With the uncontrolled pandemic raging for months, most facets of Twin Cities’ social life have moved online. Work meetings, hospital visits, banking, family visits, and even pub trivia are now virtual events, folks’ noses glued to computers or phones. But where does that leave the thousands of people who don’t have easy access to a computer?
In the past, folks without internet might have gone to a library, but during the COVID-19 pandemic that has become a huge challenge. For months, libraries weren’t open at all, and even as the summer of 2020 unfolded, access to libraries grew more complicated.
“It was an incredibly rapid shutdown,” said Josh Yetman, Hennepin County Library communications manager, describing the early weeks of the COVID pandemic in Minnesota. “The entire county went into a work-from-home posture that included closure of libraries, service centers, government centers, anywhere with anyone doing work in the field.”
Creative thinking, taking on risk
The lack of libraries in the spring left thousands of people without their usual lifeline of computers and resources. That began to change this summer with some creative thinking and librarians willing to risk their health to help people.
“It’s been a time of dramatic adaptation,” agreed Catherine Penkert, the director of St. Paul Public Library (SPPL). “Our central question here has been how to continue to show up for St. Paul. “What are the most immediate and urgent needs at this time, and how can we help meet those needs?”
It helps that libraries have been moving services online for decades, part of a continuing trend to invest in e-books, virtual events, and online archives. As Yetman describes, their system was already working pretty well to connect people to their huge collection of materials. And yes, the Hennepin County Library digital collections portal is an amazing resource; I use it all the time for research or just out of curiosity.
For the first step, as most of society transformed their operations with COVID precautions, librarians took a cue from restaurants.
“A few weeks of planning went by and we were able to get a curbside pickup model, inspired by the restaurants,” said Yetman. “You come to the side of the road and we’ll bring books out for you. That started with eight libraries and it just took off, just thousands of people.”
Over in St. Paul, too, the new COVID precautions meant that, in some circumstances, the library could actually reach more people. For example, the library was able to expand its “Library Go” program, which delivers library services and books to public school students, reaching thousands more people that they had in previous years.
But no matter how innovative or technological the library could become, there was never a replacement for the brick-and-mortar operation of the library itself. To access computers and social service resources, libraries needed physical connections with the community.
Turning the dial
To take the next step, having a statewide policy in place was a big help for libraries as they began trying to figure out ways to slowly open some of their spaces to the public.
“What does it look like to safely turn the dials?” wondered Catherine Penkert, the SPPL director. “When summer came, we switched, and used Governor Walz’s framing. The library slowly turned the dials up and phased in other services.”
Yetman agreed that broader regional COVID-19 policies set a good tone with the public, adding that the statewide mandate was “a big help.” Throughout the summer, in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, the new approaches to opening up were similar: Hennepin County called it the “grab and go” model, while St. Paul branded it as “Library Express.” In both cases, the idea was to encourage people to get in, get what they needed, and get out of there.
“The first in-building services we brought back was computers by appointment,” said Penkert. “Later in June or in August, we added career labs, expanded computer access, and added dedicated staff assistance for anyone who needed job or career help.”
According to Penkert, making sure that people understood the rules “has been working very well.” Patrons seem grateful that libraries are open, and have been keeping their visits short and safe. In St. Paul that means greeters at the door, and a video translated into four languages to help people understand the rules.
Access to job hunting, filing taxes …
The same kind of programs operated in Hennepin County during the summer, serving the 1.5-million-person county and connecting people with help during the wave of layoffs and furloughs.
“We needed to find a way to provide access to applying for unemployment, filing taxes, looking for a new job,” said Hennepin County’s Josh Yetman. “There are so many things if you don’t have a computer, it’s very difficult to access any of these services. The library is often a space where people come to do that.”
Then, following the killing of George Floyd in May, the Hennepin County Library system saw a drastically increased demand for books on race. For example, in the following months, there were more than 40,000 requests for the textbook “Race in America,” by Mustafa Emirbayer and Matthew Desmond. In response, the library found grant money to acquire a simultaneous use license, allowing many more people to read it simultaneously.
The other key component for libraries under COVID has been to bring services to people away from the library itself. In St. Paul, the trusty Bookmobile made more rounds than usual heading to the city’s least-served neighborhoods. In Minneapolis, the county has sent out a special bike with a book trailer, and a van that serves as both a help desk and a Wi-Fi hotspot.
“This summer, the Bookmobile visited over 20 apartment complexes, high rises high-density housing complexes with income challenges, and even a Laundromat on the North End,” said Catherine Penkert. “We really thought differently about where the Bookmobile goes; instead of the typical model of inviting kids into the vehicles, we gave away books for home libraries, and also gave away take-and-make craft kits.”
The budget squeeze
But while demand for libraries has rarely been higher, the pandemic has also gutted local government’s normal revenue streams. County and city budgets have been slashed for this year and next, forcing library leaders to make hard choices about staffing and hours. Without a federal deal that would give aid to state and local governments — no sure thing during a heated election — libraries all through the Twin Cities will have no choice but to cut off some access for people during the pandemic.
“In our community, we will have a smaller library workforce and that means fewer open hours,” explained Penkert. “It will be a real cut that people will notice. This is a time of really hard choices.”
In the best of times, public libraries offer harbor for where anyone can relax, use the bathroom, check email, browse magazines, or read books for free. In a pandemic, how that works has had to change. But even during COVID, at places like Southdale, Rondo, and Bottineau, people are still counting on the library as a lifeline to connect and learn.
“With librarians, people think of paper and books and shelving material all the time,” explained Yetman. “People don’t understand how much more work we do, and the pandemic is an opportunity to show how library services are more than just providing books.”