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Letter from the Director – Pandemic Timeline Edition

Since the beginning of the pandemic, when I talk to friends and family, it often feels like 10 years has passed. Everyone has faced strange and different experiences based on the circumstances of their home and professional lives. I think the best way to catch up and update everyone on our future plans is a pandemic timeline (below).   

While our physical locations had to be closed on March 13, 2020, Adams County Public Library continued to provide and expand services for our patrons. 

When the pandemic took hold in Ohio in mid-March, it became clear that maintaining safety in a typical public library environment would be difficult if not impossible.  In 2019, 147,809 library patrons visited our facilities.  With bans on public gatherings and social distancing requirements, we knew we needed to drastically refit our facilities to accommodate our patrons safely. 

In our initial closing phase, the “Reopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums (REALM)” Covid-19 research project was initiated by OCLC, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and Battelle Institute to provide public libraries with information about how to safely reopen our buildings and handle library materials. At the time, it was impossible to get the necessary cleaning products to effectively clean the thousands of materials that circulate in and out of each location daily, and in the days leading up to closing the buildings, patrons were increasingly asking us about how we were preventing the virus from spreading through materials.   

Battelle found the virus detectable on the most-frequently used library material surfaces, like hardback books, paperback books, the pages inside of books, and DVD covers, for up to 3 days.  The initial recommendation was to quarantine library materials for at least 72 hours, which addressed multiple logistical issues, including a lack of sanitation supplies, the cost of those supplies, and the inability to disinfect each interior page of every book that’s returned.  

https://www.webjunction.org/explore-topics/COVID-19-research-project.html

We’re a member of the Serving Every Ohioan library consortium with over 90 other public library systems throughout the state.  We share a vast collection of materials, and, in order to fill patron requests, we ship materials to one another via cargo delivery.  All of our locations handle a significant amount of library materials, coming and going, that must be packed and unpacked daily. Currently, quarantining items is the most cost-effective way to handle the huge volume that needs to be disinfected.  

The following is a timeline of how our services have progressed throughout the pandemic. As time has passed, we’ve been able to add new resources and maintain and improve existing resources. Some virtual services will become valuable long-term additions to the many services we already offer to the public, while others will be phased out as we continue to return to in-person services.  

Timeline 

March 13, 2020 – All physical locations and book drops closed. Outreach and delivery service suspended. Due dates were extended on all checked-out items. State Library of Ohio halts SEO cargo delivery. Physical book purchasing was suspended and digital resources funds increased, which were diverted to more eBooks, eAudiobooks, magazines, movies, music, and online learning tools.  

We administer the Dolly Parton Imagination Library database in Adams County, which provides free personalized books-by-mail to children under the age of 5, and continued doing so during the pandemic. We assist by registering new children, changing addresses, and approving new registrations by each deadline. The governor heavily promoted this project throughout March and April, leading to an increase in registrations.   

We were also able to continue accepting and approving library card applications online. These cards can be used immediately upon registration to access digital content, and then upgraded to a physical card at a later date in person at the library to check out physical materials.  

We subscribed to a paid Zoom account and began facilitating Zoom meetings for area organizations, and converted one of our book clubs into a virtual book club. Public WiFi continued to be available in the parking lot from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. 

March 23 – Began staffing tech help line 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Our VoIP phone system allows us to answer phone calls from any location with internet access. This came in handy later, while implementing social distancing between staff members while working in the building. One staff member can answer the phone from anywhere, take requests, provide information, notify staff in the building of an arrival, and answer technology questions. 

March 30 – Began recording, editing, and publishing virtual story times on the library’s YouTube page, Monday through Friday, every week, with craft instructions.  

https://www.youtube.com/user/AdamsCountyLibrary

April 14 – May 28 – Staff recorded, produced, and posted videos reading classic short stories and poems, twice a week, for “Read Aloud YA!” 

April 27 – August 14 – C103 hosted library staff from Adams County Public Library, Brown County Public Library, and Union Township Public Library for “Radio Readers.” They read children’s and YA literature, Monday through Friday.  

