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In the pandemic-themed spring of 2020, my children didn’t get particularly nervous with the switch to virtual schooling or when their sports activities were put on hold. But their panic really set in when they found out that our local library building had temporarily closed.
Fortunately for them and me, Arkansas librarians did not want anyone to be without a book. As the pandemic closed doors statewide, the resilience of library staff opened wide up.
April is the official month for celebrating libraries. It marks the observation of National Library Week (4th-10th) and School Library Month. The 2021 theme, “Welcome to Your Library” is especially fitting for a year when the ability of library staff to make materials accessible was as creative as the thousands of stories found on their shelves.
Virtual programs allow children to see and listen to storytimes. Reservations helped ensure recommended limits on crowds. Curbside pick-up became a household term. And when my children found out retrieving coveted books was as simple as grabbing takeout from a local restaurant, they were all over it.
As their classes started back in the fall, their school librarians were on top of procedures. After a few weeks of hybrid schedules and virtual learning, each of my children knew precisely how many books they could check out, and why. They understood that books had “stay in quarantine” for a period of time before being put back in circulation.
Anne Gresham is the assistant director of our local Springdale Public Library. She said the top priority was, and still is, balancing the community’s health with the needed community services. As the staff learned more about how COVID-19 was transmitted and the best practices for working with the public, they used that to guide them toward each next step. She credits the ingenuity of both the staff and the people they serve.
“It was hard, especially for us in the information industry, to know that no one had answers at first. Throughout everything, the biggest advantages we had were our staff’s creativity and our patrons who were so gracious and flexible with us as we adapted our services.”
Springdale library’s organized curbside procedure allowed us to check out materials, pull up in our car and take our books from a table after texting or talking to a staff member inside.
Gresham points that much of the assistance that the Springdale location was able to provide in the last 12 months existed even before the pandemic reached Arkansas. Curbside service, lendable technology, and the ability to check out Wi-Fi hot spots are useful accommodations at any time. And she hopes libraries can use what they’ve learned to evolve.
“I hope that we continue to develop a better understanding of the ongoing barriers our patrons face so that we can find ways to break through them.”
Brittney Lee and her daughter took advantage of the appointment process at their local Fort Smith Public Library to visit regularly and get new books. The librarians made craft kits for kids to take and complete at home. It was a real lifesaver for Lee as she worked remotely while caring for her preschooler.
Photo courtesy of Brittney Lee
Kimberly Mitchell’s children also loved the craft option they had through the Rogers Public Library, while Mitchell was most thankful for the videos of the librarians showing how to actually do crafts.
Benton resident Ricci Ellis has always appreciated being able to download audiobooks and e-books from the Saline County libraries. And this year was no exception. She’s been particularly impressed with how they provided both storytimes and Little Free Pantries in the library parking lots.
Librarians in the Central Arkansas Library System, with 13 branches in Little Rock and surrounding cities, ramped up efforts to restructure services. Lisa Donovan is the system’s deputy executive director of library operations and director of literacy and learning. She said the first priority was definitely making sure patrons could check out books.
“We streamlined the process for applying for a library card online so that patrons could quickly and easily download e-books and digital materials. Very early on, we also figured out how to provide curbside service for [print] books and printing services.”
Central Arkansas librarians remained available to the public. They answered phones, chatted and emailed with patrons to answer questions and help them get information. They expanded Wi-Fi to parking lots. And their efforts weren’t limited strictly to reading materials. In addition to distributing more than 10,000 activity kits, they continued partnering with the city of Little Rock to get food to children and families, something they have been doing for several years. As the health crisis continued throughout the year, they reached out to more partners.
Photo courtesy of Brittney Lee
The desire to meet a variety of needs is just one testament to the diverse services libraries provide. To make sure everyone knew what to expect, librarians all over Arkansas communicated to their patrons. And they engaged the public by remaining active on social media.
In Sherwood, the Amy Sanders Library shared crafts, recipes and live read-aloud virtual storytimes for children. The Maumelle Library posted updates and virtual programs on their Facebook page, and continue to post fun comics for regular smiles. Down south, the Saline County libraries, Bob Herzfeld Memorial in Benton and Mabel Boswell Memorial in Bryant, conducted Facebook live videos to bring storytime at night to their youngest patrons. The Southeast Arkansas Regional Library System, covering eight branches including Lake Village, Monticello, Warren and McGehee posted live updates from librarians and got the word out to the public about numerous community vaccination clinics.
Donovan said that libraries want to offer programs and resources to support needs in the community. Librarians want people to come to them for help. She hopes everyone knows how much their local library has to offer: things like meeting spaces and tutoring, and the ability to check out tools that support education and interests across all age groups.
“Libraries are not just buildings with books. They are also the people who work there to help others. They are there to help everyone, without regard to age, color, gender, religion, politics or socio-economic status. Libraries are for everyone.”
Gresham emphasizes the people aspect as well. Although librarians love books, the most important thing to them is the person reading or listening.
“This is a job that requires a passion for working with the public and the ability to engage with individuals across the full spectrum of human diversity.”
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