Halifax’s Central Library is now shuttered, but still delivers services. Photo: Wikipedia

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The doors to the library may be shut, but Troy Myers, librarian in chief for South Shore Public Libraries, says he’s never worked harder.

“I have to say — take this as a bit of a confession — I haven’t worked this hard in my entire career,” Myers said, speaking from the Bridgewater branch. “The demand for our curbside pickup has been fantastic. The demand in smaller communities has blown me away.”

When the pandemic hit and public gatherings ended, libraries throughout the province shut their doors and most systems stopped circulating physical materials. But South Shore has continued lending books to patrons.

Myers said the library is “active in the online space” but it was also important to keep books going out the door, because many SSPL patrons are elderly, and a significant portion of the area served by the library has either poor Internet service or none at all.

Users can request books or DVDs online for pickup, or call the library, where they can either request specific items, or leave it up to staff.

“We have a couple of people working the phones, so if you can’t make the order online you can talk to a real person in real time: They place holds for you, the holds get placed, they get picked, and then they are available at any of our outlets or go on the mobile to a community close to their house,” Myers said.

“We take great pride in having great relationships with our patrons… some of our staff have been serving them for over 30 years and they already had a habit of selecting items for people. So we get people who call and say, ‘Can you get Crystal [Madill] or Karen [Cook] to pick out some books for me?’”

Halifax Public Libraries has no current plans for curbside pickup. Instead, it has ramped up digital offerings dramatically. Some services are new, while others, which used to be available only in branches, can now be accessed from home.

Like Myers, Dave MacNeil of Halifax Public Libraries has been busy. The library’s manager of collections and access, MacNeil said he’s been dealing with a lot of increased demand.

In normal times, about 1,500 people per month sign up for a library card. With branches closed, the library moved registration online, “providing access to all of the library’s digital resources immediately,” MacNeil said. Residents took up the offer. Between March 18 and April 30, 5,000 new users signed up. Overdrive, which offers access to ebooks and audio books, is the library’s most popular digital service. It’s gone from a 12-month average of 77,000 checkouts a month to 90,000 in March and 109,000 in April.

Åsa Kachan, CEO and chief librarian for Halifax Public Libraries, said the library had been talking about online registration for awhile. “And then, of course, COVID arrived. We had to close our branches immediately and we knew how critical it was going to be for people to be able to access the online resources. And that, of course, requires a library card. So within two days, our team that had been working on it said, ‘We can get this to the finish line,’” Kachan said in a phone interview.

Woman in front of a sign saying "A launch point for growth"
Halifax Public Libraries CEO and chief librarian Åsa Kachan. Photo: Halifax Public Libraries

The library fast-tracked services it had already planned on adding — like the streaming film service Kanopy — and expanded access to services like Ancestry.com and the PressReader app, which allows people to read daily newspapers and magazines from around the world online. “That’s really important to our newcomer community, who may or may not be comfortable in English… but could tap into newspapers from other countries that give them access to important information,” Kachan said.

The Annapolis Valley Regional Library also added new digital services quickly after having to close down its branches. They include language-learning software (which, among other uses, can help French immersion kids outside the classroom), animated storybooks, and Hoopla, which provides access to ebooks, audiobooks, online comics, and streaming media.

As with Halifax, use of these services is way up. Angela Reynolds, community engagement coordinator with the Annapolis Valley Regional Library, said roughly 6,000 e-books were borrowed in April “and that’s way up. That’s like up 70%, I think… This is a pretty high number.”

But Reynolds is also very aware of the fact that many library users don’t have high-speed Internet access. She’s one of them.

Woman in a tank top with a tattoo on her bicep.
Angela Reynolds. Photo: Roger Kelly

Reynolds lives near Bridgetown, in a spot she described as “really in the woods.” She said, “We actually have a telephone pole in our yard that Eastlink put up during the whole ‘everybody gets access to high-speed Internet thing.’ And we still don’t have high-speed Internet. I don’t even have cell service where I live.”

Much has been written in the last few years about the transformation of libraries into community hubs. They are one of the few public spaces people can spend time in without having to spend money, and they provide not only a place to go, but all kinds of services to vulnerable populations. Kachan rang off a list of services the library is offering as a way to keep serving those vulnerable users: giving out thousands of snack packs and activity kits, dropping off WiFi hot-spots, gaming systems, and Chromebooks for people in insecure housing.

“We’re open to all of those things because the fact is the public library and every thing the public library has, these are public assets. So if we can help to get them out to members of the public who are particularly at risk, who don’t have their own resources at a time like this, that’s something we’re absolutely going to do,” Kachan said.

She’s also “really, really proud” of the Ask the Library phone line, which launched March 31. “We invite people to call the library and we have staff at home, too, who are waiting to take those calls. And the lovely thing is people will call in seeking help about downloading an ebook or ask, ‘How do I adjust my font because I need it to be larger print?’ But we also get people who call just to chat, to tell us they miss us,” Kachan said. “Then we have people who are trying to buy and order groceries online for the first time and need somebody to walk them through that, or we get general questions about getting tested for COVID — how do I do that? And we can help people navigate some of that basic health information.”

As her title would indicate, Reynolds loves the social connection aspect of library work. (Last year, she told a trade publication that her first librarian job was in rural Kentucky, where one of the kids thought her name was “Storytime.”) These days, instead of reading to kids herself, she searches online for videos of authors and others reading kids’ books, and posts one daily on the Annapolis Valley Regional Library’s Facebook page.  “I’ve watched a lot of bad ones to get the good ones,” Reynolds said. “You’re welcome.”

