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Coronavirus temporarily closed the book on Colorado’s public libraries. But they found new ways to fulfill their mission.

From phone calls with seniors to online quiz shows to live-streamed outdoor concerts, Colorado libraries have discovered that they can still connect with their communities

Anythink Libraries employee Marianella Ayala laughs as she talks with a library patron during an outreach phone call at the Anythink Wright Farms library branch in Thornton on June 5, 2020. Staff and volunteers have made about 8,000 calls to senior library patrons since late April in a program begun after the shutdown order for the coronavirus. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun(
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The pandemic shutdown had not been kind to 72-year-old Dolores Blackburn. She grieved the loss of the dog who’d shared her Thornton apartment and been her closest companion. Her brother contracted COVID-19 in California, and while he eventually overcame the disease, she felt powerless to help. 

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On top of it all, her computer malfunctioned and, stuck at home, she had no access to the internet — making it impossible to keep up with her final assignments for the four-year, college-level course in Biblical studies that was about to conclude.

When the phone rang one day last month, she had no idea that on the other end of the line would be a sympathetic ear, a reassuring voice and a willing helper to solve her technical problems and put her back on track to earn her academic certificate.

It was the library calling.

“Being single and being alone and isolated and a senior and all that stuff that goes with it was extremely trying for me,” Blackburn says, recalling the phone conversation with a volunteer from Anythink Libraries in Adams County. “It was wonderful that someone out of the blue called to ask how I was doing. 

“I thought, ‘Why me?’”

The answer was that Anythink, like libraries all over Colorado, had brainstormed to reimagine its role in the quarantined world. And it came up with a plan to phone its 65-and-over patrons — about 8,000 of them — to update them on library services and generally see how they were getting along.

Anythink Libraries employee Marianella Ayala puts on her headset to make outreach calls with library patrons at the Anythink Wright Farms library branch in Thornton on June 5, 2020. She and other staff and volunteers have made thousands of calls to senior library customers since late April to keep them informed about updates to library services due to COVID-19 — and sometimes just to chat. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

As libraries explored how they could still serve their communities with book lending on hold and their physical spaces locked down, they not only moved online but also embraced innovation. Some of those ideas, like Anythink’s phone calls, likely will end when buildings reopen and customers once again can engage face to face with their librarians.

But just as many small businesses discovered, some temporary fixes are worth keeping.

Restaurants rediscovered takeout. Retail more fully embraced online shopping. And public libraries — which similarly felt the disruption of their mission from the pandemic —  also have seized on what initially were workarounds to the coronavirus and plan to incorporate them into their regular operations. 

Most are just emerging from the shutdown with socially distanced borrowing and returns but anticipate keeping popular features, from “Quarantine Quiz Shows” to printing documents for people lacking the equipment at home, once they’ve fully reopened.

“We want people to have a wonderful library experience — the ambiance, the hospitality,” says Pam Smith, executive director of Anythink, which operates seven branch libraries in Adams County. “When you take that element out, it becomes transactional. It’s not just about the books.” 

While libraries remain mostly closed to the public, staff members still work on restoring some sense of normalcy by attending to the bread and butter — basic lending and return of materials. The coronavirus shutdown brought exchanges to a halt, and restoring those has been a balance of customer convenience and attention to health concerns.

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Libraries have borrowed the strategy of restaurants with variations on curbside or parking lot pickup that enable social distancing while books are delivered to yawning trunks or hatchbacks by masked runners. They’ve embraced rules for returns that revolve around a 72-hour quarantine of materials considered more than sufficient to ensure that any traces of the coronavirus are neutralized before anything goes back into circulation. 

“The information is all over the board on this,” says Oli Sanidas, executive director of Arapahoe Libraries. “We try to take the most conservative approach possible.”

Arapahoe reopened its book drop May 26 and began what it calls “park and pickup” service last week (June 1). Now, patrons can pick up materials they’d placed on hold before the shutdown — and there were hundreds of them. 

This week, they can place new holds on materials. When patrons get a notification that their book is available, they click on another link to make an appointment, then park in a designated spot at whichever branch they’ve chosen. 

A staff member places their bundled items in the trunk of their vehicle. Patrons also can walk up or bike to the library to receive their books.

