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Library remains ‘community hub’ despite physical closure

by Isabel Mosseler

The West Nipissing Public Library’s five local branches have been physically closed since March 16th due to COVID-19 concerns. Library CEO Émélie Keenan has been busy with her staff trying to make many of the library services available to everyone through technology, and suggests that instead of being glued to television, to your Facebook feed, or feeling bored and/or isolated – now is a good time to read a book! All you need is a computer, tablet or E-reader, and a library card to access some great reading materials, in both French and English.

The West Nipissing Public Library took a big financial hit on May 5, when WN town council revisited its budget in light of COVID-19 and resolved to cut $40,000, saying the library could make up the shortfall by using some of its $380K in reserves. It was noted that the reserve funds were earmarked for a future move to a new facility. Some members wanted to cut $50,000 from the library, however Coun. Jeremy Seguin, who sits on the library board, explained that an emergency meeting was held and the library board was amenable to a $40,000 cut, while dipping into reserves to maintain the level of service. Keenan was called on at the meeting, and explained that the staff was still working and stepping up their online services in response to the pandemic.

A lot of people may not realize how accessible the online library actually is, she says. “There are lot of people who are unaware of the things they can be taking advantage of right now, especially since we can’t go into the library. Everyone has access to our catalogue online. A lot of people have books at home and are calling us because they can’t bring them back right now, asking what they can do, because there are fines (for late books), and if you have too many fines on your account you’re locked out, and you can’t have access to the E-resources.” The library doesn’t have the ability to remove the fines, but they are forgiving all fines and the member can simply keep renewing their books so the fines do not impact their ability to access materials.

The drop box is closed off to returns. Keenan explains that the boxes were getting full and staff can’t remove the books without going through an extensive sanitization procedure. “We’ve asked everyone to keep everything they have at home for the time being, until we can start to take them in safely.” Libraries have been considering the use of UV lighting, but a procedure had yet to be developed.

Despite all the restrictions, the library is adapting to keep readers satisfied, and it’s a lot of work. “There are our E-resources we can provide through our website, we have E-books, and all those need to be maintained, kept up and advertised. (…) A lot of people are just starting to recognize all the services we offer through E-books, so we are busy creating cards virtually, so people are emailing and calling us and we can answer their questions, if they have concerns on how those things work.” If you don’t have a library card, you can’t access the huge catalogue of resources, locally and provincially, but it’s no problem getting a card – and it’s free. Keenan says books can open up your world in this time of isolation, and it’s a great way to entertain kids.

They are also reaching families online. “We’re sharing a lot of resources that are specifically geared towards children… Online story times, etc. (…) We understand that this summer we won’t be able to do the big activities that we like to do, so we are looking for alternatives to that. We’d still like to be able to provide for those families, but in a different way.” Keenan is open to suggestions, people who can propose activities like storytelling, online art classes or music geared towards families. “Absolutely, we’re always looking for people to help us out. It would be a great idea to not only provide for members of the community, but also to boost other businesses and establishments in the community.” The potential is limitless. Do you offer knitting? Sewing? Crafts? Do you have a book club? A writing or poetry group? “A couple of weeks back, Thunder Bay had created an Online Escape Room that all libraries could share with their community, and it was very popular with our patrons, so it was fun.”

Of course, printed books are still available to order as well. “Overdrive is a large consortium of books that we share with all libraries. We also purchase our own titles on there, and on our own purchased titles there is no wait time. (…) Those titles that we own are on our website, on the “New Titles” tab. They are expensive so we do try to get the more popular titles, but we don’t have all of them because of the price. What Overdrive does is offer specific titles that are free and they offer to as many people as want them.” So if you see a book review somewhere, or get a title from a friend, you can access Overdrive through your library card and borrow the book, or put it on hold until it becomes available (depending on how many people are in the queue).

The reading application for your tablet, phone or E-Reader is called Libby. It’s free, and exceptionally easy to use. “Libby is really user friendly. All you need is your library name and your library card number.” A corollary French-language online book service is also available.

For now, there is no telling when the library will be able to welcome in-person visitors again, but the staff is preparing. “Staff is going in one-at-a-time into the library to get tasks done. (…) We are doing a thorough cleaning and inventory of books, videos and other materials, cleaning, getting rid of the older (unused) materials, making a list of items that need to be replaced.” The stacks are being reorganized so people do not have to bend down low to the ground or reach too high, “so it’s more accessible to more people. I know that sounds boring and insignificant, but it’s a real challenge to many people who come into the library.” Keenan says they want to be ready for when they are allowed to open up again.

In the meantime, it’s all about flexibility and bringing the library into the home. “There are so many new projects we’re trying to work out, and we should be coming up with new material shortly, whether book club or children’s activities that we want to get out so people can enjoy.” The library can be instrumental in tackling the problems of loneliness and inactivity during COVID-19, Keenan believes. “During our board meeting this morning, even just doing a Zoom for Baby Yoga, an activity where moms would get together with their babies, and talk and do some yoga, a Zoom circle where moms could chat, that would be very cool. Technology lets us do so much more during this time, and we’re trying to look at the social aspect.”

The library is not dead, she stresses. “We’re in lockdown, but the library isn’t down. It’s still operating and has a multitude of offerings for you, and a host of very creative librarians actively working on more solutions during COVID.” Keenan concludes, “Before we closed it was a community hub; it’s a place where everyone can get together. We’re really trying to work towards making it the same situation but in a different way.”

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