June 15 – Announcement that first recommendation from REALM study is forthcoming. Began accepting library returns in book drop, in anticipation of recommendations for quarantine and safe handling. One staff member resigned in anticipation of reopening. Library staff reenters the buildings to begin preparations for curbside service and to process returns. Due to reports of a potential 35 percent cut in state funding, we accept volunteer furloughs. Four employees accept, and the remaining nonexempt staff takes a 10 percent reduction in hours. Both actions ended up lasting six weeks. One volunteer chose not to return for safety reasons.  

June 15 – August 15 – Online Summer Reading Program, featuring a live virtual session with the Newport Aquarium, and an online challenge, where kids could read and complete activities to earn prizes.  

June 20 – August 1 – Every Saturday, we published a special virtual story time with local Adams County celebrities, such as business owners, community leaders, and government officials.  

June 22 – Curbside and Drive-Thru Library Service begins at all locations, open 3 days per week. The Summer Meal Service, a partnership with the Children’s Hunger Alliance, also begins, and we are able to distribute five shelf-stable meals per child once a week at each library location.  

July 20 – State Library cargo system resumes operation.  Started receiving backlogged cargo shipments of our materials loaned to other SEO libraries before the pandemic hit, heading back home. Round 1 test results are released from REALM study recommending a 96-hour quarantine for several kinds of materials including children’s board books and magazines. 

August 9 – Extended Curbside Service hours and increased to 4 days per week.  

August 10 – Began receiving items from SEO libraries across the state to fill local patron requests.  

August 18 – Round 3 test results released from REALM study, illustrating the presence of the virus on DVD discs after four days, and remaining on rigid surfaces like plexiglass, Talking Books, and other rigid plastic storage containers for more than five days.  For these items, sanitization is the preferred option. 

August 27 – Filled Adult Outreach Specialist position.  

September 1 – Added a fifth day of public service at all locations and designated it for in-library appointments. Began pulling items from the shelves, packing, and sending cargo shipments to SEO library locations outside of Adams County. Outreach and delivery services resume with modified safety procedures.  

September 3 – Round 4 test results released from REALM study, and are still a source of confusion and consternation for libraries. Battelle found the virus detectable on the most frequently-used types of library materials (hardback book cover, paperback book cover, plastic protective cover, and DVD case) for more than five days when stacked, as opposed to earlier studies in which materials were lying side-by-side.  Most libraries have either utilized book carts or stacks of books on tables as makeshift quarantine stations for materials.  Solutions like using UV machines to sanitize materials are promising, however, the technology is both costly and limited in its current capacity to handle the massive volume of materials that passes through our library system each day.  Currently, we are quarantining items for four days and wiping down plastic cases and surfaces. 

September 8 – Curbside After School Meal Service began at all locations, allowing us to continue providing five shelf-stable meals to any child, once per week.  

Upcoming – September 21 – The library is pleased to offer Curbside and Drive-Thru Service for picking up holds, as well as Appointment Services for in-library collection browsing, computer use, printing, faxing, etc., five days per week at all locations, starting Monday, September 21.  Patrons or families can make up to two 30-minute appointments per day, per patron or family (total 60 minutes).  

Our hours for Curbside, Drive-Thru, and Appointment Services, starting on Monday, September 21, are: 

Manchester Library 
Monday:  3 p.m. to 7 p.m. 
Tuesday:  11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 
Wednesday:  11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 
Thursday:  3 p.m. to 7 p.m. 
Friday:  1 p.m. to 5 p.m. 
Call us at 937-549-3359 to request items or to make an appointment. 

North Adams Library 
Monday:  11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 
Tuesday:  3 p.m. to 7 p.m. 
Wednesday:  3 p.m. to 7 p.m. 
Thursday:  11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 
Friday:  1 p.m. to 5 p.m. 
Call us at 937-386-2556 to request items or to make an appointment. 

Peebles Library 
Monday:  11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 
Tuesday:  3 p.m. to 7 p.m. 
Wednesday:  3 p.m. to 7 p.m. 
Thursday:  11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 
Friday:  1 p.m. to 5 p.m. 
Call us at 937-587-2085 to request items or to make an appointment. 