But even though Reynolds understands the limitations of online offerings and the importance of people’s personal connections to the library, she said Valley Regional has no immediate curbside pickup plans. It’s just too risky. The scale of the South Shore system, she noted, “is a lot smaller than ours.”

But the library is thinking about how to get books into people’s hands again. “We’re looking at it really carefully before we start that service. So the idea would be that you would request ahead of time, then go in — and similar to going to get your groceries, we would have people make an order, a takeout order, and they’ll get a time to come when they can pick up their books. That’s sort of the model that we’re looking at…. We really have no idea when we will be able to open our buildings to the public,” Reynolds said. “Probably the first phase is to be able to somehow get materials to people, and then we’ll be looking at a later time when we can actually reopen our buildings for people to come back.”

There’s no curbside pickup in the immediate future for Halifax Public Libraries either. “We have a much larger user base, and we want to be cautious that we we don’t create congestion and put people in harm’s way,” Kachan said. “One of the interim steps that I think we would do first is roll out something that might be more of a grab-bag variety. So, if we’re aware that families in our neighbourhoods may have limited access to digital resources, can we create picture book packages that we might distribute?”

The Keshen Goodman branch, Kachan said, normally gets about 50,000 visitors a month. Central has 4,000 to 6,000 daily. Set up a pickup program, even staggered, and you risk creating either congestion or frustration if people can’t get time slots.

Kachan said, “We are very cautious. With that degree of public connection, which is a wonderful thing, we don’t want to roll something out that endangers people. So that is the balance. We will continue to work with public health and testing out what we can do safely. And as as we see how our province recovers, we’ll continue to think about ways that we can connect with people inside libraries, outside libraries, using different different distribution methods and, obviously, always making sure that we keep people safe.”

On April 23, the Columbus Dispatch reported on the launch of a research project into how long the SARS-CoV-2 virus (which causes COVID-19) persists on library materials.

The goal is to devise best practices for the safe handling of materials and eventually determine how and when public libraries can begin to reopen.

The materials include plastic cases, children’s books, graphic novels with textured or cloth fabric, photographs and microfiche.

I mean, we have all these different materials,” Reynolds said. “You know, you’ve got DVD cases, you’ve got magazines, you’ve got paperback books that don’t have a plastic cover. And you know what? If someone’s reading a book and they sneeze on a page, you can’t disinfect every single page that comes back. That’s a lot to think about.”

Myers said the South Shore Public Libraries are taking strict measures to ensure library materials are safe.

To cut risk, the library is asking patrons not to return materials for now. (Other libraries have also told patrons who borrowed items before the pandemic to hang onto them indefinitely, with no fines.) Some people drop their materials off in the book drop anyway. Myers said those items stay there for at least 72 hours, before they are removed by a staff member wearing a mask and gloves. So far, books and other items being returned to the library are not going back into circulation.

Headshot of Troy Myers
South Shore Public Libraries head Troy Myers. Photo: SSPL

As for the books going out the door, “We do wipe them down before packing them and sending them off to people, and we bag them and let them sit for 72 hours before they go out.”

The library does not give specific pickup times, but asks patrons to call or text before coming to make sure it’s not busy. “We don’t have the population base to worry about crowds, but that said, if everyone turned up at the same time it would be a problem,” Myers said. “We tell people to stagger their arrival time… If it does get busy we set out a few cones and people just get in line. It’s amazing how quickly people train themselves.” The most people the library has had in line at any one time is three, he added.

Expanding digital services made sense in the earliest days of the pandemic. It provided a way to keep people occupied and connected with the library. And because the offerings go beyond entertainment, they can also help patrons learn or sharpen skills while they are home. Kachan said the WiFi footprint of Halifax libraries is big enough that people can go online outside the buildings and connect, though “we are certainly not encouraging people to gather.”

Now, libraries are thinking about what services they can roll out as restrictions ease, and what the future will look like in a world marked by long-term social distancing once the doors re-open.

“How is that going to look in a library where we used to have 35 kids at a library program? That kind of thing is probably not going to happen for a while,” Reynolds said. “Our computer stations are not six feet apart. All of those things have to be considered. There are all kinds of librarian groups who are looking at physical spaces for libraries and what the services will look like.”

Re-imagining the library may also mean figuring out how to deliver services with less money, at least in the short term.

Unlike the other library systems in Nova Scotia, the bulk of Halifax’s funding is provided by the municipality, not the province. Nearly $21 million of the library’s $27.5 million 2018-2019 budget came from the city. In addition, $1 million came from library-generated revenue — including fines, room rentals, and parking fees — which are now not available. Meanwhile, the city is projecting a loss of about $44 million in revenue from services and programs. And the bulk of the library’s expenditures are still due even if the branches are closed, with salaries and benefits making up nearly $20 million of the library’s $27.3 million in costs for 2018-2019.

Contemplating cuts, Kachan said she was “trying to figure out what that balance sheet looks like. And it’s tough.”

As Zane Woodford reports, the city’s revised draft budget includes a cut to the library’s municipal allocation of about 5.3%. Before that draft budget was revealed, Kachan said in a text message that, “We are in discussions with HRM as budgets for all municipal services are being reworked for 2020/21. We are anticipating a significant drop in our municipal funding, however I’m not prepared to speak to a figure, as one has not been finalized.”

Whatever the financial situation is, it’s clear there are going to be changes. And, as with much related to the COVID-19 crisis, libraries may find that emergency measures might lead to long-term improvements in service delivery.

Kachan said, “If we can have a mindset, as public institutions, of not being fearful of the change but walking toward it and being open to trying to do things in different ways, I think we will ultimately land in a place where we continue to provide the best we can for our community.”

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Philip Moscovitch is a freelance writer, audio producer, fiction writer, and editor of Write Magazine.

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