Other area library districts offer variations on that theme.

Parker Library patron Emily Vangeti smiles at Stacey Walter, the department head of adult services, as she places books Vangeti had put on hold in the back of her vehicle last week. The library began parking lot pickup for books a few weeks ago. “We miss going in and picking our books out,” Vangeti says, “but this makes sense.” (Kevin Simpson, The Colorado Sun)

Last week at Douglas County’s Parker branch, Emily Vangeti pulled her vehicle into a parking spot in the lot behind the building, phoned the staff and gave them her hold information and waited for a staff member to arrive with her bundle. 

Stacey Walter, the department head of adult services, rolled a cart onto the baked blacktop and delivered the goods.

“We miss going in and picking our books out,” Vangeti says, “but this makes sense.”

Read more Colorado Sun stories about inspiring Coloradans.

Disruption leads to innovation

The pandemic’s disruption has been, well, disruptive for libraries that lean heavily on in-person experiences like perusing aisles of books, accessing computers and wi-fi and sitting cross-legged for kids’ storytime. 

But as necessity moved them to connect with patrons in other ways, ideas emerged that will expand libraries’ menu of options once normal operations resume — even if no one knows when that might be.

Douglas County found success with “Quarantine Quiz Show,” in which two hosts led online participants on Friday nights through a friendly competition that tested their knowledge of the Harry Potter book series. That program born of the shutdown may continue afterward, though Amber DeBerry, the district’s director of community engagement, would like to see the hosts operating from library space, instead of from their own homes — a setup necessitated by the stay-at-home order.

Anythink Libraries employee Marianella Ayala delivers a curbside contactless pickup of library materials at the Anythink Wright Farms library branch in Thornton on June 5, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

With the stay-at-home order eliminating the pomp and circumstance of graduation, Douglas County Libraries reallocated funds, partnered with a local business and put together gifts for all the departing seniors in the county. Library staff signed up to do doorstep delivery of a small tool kit “to help them build their future,” DeBerry says. “Some of these kids have been patrons since they were babies.”

The libraries also added a program to help address mental health during the pandemic called Headspace, which offers free programs to library patrons that deal with everything from sleep to mindfulness to stress reduction. And while laptop check-out traditionally has been confined to the physical premises, DeBerry says Douglas County is considering a pilot program that would provide curbside check-out of units that can be taken home.

She adds that the libraries’ biggest event of the year, the summer reading program that serves about 10,000 kids, couldn’t have its usual big kickoff event. So staffers are distributing packets in the parking lot so participants will have a physical log for their reading accomplishments as well as some prizes to earn along the way.

In Adams County, the stay-at-home order prompted members of the Anythink team, who were working from home, to suggest offering a printing service for patrons who didn’t have the technology at hand. Staff members printed emailed materials on their own home printers and then mailed the documents to customers within 48 hours — for free.

“It was such a huge success, we’re going to start printing and curbside pickup next week,” Anythink’s Smith says. “We’re looking at this as something to do even when we reopen.”

The program Anythink launched to make phone calls to seniors — an idea that surfaced during a meeting with the county’s Aging Adult Services Response and Recovery team — also resonated with library patrons. Staff and about 30 volunteers divided the list of 65-and-older cardholders and began making calls while working from home.

Anythink Libraries employee Marianella Ayala holds a script she wrote for making outreach calls at the Anythink Wright Farms library in Thornton on June 5, 2020. She and other staff have made thousands of calls to library customers since late April to keep them informed about updates to library services due to COVID-19 — and also just to chat. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A sample script for guidance makes sure the seniors have necessities like food and good information on COVID-19 — a broad list of topics designed to help ensure their well-being. But the most sought-after help wasn’t on the list.

Connection.

“What we found, once we’d called some people, was that their immediate needs had been met,” says Marsha Marcilla, supervisor of Anythink’s Wright Farms branch.And people just wanted to chat. We found that most of the people we talk to, even if it’s not in an extensive conversation, they were really surprised the library was reaching out just to check on them. Many of them said of all the things they missed, they missed the library the most, reaffirming that it held a place for them.”

Some calls led to further interaction. Blackburn, the woman whose graduation from her academic program seemingly had been derailed by a faulty computer and no internet, was provided with a working laptop that connected to an internet hotspot.

