Libraries adapt to serve customers during COVID-19 pandemic

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Jana Maher misses the interaction of her story times as Miss Sparkles at the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, she’s gone virtual and also has held outdoor story times in parks for families. With winter coming, virtual might be the only option available.

But the library’s children’s programming director is brainstorming ways to reach more families. She hasn’t done a story time inside the library since March.

“Every morning I know that there’s little boys and girls watching, but it is just me looking at the camera,” Maher said.

Amid the pandemic’s emergence in March in North Dakota, Bismarck-Mandan libraries closed their doors and shifted their operations to virtual programming and curbside pickup. Staff helped patrons by phone, email and social media, The Bismarck Tribune reported.

It’s been a hard time for libraries in the environment of social distancing, North Dakota State Librarian Mary Soucie said.

“We are about being open, encouraging connections, bringing people together,” she said.

After a few months, local libraries have reopened but with limited hours. Circulation from April through September was essentially cut in half from the same period in 2019 due to the closures, but other library uses ballooned -- especially of digital and electronic materials.

“I think it shows that people really rely on our library for information (and) personal enrichment,” Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library Director Christine Kujawa said.

Bismarck library digital circulation shot up 26% over the same six-month period in 2019. Circulation of digital children’s items was up 104%.

Digital materials include a database of e-books, digital audiobooks and a small collection of movies. More than 43,000 digital items are available in the database and downloadable through an app with a library card.

“Having the digital material available allows our patrons to continue to access items to read or to download and listen to, 24 hours a day without having to come in the building, so that has been a great service to be able to offer,” Kujawa said.

Checkouts of electronic audiobooks from the North Dakota State Library grew by 31%. Soucie attributes that to people preferring to have an audiobook playing in the background while cooking, crafting or working from home.

“A lot of people can’t work with complete quiet,” she said.

Usage of the library’s Universal Class database for online courses and continuing education boomed by 139%. More than 500 courses from accounting to computer programs to yoga are available.

“It was another way for people to entertain themselves, to stay engaged,” Soucie said.

Some users also might have taken courses for employee professional development credit, she said. She’s aware of new patrons who sought library cards solely to access electronic materials. The State Library added 6% more library cards in the pandemic than in the same period in 2019.

E-book and electronic audiobook checkouts for the Morton Mandan Public Library were up nearly 9% from 2019.

Mandan’s library also has seen exponentially more users of its room-box and doorstep programs. Room-boxes are totes of 25 items, sometimes with a theme, for school- and day care-age children. The program has 35 users, with some Morton County teachers receiving bins twice a month.

The doorstep library program provides bags of 10-12 items to homebound adults, and has since expanded to serve anyone in Morton County. People must call the library for an application. The program has 27 participants. Director Jackie Hawes expects to add more as winter looms.

Distance learning families and senior care facilities, respectively, now are taking advantage of the programs, she said.

“That is keeping us very busy right now, getting all of those bins and the bags, everything ready to go out,” Hawes said.

Youth services program attendance swelled 65% for the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library. Kujawa said staff got creative with virtual and distanced outdoor programs, such as Miss Sparkles’ story time held in three parks and also five mornings a week virtually. Story time recordings are available on Miss Sparkles’ Facebook page.

The library also is planning virtual sessions for children to read and interact with therapy dogs, part of the Bismarck Animals Reading with Kids program.

The libraries’ curbside pickup services proved popular.

From May through August, the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library saw 3,175 vehicles. Staff wore masks and gloves to deliver items. Pickups have dropped after the library reopened, but staff will monitor the service to see about continuing it, Kujawa said.

Hawes said curbside pickup at the Morton Mandan Public Library might stay, but any permanent changes to operations would come from the library’s board based on staff recommendations.

The State Library will continue curbside pickup and book mailings for cardholders. Before the pandemic, the library mailed books to all cardholders but for those in Bismarck, Mandan and Lincoln, who had to stop by the library on the state Capitol grounds to pick up books.

“I think going forward, our library and all libraries, honestly, are really trying to envision what do library services look like after 2020?” Soucie said. “Do we put all of our chairs back at our tables? Do we open up more of our computers?”

The State Library has shifted computer use away from surfing social media toward transacting government business.

Enhanced cleaning and sanitizing of high-touch surfaces likely will continue -- such as wiping down every returned book with a cleaning solution. Sneeze guards might stay up at desks.

But replacing plastic food wrap over computer keyboards for every user probably won’t last forever, Soucie said.

Kujawa also said enhanced cleaning will continue. A staff person is assigned every day to clean tabletops, chairs, doorknobs and other common surfaces. Hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes are available for patrons. A hand sanitizer unit by the entrance probably will stay.

To some degree, the changes could last beyond the pandemic.

“That’s kind of something we’re trying to do with this situation,” Kujawa said. “We’re trying to find the good in it, things that we’re doing now that we never would have thought of before that maybe once all of this is over we’ll continue to do.”