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Missouri libraries go the distance to reach community during COVID-19 era

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(Missourinet)– Missouri’s 152 public library districts are rising to the occasion during the COVID-19 age to help serve their communities. They are expanding their horizons to provide services to students, job seekers, book lovers and many others but they are reaching customers in new ways.

State Librarian Robin Westphal tells Missourinet most Missouri libraries are open in some form, whether that be with normal services, curbside, appointment only, or other ways. She says very few are completely closed and not offering any services due to limited staff or logistical problems.

Libraries are helping to chip away at the state’s digital divide during a time when learning and working is increasingly happening from home. According to Broadband Now, Missouri ranks 42nd in the nation in internet coverage – impacting businesses, farms, schools, among other things.

The State Library, in coordination with the Secretary of State’s Office, has given nearly $1 million in federal grants to libraries to expand their services during the pandemic. Westphal says many libraries around the state have used the funding to buy portable internet hotspot devices for customers to check out and are providing curbside service. They have expanded wireless internet access around their buildings for use 24 hours a day, instead of only during business hours. Many have also expanded their electronic services like e-books, downloadable videos and e-magazines.

“Really, I feel what they’ve embraced is the fact that they want to provide better service as opposed to what is the new normal,” says Westphal. “They have really stepped up with their electronic offerings and the way they are helping their communities connect virtually. There is a new audience that COVID has created for the electronic books and some of those folks may not go back to traditional print books because they like what they’ve been able to do with the e-books. It certainly does allow for you to travel with multiple books on one device, which is different than having to carry a big book bag. But I have heard from library patrons that are ready to go back and browse the shelves of their local public library again.”

In northwest Missouri’s St. Joseph, Library Director Mary Beth Revels tells Missourinet her district used its funding to buy 20 WiFi hotspots.

“They have been a popular item,” Revels says. “We’ve had people who are schooling at home this year and they might have internet access at home but when you’ve got multiple devices using your internet access, it can really slow things down. We’ve had people who have checked out the hotspots when they are traveling and we also have people who just have bad internet access at home.”

In St. Joseph, patrons can check out a hotspot for three weeks. If no one else is on the wait list, they can renew it twice for a total of nine weeks.

Revels says her district is also now offering virtual programming and electronic cards to check out items online.

“Some of these things, once the pandemic is over, will go away. But other things won’t,” she says. “I think we will continue to issue e-cards. We’ll continue to put content on our Youtube channel because you just get a lot wider audience.”

Revels says the use of electronic content has had about a 25% increase since March.

Westphal says she is impressed with how Missouri libraries responded to their summer reading program.

“A traditional summer reading program just couldn’t happen. There couldn’t be crafts and reading events at libraries because a lot of libraries were closed,” she says. “And so, we saw so many libraries taking on virtual story times or virtual programming or Facebook Live story times. And honestly, what I see is this becoming a part of a library’s standard programming because there are some folks that will never be able to go into library for whatever reason. This is why I think that libraries’ responses are going to show that they are better than they were pre-COVID because they are going to take the adaptations that they’ve used and that’s just going to become a part of what they provide as well.”

According to Westphal, many libraries have contacted school districts to ask how they can help serve students.

“We’ve tried to respond to that at the State Library as much as we can because we want that connection to continue way beyond COVID. It is so critical that the libraries and school districts are working hand in hand to serve the public,” says Westphal.

She says libraries also recognize the importance of still allowing customers to search for jobs and print off documents.

“Most of the libraries in the state have adapted their services so that they can still provide that,” says Westphal. “It’s calling and making appointments. It might be limiting the time you can use the computers. But certainly, most of our libraries are not saying ‘We can’t help you.’ They’re saying ‘Let us find a way.’”

COVID-19 has brought Missouri’s libraries of all sizes together. Westphal says public forums are now being held weekly for library directors to discuss what they are doing to help their communities.

“What I have found is that the library directors of the smallest libraries are now finding things that they can do in their communities that they probably thought at one time only the larger libraries could do,” she says. “And I think it’s been a great learning opportunity for the libraries to get together and really bond and realize that they are all in this together.”

Westphal says COVID-19 has given libraries an opportunity to really stretch themselves and prove how relevant they are to their community beyond just print books and the stacks.

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