‘Not connecting isn’t an option’: Library staff continue to serve community during crisis

We are living in uncertain times with a lot of fear and suffering. As library employees, we recognize this reality for ourselves, our households, our communities, and our world. And yet, even as library buildings are closed during the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, we’re striving to connect, collaborate, and make a positive impact. 

Now more than ever, we’re providing the virtual services and digital content people want and need. We’re also still doing regular stuff to keep the library running, like keeping buildings safe and providing excellent customer service. As one staff member says, “Because the alternative is not connecting at all, which isn’t an option for us.”

In celebration of National Library Workers Day on April 21, during National Library Week, we’ve rounded up 8 great ways our library staff are working through the crisis to keep transforming lives and building community.

1. Virtual mental health & social services support

Since last fall, people without adequate health care coverage had been receiving free, confidential mental health assessments at the Main Library, thanks to a partnership with Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Now that in-person appointments are on hold during building closures, our library’s Director of Social Services and Public Safety Robert Simmons is still working with Rush to schedule appointments via telehealth and virtual platforms.

With many patrons losing their jobs and health care coverage, we’re working with Rush to expand free telehealth support in the near future, including nurse practitioner support to help patrons with managing prescription medication. And while many social service providers are temporarily closed or overwhelmed, Simmons also is providing case management support to patrons remotely.

2. No card, no problem: Access your digital library 

Oak Parkers who didn’t have library cards before the stay-at-home order went into effect are not out of luck. We’re now able to create new library accounts for residents who apply online. This means more Oak Parkers are getting anywhere, anytime access to massive amounts of growing digital content, including ebooks, digital audiobooks, movies, TV shows, and music, plus online resources to research and learn just about anything.

From March 23 through April 14, we created more than 150 new digital-only accounts for residents. Manager for Neighborhood Services Martyn Churchouse says he’s also happy to help cardholders who’ve forgotten their card numbers or PINs regain access to their existing accounts.

3. More digital copies, new resources & increased limits

Since buildings closed in March, we’ve been expanding our virtual offerings. We’ve improved access to ebooks, digital audiobooks, movies, TV shows, and music by doubling the number of monthly checkouts in Kanopy and tripling them in Hoopla. And we’ve added more than 500 new copies to Media on Demand/Libby, which Materials Services Manager Barbara Fitzgerald says has helped lower the average wait time for a title.

We’ve also added new learning resources—for example, a new online database to support remote learning. Brainfuse HelpNow is a live online homework help resource with real-time tutoring, writing assistance, skills building, and test prep. Oak Park has responded quite positively to these updates, Fitzgerald says, with both usage and new users tripling for some existing services. Between March 13 and April 10, the use of all digital resources increased by 52 percent, compared with the previous 28 days.

4. Remote customer service, daily

Although buildings are closed, library staff are working remotely to respond to hundreds of our community’s questions and requests, whether they come by phone, email, our website, or social media. Manager of Access Services Kathleen Spale says whether she’s helping a patron retrieve their library account number and PIN or create a brand-new account, each interaction is rewarding.

“To me, each resident connecting and being able to use the digital library is very meaningful and fulfilling as I continue to work remotely,” Spale says. “I truly love still being able to work remotely to serve the community of Oak Park and appreciate so much that I am able to ensure that so many residents are still able to enjoy our digital library.”

5. Interactive storytimes, book groups & conversation

“It’s about providing connection and normalcy during this disconnected time,” says Alexandra Skinner, Manager of Adult Services, whose team has been working to continue ongoing programs like writing and Spanish and French conversation groups over Zoom, plus new ones like Read, Listen & Watch, where librarians chat with patrons about what they’re reading, listening to, and watching while at home.

For kids, our Early Childhood Community Engagement Specialists are doing interactive, virtual storytimes for daycare centers they’d normally be visiting in person. Over Zoom, they continue to provide opportunities for early literacy, social and emotional growth, and—perhaps the biggest need right now—a way to connect with one another.

“The platform may be new, but the relationships are so wonderfully familiar,” says Jenny Jackson. It’s a learning process, she adds, with screens that sometimes freeze, or spotty internet connections. “And that’s okay. Because the alternative is not connecting at all, which isn’t an option for us.”

And all kids and families can connect with their favorite librarians through new videos posted at 10 am every weekday. Children’s Librarian Shelley Harris says: “With so much change happening in everyone’s lives, we wanted to make sure we could keep the continuity of visits for the kids who are used to seeing us at the library so often! We also wanted to help facilitate conversations between kids and caregivers on tough topics. We miss our library friends a lot, and hope these videos help them feel as connected to us as we do with them.”

6. Feeding the fish, keeping buildings safe & more

Nearly every day, the Facilities Team visits our three library buildings to make sure all is well and to perform required maintenance—including feeding the fish in the Main Library Children’s Services Area! Director of Operations Jeremy Andrykowski says a few staff members also go into the buildings each week to pay invoices, water plants, and process payroll.

7. Virtual social hours amid ‘a new normal’

Thanks to our skilled and responsive Information Technology team, staff have the technical support to work and connect remotely while buildings are closed. Also crucial during this crisis, says Director of Human Resources Billy Treece, is a human-centered approach to work. “This new normal can be exhausting and distracting,” he says. “So, any opportunity to share and connect with others is welcome.”

Staff are connecting virtually through Friday social hours, movie watching parties, team meetings, and circles for support. The circles follow a facilitated, confidential process for staff to check-in, hear from others, and get support.

And in daily emails to all staff and board members, Executive Director David J. Seleb always makes sure to share something positive. For example, that organizations have no greater assets than the people who work in them. “I promise you I will never forget how vital you are to the library and to this community,” he told everyone in one recent message.

8. Anticipating what’s next

Organizations all over the world are being challenged during this pandemic to rethink everything, from emergency preparedness plans to cleaning practices to human resources policies and programs that support employee mental health, Seleb says. And the library is no exception.

Director of Public Services and Programs Lori Pulliam says staff are working to continue virtual programs for kids, teens, and adults through the summer. And the library’s leadership team and managers are developing a phased plan to reopen the library safely—all while being responsive to local, state, and national guidelines as they change.

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