much of the legislative session — the 2022 session opened Wednesday — being held online, Aldrich wants people to know that they can borrow Chromebooks and log on to participate in hearings. There is also an updated library app which allows self-checkout of books with a smartphone.

“Libraries are about habit and ritual,” Aldrich said. “I’m curious about what rituals will continue and what new rituals we will have.”


https://www.civilbeat.org/2022/01/lee-cataluna-part-netflix-part-amazon-warehouse-libraries-adapted-during-pandemic/