Digital, delivery, drive-thru: Oregon libraries get creative in crisis

Special Reports

Historically, library usage increases during difficult times

CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — Sharon McCrum walks up to the window of a former bank building. Instead of depositing a check or withdrawing cash, though, she’s picking up library materials.

All public library buildings are closed due to the coronavirus, so many book lenders are finding alternate ways to get materials to their patrons. The City of Waldport, for example, has been using the old Umpqua Bank building’s drive-thru window.

Patrons call, email or place requests online. Then library staff prepare and sanitize the items for pick up Monday through Friday from 9-11 a.m. or 2-4 p.m.

Librarian Sharon McCrum demonstrates how the drive-thru works in Waldport (Waldport Public Library)

“Libraries are dedicated to providing service to their communities and they’re finding very creative ways to continue to do so during an unprecedented crisis,” said Jennifer Patterson, director of the State Library of Oregon.

Patterson said COVID-19 registered as a concern for the hundreds of libraries in Oregon early on. However, they thought it would just mean extra cleaning and canceling some of the bigger, in-person programs.

“I don’t think we could have imagined a time when all libraries would have been closed,” Patterson said. Although libraries were not specifically named in Governor Kate Brown’s stay at home order, Patterson said it became clear that they would have to close their physical spaces. Fortunately, more library resources are available now in virtual spaces than ever before.

“Becoming” by Michelle Obama was the top ebook and the top audiobook borrowed through Multnomah County Library’s digital collection in 2019 (Hannah Ray Lambert)

State ebook and audio book collections have grown steadily over the years. Currently, there are about 32,000 audio book titles and nearly 50,000 ebooks available to Oregonians for free. They also have numerous online databases, test-prep tools for things like the GED or SAT, and Answer Land, an online chat service where people can connect with a librarian 24/7, in Spanish or English, for help with research questions, according to Patterson.

Anecdotally, she’s hearing those resources are gaining popularity. New library cards have also increased, with libraries signing people up online during the pandemic so they can start using services from home.

The technology needed to access those resources, though, may not be available to or understood by everyone.

Jennifer Patterson is the director of the State Library of Oregon (Skype)

Libraries play a key role in “bridging the digital divide” for people who don’t have access to the Internet, or who need help learning how to use it, Patterson said. They also serve as a resource for job seekers and people looking to learn new skills.

Consequently, library usage appears to increase during times of economic hardship. Libraries across the country had more visitors during and immediately after the 2008 recession.

As the current economic outlook darkens, Patterson thinks we could see more demand for services, but libraries will also be facing their own hardships. Library funding comes from many sources including grants and city and county allocations. Those belts may get tighter if the economy goes south.

“At a time when funding is reduced, but the demand is going to be higher, there’s going to be a lot of pressure on libraries to be able to provide the services that are needed in our communities, and to do so with potentially significant budget reductions,” she said.

Oregon libraries are already dealing with layoffs, furloughs and other measures, Patterson added.

Continuing Coverage: Coronavirus

In the meantime, libraries are soldiering on. Staff in McMinnville are making deliveries (including puzzles). Albany offers a virtual book club. Numerous libraries are offering curbside pickup, primarily in rural areas like Lake, Curry, and Crook counties.

They’re already thinking about what a re-opening might look like, too. Most are considering a phased approach, Patterson said. That could include keeping the building closed, but offering curbside service if they haven’t already been doing that. Or limiting large programming, spacing computers out farther, and installing plexiglass barriers.

The librarians in Waldport plan to keep their drive-thru window operating after the state reopens for anyone who isn’t ready to step outside quite yet.

“There’s a lot of different variables that libraries are starting to think about right now,” Patterson said.

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