Countless public libraries, just like so many schools, government offices and businesses across the country, are closed to the public for the foreseeable future to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
And that, of course, means that librarians are working quickly to identify and innovate the best ways to continue serving their patrons.
Live-streaming, increasing audiobook and ebook access, and hosting book discussions on social media are all methods that many of us probably think of most immediately — but online services aren’t the only thing that librarians are turning to in this unusual time.
“We are going to enhance our web presence and increase our outreach on social media,” says Alyson Jones, director of Altoona, Wisconsin’s Altoona Public Library. “But sometimes there’s no substitute for a good old-fashioned library book.”
The question is how to get those library books into patrons’ hands, while still supporting social distancing and public health containment efforts?
In Altoona, a town of about 8,000 people, Jones and her small staff of three full-time and eight part-time employees are brainstorming the best ways to do that.
Typically, the library offers a home delivery service, which sees Jones or another of her staff hand-delivering books to homebound residents. This service, however, is temporarily halted due to public health concerns.
“A lot of our home delivery is to assisted living centers, and starting late last week they tightened up their restrictions on who could come in,” Jones says. “There’s a combination of the public health concern for our patrons, and concern for us about sending workers into homes where there’s potentially contamination.”
Something Jones is considering instead is curbside book pickup, in which patrons could contact the library through email or another system and request the books they want. Then library staff could pack them up and have them waiting for the patron to pick up at the door, so there’s no personal contact.
This is an option that several other library systems are either implementing for the first time, like the San Diego Public Library (this service was quickly halted when Californians were ordered to shelter in place) or expanding, like the Vestavia Hills library in Alabama, and the Boise Public Library in Idaho, both of which had existing curbside programs available already.
Another option is a books-by-mail system, which many libraries, especially rural ones, also already have in place.
These books-by-mail systems traditionally serve residents who either live too far away from a library location to patronize it regularly, or who have a physical or medical condition that prevents them from visiting the library.
This means books-by-mail programs often serve seniors and the medically vulnerable, and that could present problems if it appears the virus can be easily spread by mail (currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the virus seems to spread most readily through person-to-person contact, with spread through contaminated surfaces possible but less likely).
One outlier, however, is the Orange County Public Library, which has 17 locations in and around Orlando, Florida. Since the early 1970s, this library system has served any county resident with a library card with its books-by-mail program, called Materials Access from Your Library, or MAYL.
The reason for its broad availability is simple, says Mike Donohue, the library’s community outreach coordinator. “My understanding is that it was done simply to offer a greater level of service and convenience to our customers.”
And those customers are embracing this service even more now that the library locations are closed. Library staff announced on March 17 that the libraries would close temporarily at the end of business that day. Starting that same day, requests for books by mail have been at least double, and sometimes triple, what they are typically.
According to Donohue, a regular weekday might see 1,100 to 1,300 requests. On March 17, requests topped 3,300; on March 18, there were 3,076; and on March 19, 2,705.
So far, library card holders haven’t been very vocal regarding fears over spreading the virus through contact with library books. “We have not heard any concerns from our customers about spreading the virus through books or other items that are being delivered,” Donohue says. “We’ve seen a significant amount of support from customers on social media thanking us for continuing to provide this service during a trying time … the measurable increase in demand is also evidence of its value.”
One interesting consideration that every library still lending physical books — whether by mail or through pickup — has to take into account is that with due dates extended almost universally, they won’t be able to fulfill every patron’s request.
“In the last two days we were open, we checked out 3,200 items,” Jones says. “That’s basically half a month’s worth of items in two days. In some ways it’s gratifying, because it shows how much people value library services … but right now, we have what we have, and if someone calls and says do you have the latest James Patterson, the answer is probably no, we don’t. But if you want to rely on a librarian to pick out five mysteries for you, give us a call.”
Elizabeth Pandolfi is a freelance arts and culture journalist. She is the former arts editor of the Charleston City Paper, and her work has appeared in Art and Antiques magazine, Charleston magazine, WNC magazine, and other publications.