The Tompkins County Public Library served as a lifeline to its patrons during the pandemic. After facing the worst of the pandemic, this heart of the community beats even stronger today as it has reopened itself to the public.
Amid the dire circumstances of the pandemic, the Tompkins County Public Library team of directors and staff worked to meet the needs of its patrons through digitized resources, virtual programs and innovative services. Now re-opened for the public, TCPL transformed the challenges they faced and lessons they learned during the pandemic into an opportunity to better serve the community.
Even though pandemic forced TCPL to shutter its doors to the public in March 2020, it continued and augmented its online services, issuing online library cards for patrons to access e-books and maintaining their “Ask a Librarian” email reference service. In the period from June 15, 2020 to May 31, 2021, the library registered over 1,500 new patrons for library cards.
Internet service is a crucial resource that TCPL offers to its patrons and during the pandemic, the demand for internet didn’t wane. Although they could only offer internet service for 30 minute increments — as opposed to the usual 90 — the community was grateful to still have access to Wi-Fi.
“One of the most important things that public libraries do is provide access to the internet and it’s a place for many people to come to get access to healthcare, tax forms, all kinds of things,” Interim Director Susan Currie said. “Even when the building was closed, we left [the Wi-Fi] on, and people would camp outside with their computer to use the Wi-Fi, especially when people were filing unemployment claims.”
In addition to sustaining these core services, the library quickly oriented itself Zoom to organize virtual programs for its patrons. From April 2020 to December 2020, Youth Services offered 168 virtual programs to it’s youth library patrons. In the same year, Adult Services reached its older audience with 160 virtual program sessions ranging from bookclubs to author talks to poetry events.
Some other initiatives started by the directors during the pandemic included “book bundles”— termed “book binges” for adults. Patrons could fill out an online form and request a theme and reading level, and the librarians would collect between five and 10 books for them to pick up and take home. As a testament to the popularity of this service, from June 2020 to December 2020, TCPL librarians curated 1,302 book bundles for families.
The start of curbside delivery services coincided with the creation of book bundles, and according to Currie, this initiative helped to revive a sense of community that the pandemic had dampened through quarantine and social distancing requirements.
“All the cars were lined up with families and people were so happy to see the person delivering the books to the cars,” she said. “They know the librarians and it’s part of their community, so it was part of people’s social interactions during the worst of the lockdown.”
By June 2020, the library reopened its doors for “express browsing.” This allowed patrons to physically walk through and scan the bookshelves in 30-minute increments, and according to Head of Adult Services Teresa Vadakin, people “were so excited about it.”
“Express browsing was kind of a community need that our patrons were voicing,” she added. “When it started, we had people that were crying and jumping up and down.”
TCPL’s role in the community transcended the provision of library services, serving as a pop-up vaccine site, a soup kitchen for Loaves and Fishes, a voting space and more during the pandemic. The library collaborated with its community partners to cater to a broader audience of community members with a variety of needs.
With a successful vaccine rollout and the easing of pandemic restrictions across the state, the library has been able to reopen to the public. On June 1, TCPL resumed its regular hours, stripping its browsing limitations and opening up its study rooms and seating areas. Considering that many of its patrons are very young — and not yet eligible for vaccines — the library still requires individuals to wear masks while in the building.
Although the library successfully adapted and attended to the needs of the community, it faced challenges, the most demanding of which was balancing safety with providing desired services.
“It was, to be honest, some of the hardest months I have ever experienced as a professional,” Head of Youth Services Sarah O’Shea said.
Nevertheless, she shared that it was a gratifying experience. In the worst times of the pandemic, the staff realized the importance of the library in the community.
“I think what kept us afloat was that we recognized how much of the community needed the library,” Head of Access Services Jennifer Schlossberg said. “As soon as we started having interactions like bringing out books for curbside or having someone enter the building and be so excited, that really just kept me afloat when it was challenging.”
Beyond the gratifying experience of meeting community needs, other “silver linings” came out of the worst conditions of the pandemic, which the library is carrying over into its current operations. Due to its popularity, book bundle and curbside services — pandemic innovations — will continue into the future.
“Whether it’s fear of being in a public space right now, someone has four kids in the car making it difficult for them to come in, or people with mobility issues, they can pull up, give us a call, and then we’ll bring materials out to them,” Schlossberg said.
Many of the virtual programs were also popular among the patrons. Many adult and youth book clubs, for example, attracted their regular crowds in addition to new members.
“I think we’ve had such good numbers because of the virtual nature of it,” Vadakin said. “People don’t have to wait around after work. They can go home sitting there pajama pants online, they can even eat while they are there.”
As the library staff have discovered, the benefits of virtual programming go beyond mere considerations of comfort. According to O’Shea, the digital book clubs, talks and programs can reach audiences who might otherwise struggle with transportation or provide a backup plan for bad weather during outdoor meetings.
For the summer, the library will be offering a variety of virtual programs for the public and in-person outdoor events. In addition to virtual writing workshops, the library will host outdoor gatherings such as Summer Yoga, Songs at the Henry Saint John Building Playground, and a Cornell Botanic Gardens Tour. Through these programs, the library aims to fortify the library community and give its patrons a source of human connection.
“I think something that people perhaps during the midst of the pandemic didn’t quite realize is that people are just longing for human connection and community,” O’Shea said. “I think that’s really what a public library does the best, so it’s been really nice to open up the building and to be able to offer more programs, reconnect and even see each other outdoors.”
According to the Executive Director of the Tompkins County Public Library Foundation, Suzanne Smith Jablonski, the pandemic reinforced the importance of outreach for the library. In addition to better reaching the community that already uses the library, TCPL hopes to use its pandemic innovations to reach larger swaths of the public.
“It’s really exciting to think about what we learned during COVID that we can use for more outreach,” she said. “When everybody was on lockdown we knew we needed to look ahead and to grow that idea of outreach: Who are we serving that we can serve better or differently? Who are we not seeing that could benefit from what we offer? And what kinds of programs and activities should we be looking at for them?”
Although TCPL is still in its nascent stages of reopening, its staff is thrilled to welcome back its patrons and feel pride in not only the library’s response to the pandemic, but also its growth from it.
“I think one of the things that is often not recognized about libraries, public libraries, in particular, is just how responsive they are to their communities, and this library, during the last year and a half has been unbelievable,” Currie said. “I’ve been overwhelmed at how quickly and how creatively this library was able to serve the community.”
This story was originally published by The Ithaca Times as a part of The Cornell Daily Sun Ithaca News Fellowship.