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Photo by Austin Public Library

How Austin Public Library adjusted to the pandemic

Friday, October 2, 2020 by Minka Atkinson

Early on a Tuesday morning, Austin’s Central Library would normally be a bustling place. But today, patrons like East Austin resident Todd Fitzgerald arrive one at a time, wait for the phone call to announce that their books are ready, and collect them from a small table outside the front doors without ever making contact with library workers or other patrons.

“All this stuff is new, but like any new process, you’re getting used to it,” Fitzgerald said. “During these times, as long as it’s good for public safety, we’re good.”

Like many restaurants and retail outlets, the library is relying on curbside pickup and strict social distancing to function during the Covid-19 pandemic. Inside the library system, the pandemic has forced staff to accelerate existing programs and create new ones in order to continue providing the library’s daily services.

Along with curbside pickup, Austin Public Library has been offering a variety of digital services including e-books, pre-recorded videos of book talks and literacy instruction, and virtual book talks.

“We’ve greatly increased the number of people who have applied for what we call an e-card that just gives you access to those virtual resources,” said Sharon Herfurth, division manager of programming and partnerships for Austin Public Library.

According to the library director’s report, the library circulated over 324,000 virtual materials in July, including e-books and periodicals, databases, audio, music and videos. This is an increase of over 100,000 virtual materials since April, just after Gov. Greg Abbott issued a stay-at-home order.

To complement its virtual library, Austin Public Library launched a platform called APL+ that provides access to video versions of programs that patrons would normally be able to access at the library such as book talks, sing-alongs, story time and cooking demonstrations.

“That was a pretty big ordeal for us to figure out, but we have a great staff,” Patti Fowler, central division manager, said. “They’re a really creative staff.”

Since Austin Public Library closed to the public in mid-March, staffers have had to learn a variety of new skills in order to continue offering library services and implement new programs to address issues caused by Covid-19, Herfurth said.

“They’ve been very resourceful to try to keep in touch with our patrons,” she said.

One such program, a job portal aimed at people who have lost work due to the pandemic, provides tips on looking for work and interviewing as well as one-on-one sessions with job coaches. The program, Fowler said, was nominated for an Urban Libraries Council Innovations award.

The library’s Austin History Center has also moved its operations online. Because materials from the center’s collection can’t be checked out due to safety and preservation concerns, patrons must request scans of archive materials they wish to reference. However, with only a portion of the staff working each day to comply with social distancing guidelines, requests may be filled slower than usual.

“We’ve always prided ourselves on being able to get stuff to people quickly,” History Center manager and city archivist Mike Miller said. “We could get our hands on the material pretty quickly and get it in the hands of the researchers pretty quickly, and we just can’t do that right now. I know it pains others on the staff that people have to wait to be able to research.”

In addition to providing reference materials, History Center staffers have been compiling personal documents from Austin residents relating to the pandemic in a project called the Covid-19 Files, which they hope to launch sometime in the fall.

“We put out a call for people to start sending their thoughts, things that they were doing during the pandemic, photos that they were taking, journaling, poetry, you name it,” Miller said. “We started collecting these items to create an archive of how Austin is experiencing the pandemic.”

Photo by Minka Atkinson

Along with these new programs, Austin Public Library has worked to adjust to the curbside pickup system that is becoming all too commonplace these days. The library system began offering curbside services in early June, and following customer suggestions, expanded its hours from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at alternating locations beginning Sept. 14 in order to give people more opportunity to participate.

Following Covid-19 safety guidelines, the curbside pickup program allows patrons to place holds on books using the library website and collect those books without having to enter the building, while remaining socially distanced from library workers.

“We partnered with Austin Public Health to make sure that everything we were doing is safe for our staff and safe for our customers,” Fowler said. “We wear masks when we’re in the locations, we social distance, we wash hands, and we clean our surfaces.”

Due to the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, Austin Public Library currently does not have any plans to reopen for in-person browsing, Fowler said.

“We will continue to do all that we can remotely,” she said. “We just look forward to the day when we can open our doors.”

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