By Matt Clevenger
For Miami Valley Today
MIAMI COUNTY — Local libraries have found some inventive new ways to serve their patrons during the coronavirus shutdown, from streaming children’s storytimes on facebook to offering databases with free access to e-books, music, movies and TV shows.
“A library is about connecting with your community,” Tipp City Public Library director Lisa Santucci said. “We’re just trying to find all of those new ways electronically to keep that connectivity; it’s crucial.”
“While the building has been closed, much of our in-person programming has transitioned to the virtual world,” Troy Miami-County Public Library director Rachelle Via said. “We’ve had storytimes for children and adults, including bilingual storytime, as well as digital treasure hunts, tutorials on using databases like Ancestry, staff-picks book recommendations, craft tutorials, exercise programs, and much more.”
Usage of databases and free streaming services like Hoopla increased dramatically in March and April. “We have Hoopla, Overdrive (Libby), Flipster, RBDigital, and Kanopy,” Via said. “Our circulation of those items in March was up 20% to over 8,000 items checked out.”
The Tipp City Public Library saw approximately 700 more uses of electronic resources than normal in March. “Hoopla is very popular,” Santucci said. “A lot of people don’t have cable, but they can put this app on their phone or on an i-pad or a laptop.”
“Digital library usage has definitely gone up, so that’s good,” West Milton Public Library director Katy Enright-Miller said. “People are still using our resources.”
Wi-fi access has also been popular, even with buildings closed, and many libraries have also found ways to issue new patrons library cards during the shutdown. “People park their car, and sit in front of the building and use our wi-fi,” Santucci said. “We had an increase of 250 uses of wi-fi when the building was closed for 50% of the time.”
“We’ve given out a lot of library cards,” she said. “We’ve figured out a way to allow for new patrons to get a library card that then gives them access to all of the e-books and electronic resources that we have.”
Comparing figures for digital resources to those for traditional foot traffic can be difficult. “In March of last year, we had more than 15,000 people visit the Troy library,” Via said. “Our digital circulation doesn’t even come close to what we do in physical materials.”
“I think there are definitely people who switched to the online platform,” she said, “but we know there are people that are not getting the books they need based on the phone calls and messages we get.”
“This is totally unprecedented,” Enright-Miller said. “We really want people to come in the library; our whole goal is to get people to come here, so it’s really difficult to try and change your mindset.”
Most local libraries had their last day of truly normal operations sometime around March 14, and all of them were closed completely by March 21. “Our last day open was Saturday, March 14,” Piqua Public Library director Jim Oda said.
“We did a phase-out closing,” Santucci said. “When the restrictions started we went to what is called curbside, and then about eight days later on Saturday, March 21 we had to close completely and send all the staff home.”
Re-opening dates will be different for each library, ranging from May 4 at the Milton-Union Public Library to mid-may or early June at the Piqua Public Library. The Troy-Miami County Public Library plans to re-open by May 11 at the earliest.
“Our earliest opening will be mid-May to early June, depending on circumstances of the virus,” Oda said of the Piqua Public Library.
Most library buildings will remain closed to the public, and materials will be delivered through curbside pick-up. “We are planning on re-opening for pick-up and delivery services only,” Enright-Miller said of the West Milton Library. “Staff will have gloves and face coverings on at all times, and we’ll practice social distancing.”
“We’re going to open, just not the building,” Santucci said. “We’re going to extend some services where people can drive up and just grab some books and go.”
Local library directors are also meeting weekly to discuss the possibility of sharing resources for the upcoming summer reading program. “Miami County libraries have begun talking about a shared summer reading program,” Via said. “We will be doing something; it will just be very different than anything we have done before.”
In general, most libraries are guided the governor’s restrictions, as well as recommendations from organizations like the Ohio Library Council. Opening dates for individual libraries are usually decided by that libraries board of trustees.
The re-openings are a positive sign, but it could be a long time before any libraries fully recover from the effects of the shutdown. Most local libraries are planning on an approximately 20 percent budget cut, and some have even been forced to lay off workers.
“We laid off a majority of our staff April 18,” Via said of the Troy-Miami County Public Library. “We had 44 employees, or roughly 24 full-time employees. We have 10 full and part-time people working in the building or tele-working if they are able.”
“We are preparing for a minimum reduction in funding of 20% out of a $2 million budget,” she said.
“We’re going to have big cutbacks,” Santucci said. “We are trying to examine our budget, and just prepare ourselves to cut back. We’re trying to figure out how we can do this.”
In Ohio, public library funding is mainly generated through sales and property tax collections, so the full financial effect of the shutdown won’t be felt until later this year.
“We will know in mid-May,” Santucci said. “We will have better numbers, because public libraries in Ohio are funded from the general sales tax, so it’s directly from the economy.”
“If there’s no economy, we’re very concerned,” she said. “We’re going to have a tumultuous time, but I believe it will come back to us.”
“We’re gong to be making some cuts, but it’s important that we still provide good programming and good services for all of our patrons,” Enright-Miller said. “The community supports us, so we want to support them and provide what they need.”
“Libraries have changed their roles in society over centuries and will continue to adapt to be what our community wants and needs,” Via said.