West Union Library 
Monday:  3 p.m. to 7 p.m. 
Tuesday:  11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 
Wednesday:  11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 
Thursday:  3 p.m. to 7 p.m. 
Friday:  1 p.m. to 5 p.m. 
Call us at 937-544-2591 to request items or to make an appointment. 

Cost Savings

In mid-June, the library accepted volunteer furloughs from staff due to reports of a potential 35 percent cut in state funding. Four employees accepted the furlough, and the remaining nonexempt staff took a 10 percent reduction in hours. Both actions ended up lasting six weeks. 

Physical book purchasing was suspended and funds were temporarily diverted to eBooks and digital resources until Curbside and Drive-Thru Service began. We were planning for a 30 percent reduction in materials spending through the end of the year, but have relaxed a little on that since revenue seems to have stabilized somewhat and the demand for physical materials has resumed.   

We will save funds on our statewide delivery service this year, since it was suspended for several months. Before the pandemic, we sent and received cargo deliveries five days a week at all library locations.  Now that cargo service has resumed, each of our library locations receives a delivery just twice per week, resulting in additional savings. 
 
Public Service

Although we do not have foot traffic or door count totals to report during the physical building closure, we have other ways of measuring the value we provide to the community. We were also experimenting with creative ways to provide service, and are still finalizing how to count attendance for things like the radio story times we produced every week. The following are just some of the highlights.  

Digital Content Usage: 

  • March/April: 3,438 
  • May: 3,401 
  • June: 3,070 
  • July: 2,978 
  • August: 3,025 

Total: 15,912 digital materials accessed/downloaded 

Circulation of physical library materials after Curbside and Drive-Thru Service started: 

  • June: 616 
  • July: 7,324 
  • August: 9,400 

We circulated 9,400 items in the month of August. This is around 40 percent of the physical circulation compared to August 2019. Our circulation totals will continue to increase as we are able to add additional services. 

There are 817 children in Adams County currently receiving a book in the mail every month through the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. Numerous children graduated from the program during this time, and new children were enrolled.  

Hundreds of library patrons take advantage of our blazing fast WiFi in the parking lots of all of our locations between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m., 7 days a week, 365 days a year. It’s powerful enough that even some residents in surrounding homes are able to use it from the comfort of their living rooms. 

I don’t currently have all of the story time video view counts tallied, but they were comparable to the attendance numbers we would get in person, somewhere between 6 and 10 per story time, usually, at first. The interesting thing is that those counts continue to go up, so each story time is actually reaching many more children than in-person story time was, alone.  We have produced over 150 story times since the initial closure of the buildings!  Local celebrity story times fared even better, with view counts in the hundreds.  
 
Internet Access

Lack of broadband access is a much larger issue, outside of the library’s constraints.  For years, libraries have done their best to provide Internet access to patrons, especially so that they can access digital library services.  But even libraries have been limited in their ability to do this due to the high costs of broadband and wireless services, eRate reimbursement limitations, a lack of Internet build-out, poor White Space reception, and no eRate reimbursements for WiFi access points located outside of the buildings. Currently, there are several state and federal plans in the works to provide Internet access to students through funding made available to the schools.  Public libraries have not been included in those proposals.   

While we strive to provide as much Internet access as possible (and we do provide free WiFi in our parking lots 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., 7 days per week, 365 day a year, we are currently limited by the number of patrons we can safely allow in our building at one time.  Unattended minors pose a significant risk to our staff and other patrons, so all children age 16 and under currently must be accompanied by an adult while visiting the library. 

We’ve spoken to several libraries who either are open to walk-ins or offering library use by appointment, and their observations reflect ours after starting Appointment Services:  most patrons typically visit the library for about 15 minutes, even when using the computer.  Since everyone must wear facial coverings, and we have limited spaces for sitting to promote social distancing, patrons tend to pick up their holds, make copies, send faxes, etc., and then leave shortly after.  We really want to get back to the warm, inviting library that just begs you to stay a little longer, but the pandemic persists, so we’re not there yet.   

