More than books: How Pa.’s libraries are connecting with communities during coronavirus shutdowns

(Capital-Star photo by Hannah McDonald)

ERIE, Pa. — Digital story time, extended e-book collections, and a growing collection of educational and entertaining video resources on a variety of platforms are some of the ways librarians in Pennsylvania are changing how patrons use libraries in their efforts to maintain and build community connections while the state moves toward a total lock down. 

Libraries across Pennsylvania have ceased all physical operations with Gov. Tom Wolf’s order to close all non-essential businesses last week, Pennsylvania Library Association Executive Director Christi Buker told the Capital-Star on Monday.

“In many natural disasters, libraries may be the point of sharing validated information to help their community,” Buker said. “In this public health crisis, it’s been a long time since we’ve faced such difficulties and having to shut down was not something anybody wanted to do, but our librarians are continuing to be creative.” 

The Office of the Commonwealth Libraries is a subsidiary of the Department of Education, so when K-12 schools were ordered to close on March 13, “there was a week of some confusion,” Buker said. In addition to being educational facilities, libraries are also community resources, she continued. 

Until Wolf’s order to close all non-essential businesses was handed down last week, some libraries remained open, offering curbside pick-up and delivery of materials, when possible. 

With all physical operations halted last week, librarians and library administrators are taking to the internet to share live storytime, YouTube tutorials on how to use digital resources, and even creating a Harry Potter-themed escape room

The educational Harry Potter game created by Librarian Sydney Krawiec of the Peters Township Library in Washington County, has already received more than 80,000 views from book-lovers from as far away as California, Texas, Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia, Library Director Myra Oleynik said.

(Capital-Star photo by Hannah McDonald)

Librarians in the network to which the Peters Township library belongs are taking time during this international pause to complete Gale courses — 6-week online learning programs — in fields such as sign language, Spanish, and marketing, to better connect with patrons during and after this crisis, Oleynik told the Capital-Star.

On the other side of the state, in Delaware County, the libraries have renewed all expired library cards for patrons and have begun issuing digital library card barcodes, so that even those who didn’t have cards before the shelter-in-place order was given to their county Monday, can use the resources. 

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Before the shutdown, Delaware County Libraries had 270,000 patrons, Library Director Catherine Bittle told the Capital-Star. Already they have received hundreds of requests for library cards. Bittle expects that when the pandemic recedes, library officials will have exceeded their goal of having 50 percent of the 550,000-person county be patrons of the library. 

All the libraries the Capital-Star spoke with for this story are doing similar library card issuing and renewals, as well.

“It’s very encouraging to see how the literary world is opening up,” Oleynik, told the Capital-Star. “For instance, Mo Willems is doing daily drawings at 1:00 with kids for free; A lot of authors have also opened up and given permission for librarians to read their books online, which is something we’re doing.”

Many libraries across the state have worked with vendors to change their database requirements. Databases often can only be accessed when patrons are at the physical library, but now materials — including Ancestry.com and newspapers — are available digitally on patrons’ devices. 

“We recognize in this time the digital divide — between those people who have internet access at home, those people who have computers and devices to access the internet at home — we know that those are limited,” Buker told the Capital-Star. “We know that there are a lot of places in Pennsylvania where it’s not even a question of finance, but they just physically can’t get access in a lot of places, reliable access where you live.”

In efforts to shrink the divide, some libraries have left their WiFi on, allowing patrons to access it from their cars. Buker said, “But again, it still requires people to have their own device.”

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“Libraries have been working towards every solution they can,” Buker continued. “Going as far as loaning out hotspots in some places . . . and loaning out laptops in some locations in Pennsylvania, but the way that this came so suddenly, we weren’t able to perhaps meet the needs of all those who had that need.”

Libraries will need to wait until schools reopen to begin physical operations, though Buker told the Capital-Star, “As our rules are changing, we will continue to work within those rules to ensure that every kind of library service will be available as soon as possible.”

Correspondent Hannah McDonald covers Erie and northwestern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star.