One library worker stopped by a woman’s house and sat with her on the porch — socially distanced — and guided her through ordering some e-books. Other conversations took place in Spanish, with bilingual staffer Marianella Ayala handling many of those calls, or via text for seniors with hearing issues.

The callers weren’t on a time limit, but the longest conversation lasted an hour. 

“Once things are back to normal, people will be coming in,” Marcilla says. “This was a way for us to connect to neighbors we hadn’t been able to see or talk to.”

Libraries pivoted quickly

Anythink had to pivot quickly on multiple fronts when it became obvious that the pandemic was going to have long-range consequences and seep into summer.

Its summer reading program, often among the biggest undertakings for any library, had been ready to go. But the pandemic prompted a reimagining. Anythink designed a scrapbook for students to include momentos from their summer. Librarians created activities that could be transmitted online, but carried out at home with simple materials found at home.

“Sometimes it’s hard to remember what it’s like to be a kid in summer,” Smith says. “We’re working with local agencies on providing books for kids and some kits, like chalk and paint supplies so kids have extra stuff to play with. Summer is all about playing.”

It’s also about being outdoors, which is why Anythink purchased more outdoor furniture so patrons can more easily and safely use those spaces beyond the library’s walls. It’s also live-streaming its Backyard Concert Series — with no audience — so people can enjoy it at home.

Arapahoe incorporated virtual storytimes and then expanded the concept with call-in storytimes for those who couldn’t attend the online version. Both platforms offered tales read in English and Spanish.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Whether virtual storytimes continue could depend on book publishers and even individual authors and how closely they choose to guard their copyrights. Arapahoe’s Sanidas notes that the libraries wanted to do virtual storytimes long ago, but copyright issues proved too big a stumbling block. 

During the pandemic, however, publishers have been much more lenient. Sanidas figures that it’s likely the virtual storytime will endure.

“But it’s complicated,” he says, “because every publisher, and sometimes even author, has different rules. Some will provide access and see the value. As libraries, we’re interested in continuing the service. It’s been well received by patrons.”

Similarly, e-books and other electronic materials have proven popular during the shutdown, prompting Arapahoe to reallocate its investment into more virtual materials. By monitoring usage of those resources the libraries will determine if that increased share of the budget will continue.

Sanidas says libraries are always interested in meeting people more on their own terms, and virtual programming during the lockdown reinforced the fact that they can do that in a variety of ways. 

The idea of reaching patrons virtually using the Zoom video conferencing system is something he wants to continue to explore. For instance, bringing in guests from around the world becomes suddenly more feasible and affordable — and is one remnant from life during the coronavirus that will continue.

Anythink Wright Farms employee Brian Parchman loads bags of books and other library materials requested by patrons for curbside contactless pickup by library members in Thornton on June 5, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“It’s easier to get authors to do a virtual book talk than have 300 people in a meeting room,” Sanidas says. “And I’m interested in the phone as a modality again. In the past, it was kind of overlooked, just a way for people to call us.”

Prior to the pandemic shutdown, one of the Arapahoe libraries’ key services was allowing the public access to meeting space. Since that’s not an option now — much of the meeting space has become a quarantine zone for returned books and other materials — Sanidas says they’re exploring the idea of offering virtual meeting space.

One possibility would involve making Arapahoe Libraries’ Zoom accounts, as well as telephone party lines, available to the public. 

“We’re trying to meet needs as they exist today,” he says. “People need to meet, but with physical spaces closed, we don’t know when that’s going to be a viable option.”

“We’re hip to the disruption theme” Sanidas says. “One of our core values has been resiliency. The irony is that when we were creating these, there was some questioning about it as a core value. Until COVID.”

In the early stages of the pandemic, Anythink’s Smith was chatting with some filmmakers producing a documentary on public libraries. They asked her if people would come back when this was all over, and she instinctively replied that of course they will.

Then she paused and thought, “Wow, will they come back?” Now she’s more certain than ever.

“I think that because the public library is one of the institutions in every town that people can always count on to be flexible and fluid and adaptable, people will continue to count on us in the future as well,” he said. “Not so much the building or books. It’s all about the people.” 


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