Even COVID hasn’t stopped the flow of information
“If information is the currency of democracy, then libraries are its banks,” Senator Wendell Ford once said.
Libraries are the great societal leveler. They welcome all people, regardless of age, race, creed, gender, education level, wealth, or political leaning. Libraries are at the core of a democratic society because they help every individual be a better citizen through community building, literacy, and equal access to resources. According to a Pew Survey conducted in 2015, over 90% of adults think of public libraries as “welcoming and friendly places,” and about half have visited or otherwise used a public library in the last 12 months.
For those lucky enough to have a library in their neighborhood, it can become a second living space, a place to keep the kids safe after school, to keep cool as summer temperatures soar, and warm when winter storms cause power outages. And for those who have no home, the library is often a sanctuary—a safe haven when shelters are not open, a place to rest, recover, reflect.
“Libraries provide information triage and vital social services. This is where people at a serious socio-economic disadvantage get a leg up,” points out Reagan De Victoria, Board President of the Westerville Library Association.
The importance of a library as a neighborhood hub is at the core of the Columbus Public Library’s mission. Over the last decade they have renovated and rebuilt almost half of their libraries with the goal of transforming the spaces “from vaults for books into community centerpieces where people can gather,” says CPL’s media specialist, Ben Zenitsky.
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For the Main Library branch downtown this has meant a variety of modifications: adding a large reading room that could also serve to host guest lectures by famous authors such as Sandra Cisneros, Garth Stein, and local hero Wil Haygood; updating the children’s area; and connecting the library to the Topiary Gardens to allow community members another peaceful reading spot.
“In all these renovated spaces, you can see themes that reflect these principles of community building—walls of windows to provide natural sunlight and beautiful views, and wide-open spaces, to make you feel welcomed,” said Zenitsky.
Columbus libraries focus on a wide range of populations with particular needs, including seniors, veterans, and immigrants. For children, the library offers what Zenitsky refers to as the “young mind strategy” which aims to guide children from the earliest stages of literacy, through the third grade reading guarantee, and right up to high school graduation. For adults, they offer services ranging from internet access to civic engagement workshops, and tax preparation help to assistance with government documents.
While internet access may seem like a trivial thing to some, for many without reliable service at home, Zenitsky considers it to be “a public utility, something that is needed like water, or electricity, or gas.” Many employers require online applications to apply for jobs, and library internet access allows for that. Columbus Public Libraries go one step further.
“Our staff are there to help every step of the way whether it’s creating or improving a resume, working on interview techniques, or even learning how to dress for the job,” said Zenitsky.
For new Americans who may not fluently speak the language and are not familiar with available resources, libraries are also actively engaged in helping immigrants connect with services that ease the transition and help them adapt to living in a new country.
As Covid-19 has continued to spread through our city and many institutions have had to temporarily shutter their doors, organizations like CPL have gotten creative about how they reach an audience that they can’t directly see. Over the last half year, the library has created a method for contactless curbside pick-up, hosted Ebook clubs, run a Virtual Kindergarten Summer Camp, held online storytimes for preschoolers, and provided crowdcast author lectures.
Individuals may not have been able to walk into a library for months, but they can have one-one one time with a librarian online using the “Reserve an Expert” option to gain help with anything from assistance finding a great Sunday morning read to help finding a new job. CPL has even hosted virtual job fairs to connect employers with the ever increasing number of unemployed residents. For the services that they simply cannot provide in-house right now, they partner with a variety of local social service organizations to provide citizens with the resources they need.
Those who work in the public library system serving others also recognize that, as much as they try to creatively connect to community, there are some barriers impossible to overcome.
“We’re all kind of scrambling here and trying to figure out the best way to reach the community. Nothing is to the quality we wish we could have. We all wish we could be in person and working face-to face with our customers,” said Zenitsky.
Whetstone Youth Service Manager Kris Hickey echoes this sentiment.
“We are missing the kids, families, customers; we know that there are families that need us, that rely on us for help, and we don’t have the ability to help safely right now,” said Hickey.
While both the librarians and community members are experiencing that loss, libraries have also been making strides towards structuring their settings so that they can begin to safely reopen their doors for limited use, including critical computer and internet access. They have partnered with Battelle to effectively rid books of virus through a four-day quarantine so that they can rapidly get them back in the hands of waiting patrons, installed plastic shields at reference desks for safe check-out, and put in place strategies for social distancing such as limiting the number of customers at a given time and browsing the shelves for borrowers.
While that certainly won’t replace the joy of wandering through the aisles and finding treasures, it is worth the trade-off for being able to greet the staff face-to face for a friendly and much-missed “hello.”