Pandemic impacts library services now, budgets in long term

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Patrons that walk up to a Grand Rapids Library kiosk are asked to wear masks.

Grand Rapids Public Library

Patrons that walk up to a Grand Rapids Library kiosk are asked to wear masks.

By TAYLOR HAELTERMAN
Capital News Service 

LANSING — Library patrons may not be spending hours browsing the stacks for new reads, but Michigan librarians are still busy quarantining books and shipping them to eager readers.

COVID-19 forced libraries to close to the public in the spring. Now it’s forcing librarians to innovate to serve the public safely.

The Michigan Library Association, an advocacy and service group, asked the state’s libraries to shut down in mid-March, even before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered them closed, said Debbie Mikula, the executive director of the association. It also recommended that library materials be quarantined for at least 96 hours after return.

The most significant impact of the closures is the loss of a community center for people who rely on libraries for internet access, digital literacy training and employment services, Mikula said.

In the coming years libraries will also feel financial impacts from the pandemic, Mikula said. Most libraries are funded through state aid, fines from traffic violations and millages. 

Though this year’s budgets have not been significantly hurt, Mikula said she worries that ripples from the pandemic will decrease financial support.

There is less funding generated from traffic fines as people stay home more during the pandemic, she said. And she says revenue from property taxes that provide the bulk of library funding may also decline.

Like many others, the Grand Rapids Public Library is open only for curbside pickup. 

Patrons can reserve materials online or over the phone and then pick them up with touchless service, said Kristen Krueger-Corrado, the library’s communications director. Employees place items into a paper bag and put them on a table in front of a parking space for patrons to pick up. 

The library also offers walk-up kiosks where masked patrons can request holds and use printers.

Materials returned to the library are quarantined for five days to ensure worker and patron safety, Krueger-Corrado said. 

When the library first reopened, it even put materials into heat tents as an extra cleaning precaution. These tents are typically used to heat treat circulating items in the collection. 

Their use has since been phased out as checkout and return cycles returned to normal.

Despite these measures, in-person patron visits have decreased while use of the library’s online collections has increased tremendously.

“Like most libraries, we have e-books, audio books, digital magazines, streaming services for TV programs and movies and music, as well as online research databases,” Krueger-Corrado said. “And we’ve seen those skyrocket since we’ve had to go into quarantine.”

The Detroit Public Library is also slowly reopening after closing all its branches.

Its mobile library was initially closed for safety reasons. Now it’s back in operation, but the experience is different from past years, said its public relations specialist, Katie Dowgiewicz. No patrons are allowed inside the vehicle, but it offers free Wi-Fi, book giveaways and up-to-date information on the reopening of the main branches.

Elsewhere, the East Lansing Public Library expanded its materials-by-mail program to everyone with a library card.

Patrons can reserve materials and have them shipped directly to their home. The option was previously available only to those who couldn’t physically get to the library, said Brice Bush, the assistant director.

All three libraries are preparing to allow patrons to enter their buildings but have no set dates for when that happens.

Mikula said the libraries follow strict federal guidelines to balance reopening with the safety of everyone involved.

Libraries “are very cognizant about slowing the spread,” Mikula said. “They’re not like stores. They’re not like retailers. They lend things and things come back, and then they lend them again and things come back, so that’s the big difference.”

Bush said the East Lansing Library plans to limit those in the library to 40 at a time when it reopens and will limit visitors to 30 minutes or less.

“We’re calling it grab-and-go service,” Bush said. “We will be welcoming people in, and the main floor of the library will be open where all the stacks of books are. We want people to browse, but we’re asking them to get what they’re looking for and check their items out and be on their way.”

Although officials are unsure when they’ll welcome patrons back in the buildings, their virtual use has ramped up across the board. All three libraries expanded digital programming and moved summer events online, leading to increased use of websites, digital collections and social media.

Those changes could be lasting.

Krueger-Corrado said libraries wouldn’t have had the time or resources to transform the way they provide services without the shutdown.

The next step is looking into ways libraries can safely serve those without access to technology or the internet, she said. They’re looking into options like an internet hotspot lending program and streaming movies in a park where attendees can socially distance.

The full phased reopening plans for all three libraries are available on their websites. 

Taylor Haelterman writes for Great Lakes Echo.