Public libraries across the country have moved to take story time and other programs digital. 

Apr 30 2020

How Public Libraries Are Expanding Digital Service Offerings

Though libraries have temporarily shut their doors, they are still providing digital books and assisting residents.

Across the country, public libraries large and small closed their doors due to governors’ executive orders to limit the spread of the coronavirus. But that doesn’t mean they have stopped serving the public. 

Instead, public libraries have been using a variety of technologies to rapidly expand digital service offerings and aid their communities. 

That includes not just electronic books and streaming video of story time and other library programs but also remote support from librarians using technology to telework — and even creating personal protective equipment for healthcare workers using 3D printers. 

According to a survey the Public Library Association released earlier this month, the broadest survey of public libraries’ response to the pandemic to date, almost all of the 2,545 unique responses nationwide (98 percent) reported their buildings were closed to the public.

However, the PLA found, “in many cases, staff continued to expand access to digital resources, launch virtual programs and coordinate services with local government agencies,” according to a news release. Indeed, 76 percent of respondents reported they extended online renewal policies, with a similar amount (74 percent) saying they had expanded online services like e-books and streaming media. Sixty-one percent said they had added virtual programming. 

“As circumstances change daily for all of us, I am proud of the dedicated and creative work of our public libraries and their staff to serve everyone from toddlers to isolated senior citizens to small business owners,” PLA President Ramiro Salazar said in a statement. “We are shifting popular programs online, sharing hyperlocal information and resources, and continuing to connect with our communities by chat, text, phone and email. Additionally, libraries are preparing for even greater need to support unemployed workers and small businesses than we experienced during the Great Recession.”

Public Libraries Are Going Digital to Serve Residents

Downloads of digital books are up substantially, which is not surprising given the widespread stay-at-home orders in place. During March, checkouts of e-books from the Des Moines Public Library rose 25 percent, according to the Des Moines Register, and more than 750 new users accessed the library’s e-books and e-audiobooks. 

Additionally, the library issued more than 1,000 new digital library cards, and streaming video use soared 60 percent in the past month, the newspaper reports. 

Libraries from Bell County, Texas, to Monmouth County, N.J., have taken story times digital for younger residents. 

“Our services are so essential and facilities’ closures have created an expansion of use for online informational resources by our patrons,” Judi Tolchin, director of the Monmouth County Library system, tells centraljersey.com. “The Monmouth County Library system has worked diligently to provide accessible digital resources available 24/7 from our website as we have in the past. However, as our buildings are closed, more of our users have migrated to our electronic collections and usage has substantially increased.”

Libraries are also turning to technology to ensure librarians and other staff members can still help residents despite not being among the stacks. 

According to Tolchin, in early April the library’s staff configured 70 laptops to deploy to staff members for use as they work remotely. 

READ MORE: Discover how public libraries help build new tech skills.

“Remote phone, online chat and email reference inquiries totaled 870 patrons assisted from March 17 to April 4, when we started keeping a record of daily reference service activity,” she says. “The Monmouth County Library children’s librarians are also hard at work creating virtual story times through our Facebook page.”

And in El Dorado County, Calif., which sits east of Sacramento, the public library is making use of its large 3D printing lab, according to the PLA, and its lead volunteer is working with the El Dorado Community Foundation to use the printers to print face shields for local and regional hospitals and county facilities. As of early April, the library had delivered 700 face shields and plans to print 15,000 shields.

Baldwin Public Library in Birmingham, Mich., is also printing visors for face shields, sourcing the clear plastic component needed for the shield, then attaching the two, according to American Libraries magazine. The magazine also reports that Monterey County Library in California has two 3D printers being used to produce protective N95 masks.

“Libraries continue to play essential roles in our communities even as we close our buildings and work remotely to best ensure health and safety,” the PLA’s Salazar says. “In coming months, we will need libraries to safely reopen, support distance learning and telework and expand economic recovery services for impacted businesses and workers.”

San José Public Library/Flickr, Creative Commons