30-minute appointments allow us to safely provide as many appointments as possible in a typical day of service. Patrons and families can also take advantage for up to two 30-minute appointments per day, whether back to back or spread out, for a total of 60 minutes. We made this decision to give as many different patrons and families an opportunity to use our services as possible, while maintaining safety for staff and patrons. This also allows ample time for computer use, collection browsing, making copies, and other “grab-n-go” services. 

I can certainly understand the frustration of parents, especially since public libraries have marketed our computer lab services heavily for years, and it’s something we’re dedicated to providing, moving forward. We’re currently engaged in replacing all technology equipment at all locations using grant funds, a savings of over $250,000 for local taxpayers. We’ve stretched our current equipment as far as it can go, for more than 10 years, and it’s now to the point of failing. As part of this project, we’re modifying the facilities so that more people will be able to use public computers simultaneously, while maintaining social distancing.  

Staff Steps Up

Ironically, most of the staff feels like they’ve been working twice as hard as usual during the time the buildings were closed. The library has never been truly closed for public service, only the physical locations. I think the timeline is the best way I can explain what the public service teams were working on.  

Behind the scenes, work had to continue getting done, pandemic or not, with the added work of figuring out how to do it remotely, especially during the stay-at-home order. We continued to provide many services remotely, with very little prior training in remote work. I’m impressed and extremely proud of staff for doing everything we’ve asked of them.  

If a staff member wasn’t working in the buildings on any given day, they were active during work hours, either connected by a computer or phone.  They answered the library phone line from home, answered reference and technology questions, prepared and produced virtual programs, and attended trainings. They have been instrumental in developing plans for safely returning to in-person library service. 

On September 21, all library locations will open to the public, offering Curbside and Drive-Thru Service for picking up holds, as well as Appointment Services for in-library collection browsing, computer use, printing, faxing, etc., five days per week. 

We knew that beginning the appointment process would unearth unplanned challenges, and so we elected to begin with one day per week, for evaluation. At this time, we feel confident in expanding those services to five days a week. 

 Libraries Are Different

Throughout the pandemic, businesses have been cautioned to focus on the “how,” not the “when” of reopening.  There are a lot of behind-the-scenes logistics that people might not realize are needed to reformat a library for public service during a pandemic.  Per state orders, to reopen to the public, we must enforce mask-wearing, limit the amount of people in our spaces at one time, and actively encourage social distancing, similar to other businesses.  However, libraries are one of the few places in the community that actively encourages loitering, which is completely at odds with current health guidelines.  We love for our patrons to hang out awhile and enjoy our spaces, but now is not the time for extended visits with lots of other patrons in close proximity.  Visiting the library is not like ordering takeout, either.  When you order takeout, you don’t return your used Styrofoam and utensils to the restaurant.  Libraries promote the sharing economy, which means that our materials, spaces, and resources are used by many, many people every single day.  I’ve seen plenty of books circulate more than 60 times in their life cycle.  While we love this aspect of the services we provide for the community and are eager to return to normal, it’s not practical or safe at this time.  Covid-19 is beyond our control, and we certainly don’t want to be a public pandemic hot spot. 

To my knowledge, all libraries are restricted in some way, based on their unique situations. One of the biggest decisions for libraries has been whether to offer appointments or walk-ins. I do think that walk-ins seem to give the illusion of normalcy. For example, several people have approached me and said that Mason County Library in Kentucky was “fully reopened, like before the pandemic.” A glance at their website shows that they’re only open four hours per day, most days, and 3 hours on another. There are no events or programs scheduled, and there’s no indication of when that might happen. I doubt this was the case before the pandemic.  

Most libraries offering reduced public service hours are doing so to lessen the burden on staff wearing masks for long periods of time, and also due to insufficient coverage for lunch and breaks. All libraries are also limiting the number of patrons permitted in the building at one time. At libraries pursuing the walk-in approach, this is something you might not find out until you arrive. We made the decision, at least at first, to use introductory appointments as a way to help our patrons navigate our new changes. 

