The past year has been a difficult one for many businesses and offices. As conditions and regulations changed from month to month, libraries — like other businesses — have had to adjust and develop different strategies in order to continue serving the public.
It hasn’t been easy but most rural libraries have continued operating to some degree — often providing more services than their city counterparts. Most did not have staff layoffs, although some ran on reduced hours, while others operated mainly from home for a few weeks.
Rural libraries have gone through a variety of plans. Most closed completely for a month or two, then reopened with only a predetermined, restricted number of clients allowed at a certain time and/or with a change in hours.
When regulations tightened and they were required to close again, libraries developed plans to provide curbside service with no-contact pickup and drop-off of books. Patrons can telephone or email to reserve items for pickup at a prearranged time. This often means more work for librarians, but time adjustments can be made.
Returned items are wiped down and quarantined for several days. Some locations also deliver books to town patrons, mainly shut-in seniors. Smaller libraries that receive many of their books on a rotational basis now receive these through the mail, whereas before they might have visited their ‘parent’ library to select books.
They have had to adjust in other ways, too. For a while inter-library loans were stopped, but many rural sites have now resumed this service. Meetings and conventions have been cancelled or occasionally carried out through Zoom connections. Fundraisers may have had to be cancelled.
In the case of my own library (North Norfolk-MacGregor), our fall trivia night was cancelled, and our used book sale, normally held in February or March, will not run. Fortunately some expenses, such as those for cleaning, have actually decreased, and some new government grants have helped with COVID-related expenses.
Many libraries have seen a large increase in patrons’ use of e-books, whereby readers can borrow books to download onto a computer or tablet. Thus patrons confined to their home still have the opportunity to borrow and read books, although many miss being able to browse the shelves. Choosing a book online just cannot match checking out all the new books in person, or thumbing through a variety of magazines to select what interests you. Patrons can also borrow e-audio books for listening pleasure. One service many rural libraries report is now more popular is the lending of jigsaw puzzles. Others related that they also have games to borrow. Some librarians have noticed an increase in patrons.
E-book use has been particularly noticeable in the months when the library was fully closed. For example, our own checkout statistics for e-books in November, jumped from 392 in 2019 to 702 in 2020. Another librarian stated that their e-book use was close to double from previous years. One other change at many libraries, partially due to the restrictions, is the removal of fines for late returns.
Several libraries have used the closed time to their advantage. Some have hired contractors to paint or do a number of renovations. Our own library is developing a brand new children’s area, while another librarian stated that they have moved shelving, installed a new carpet and replaced windows. It would have been difficult to carry out these with a library open to walk-in traffic.
Although rural libraries carry on, library staff and patrons eagerly look forward to a loosening of regulations and a return to normal operating conditions.