For area libraries that advertise walk-ins, the limit on the number of people in the building is usually 10. Some include staff in that number, some don’t. The key to their plan is still limiting the number of people and the amount of time. Appointments are often being used as a method to adequately monitor those numbers, especially those with more limited staff and space constraints.  

I’ll choose two bordering library systems as examples. Both are similar in size and budget to Adams County. One does appointments, and one does walk-ins. Both are operating under reduced hours, like us.  

The first, Brown County, has gone the appointment route. Since many of their libraries were designed by the same architect as ours, I’m guessing that they have severely limited office and storage space in their facilities, also like us. This means that the quarantine area may need to be out in the middle of the open floor plan somewhere, or on the fringes. A quarantined item that the public can easily touch isn’t really a quarantined item.   

If you think about the fact that materials now have to be quarantined for four or more days, that means the library may require up to four times the available space, compared to what they used to use for cargo processing. With limited office space, fewer staff – especially high-risk staff – can’t work together in the same office, at the same time, so their schedules must be staggered. Before the pandemic, we had an office that two people were sharing, barely bigger than a broom closet in a typical public school. One employee’s “office” is a desk sitting outside the furnace room, directly in front of the rear staff entrance.

The second example is Garnet A. Wilson Public Library, in Pike County. This is where I worked before coming to Adams County. While they have 4 locations, like us, they really have a main library and three small satellite branches. Hours are reduced at all locations, but much more heavily at the smaller branches, so it appears they’ve concentrated their staffing efforts at the main location. In Adams County, we made a decision to staff and open the libraries in each community equally. Beyond being fair to each community and their love of their local library, this also allows us to stagger hours so that if one library is closed in the northern part of the county, for example, another is open elsewhere.  

Pike County’s main library is a three-level building with numerous offices, a cargo room on a separate floor from public service, and a basement with a huge meeting room and storage space, as well as an elevator to move things from floor to floor. They are still limited to 10 people in the building.  

These limitations primarily revolve around how many people are allowed in the building at a time, structuring staff schedules to keep the library open, and maintaining the ability to quickly identify and contain the virus when there’s a case. The way we’ve structured things has already been tested after having a case of COVID at one of our locations. By dividing duties between on-site and remote, and confining staff at the affected location to only working at that location, we were able to quarantine the necessary staff while keeping the library open for Curbside Service. In contrast, other libraries have had to completely shut down locations for two weeks because of a lack of adequate staff to cover the location.  It’s a give-and-take situation.  If we are to expand services and hours while the pandemic ensues, we will have to accept other possible physical library closures. 

As readers know, Adams County is very rural and very spread out, as far as population goes. Even before the pandemic, we often only had two staff members covering public service at a location. This was necessary in order to maintain the extended hours we offered after the passage of the levy in 2012. The percentage of local funds for the library has been steadily dropping, primarily due to the departure of DP&L. Without the upcoming renewal of the levy in 2021, our current reduction in hours could become a permanent fixture, even after the pandemic has subsided.  


The Tortoise and The Hare

The motivation behind every decision I make as Library Director, and each decision of the Board of Trustees, is to provide the highest possible return on investment for the taxpayers of Adams County. In the last two years, we’ve provided a 7-to-1 and a 5-to-1 return on investment on taxpayer dollars, respectively.  Right now, we are also charged with protecting the health and safety of our staff, patrons, and community. 

Our aim is to preserve our staff and the beloved institution of the public library until we can return to pre-pandemic levels of service.  We welcome any innovative and helpful suggestions. I know there’s frustration on the part of patrons who miss the library they remember. I promise you we all feel that frustration ourselves. I visited my first bookmobile before I could read, and I’ve loved libraries ever since.  

While we continue the push forward, we must be careful of making too many sacrifices in the short term, lest we jeopardize the long-term success of our library system and the community at large. The story of The Tortoise and Hare constantly comes to mind these days. Slow and steady wins the race. 

—Nick Slone, Executive Director

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