GAITHERSBURG, Maryland – The Gaithersburg Library, part of the Montgomery County Public Libraries system. (Photo courtesy of the Montgomery County Public Libraries)
By Luciana Guinassi and Michelle Siegel
WASHINGTON — When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged — but before everything truly shut down — Elyse Kovalsky’s first stop was the Mt. Pleasant Library on 16th Street in Northwest Washington.
“When everyone else was freaking out and going to buy toilet paper, I freaked out and went to the library,” said Kovalsky, 39, an employee at a non-profit in the city.
“I got as many books as I could physically carry, and I remember walking home and they, at some point on 19th Street, all fell out of my hands,” she said. But at that moment, going to the library “felt like the most important thing.”
Since the closure of many businesses and operations in March, many libraries in both the District of Columbia and Maryland have reopened and are now running at limited capacity. The revamped operations have introduced significant challenges and opportunities for libraries and their patrons.
Maryland Library Association President Morgan Miller referred to libraries as “a really important touchstone” for many patrons.
According to Pew Research Center survey data from 2016, more than half of respondents indicated that libraries helped them get information that helps with making decisions, grow as a person, learn new things and find information that is trustworthy and reliable.
Libraries also provide crucial resources, such as educational materials, computer access and even shelter to their communities. In this way, Miller described libraries as acting as a form of “social safety net.”
The DC Public Library system shut down mid-March and entered Phase Two mid-summer. Of the 26 public libraries,18 are open and running on a limited basis, while eight remain closed.
For the libraries running on a limited basis, all in-person group programs, such as children’s storytelling sessions, have been put on hiatus. In addition, patrons cannot browse books inside the library, sit at a table or lounge area, copy or scan materials, or use the meeting or study rooms.
Despite these restrictions, DC Public Library spokesman George Williams noted that patrons are still able to come in to pick up books that they have on hold, apply for library cards, send documents electronically for free printing, borrow from a curated selection of book titles available for checkout near the circulation desk, and use a computer — although the number of public computers available has decreased.
In the state of Maryland, there are 24 public library systems — one for each of Maryland’s 23 counties, as well as one for Baltimore City — and each is operating in accordance with its own reopening plan.
Libraries in some counties, such as Cecil County, have recently begun to reopen some branches with limited capacity, social distancing and safety protocols.
In the library systems of counties where the state has consistently been reporting the highest COVID-19 caseloads, such as Prince George’s County and Montgomery County, all buildings remain closed to the public.
Most branches in Prince George’s County Memorial Library System and Montgomery County Public Libraries have been offering appointment-based outdoor pickup for holds placed online or over the phone.
Libraries are placing a greater emphasis on their virtual opportunities, which they say have flourished in the wake of the initial COVID-19 lockdown.
Before curbside services and limited reopenings, patrons were essentially limited to checking out electronic materials from online resources, such as the Overdrive digital content library, so electronic media have seen significantly more traction with patrons.
From mid-March to mid-November, the DC Public Library saw a 34% increase in checkouts and a 81% increase in holds over the numbers from the same period last year on Overdrive, Williams said in an email.
The digital transition has also led many libraries across the District of Columbia and Maryland to transition previously in-person programs like book clubs and children’s storytelling sessions to online platforms such as Zoom and Discord.
In addition, Miller said that many libraries introduced new programming — often video sessions that teach viewers skills for managing daily life amid a pandemic, such as preparing restaurant-quality meals and promoting literacy in homebound children.
“We saw this huge rapid rollout and proliferation of really high-quality virtual programming,” Miller said. “In some ways, while our physical spaces got smaller and much more constrained, we became much more expansive, and in these online worlds, we ended up connecting with people in the community who we never had before.”
While these transitions to online programming may have seemed smooth for patrons, they required attention to detail for library staff — “program by program, need by need, figuring out how we want to do it,” said David Quick, the DC Public Library’s coordinator of adult programs and partnerships.
Many libraries have gone “fine free,” either temporarily or permanently, to minimize barriers to community use.
Montgomery County Public Libraries advertises on its website that its library fines are “currently suspended.”
Prince George’s County Memorial Library System, meanwhile, committed to becoming “fine free” on July 1, noting in a press release its intent to ensure that “all Prince Georgians have equitable access to the Library’s resources and services, while eliminating the financial barrier of overdue fines.”
As for the District, more than 4,000 library cards were unblocked and more than 87,000 cards that had expired since April 2017 were restored, Williams said.
“One of the things that the library has been doing for several years is, we have been systematically removing barriers,” he added.
Many patrons have shown an increased interest in learning about anti-racism — particularly after Minneapolis police officers arrested and killed George Floyd on May 25 — and libraries have been striving to help.
Williams said that DC Public Library data shows the top titles between mid-March and early November were “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” by Robin DiAngelo, and “So You Want to Talk about Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo.
The DC Public Library now offers unlimited eBook and audiobook copies of limited titles on race.
Seeing a similar interest in Prince George’s County, the library system there partnered with local agencies and nonprofits to host a virtual event in July featuring “How to Be an Antiracist” author Dr. Ibram X. Kendi.
The event attracted more than 226,000 live views, according to the library’s COO for communication and outreach, Nicholas Brown.
Some patrons also have taken more time to explore genres that are new to them.
Before COVID-19, Kovalsky said she would stop in at least once a month, pick up books, browse the shelves with her two kids, or attend the weekend activities. Now she makes monthly pickups, but her tastes have shifted. Kovalsky said she had not read a book for pleasure in years, but recently began reading “The Refugees,” a non-fiction book by Viet Thanh Nguyen.
Ariana Dugan, 33, vice president of product and enterprise at General Assembly, said she has been using the Mt. Pleasant Library more often since the beginning of the pandemic because “it’s a nice alternative to screen time for work.”
Dugan said she also enjoys newfound efficiency: “It’s a little bit more transactional, because I go online to sign the book, order it, and then just pick it up at the library rather than having that kind of browsing experience, and I don’t super mind that honestly.”
She has also discovered a love of non-fiction.
“Things that take me out of the here-and-now but are still in one way or another grounded in reality, I would say is a common theme in terms of what I’ve been getting from the library,” she said.
For some people, despite the libraries’ enhanced cleaning protocols and changes, COVID-19 remains a concern.
Julie Locascio, an attorney and long-time Washington resident, told Capital News Service that since the beginning of the pandemic she has only picked up one book from the library and has been very careful to minimize human exposure.
Despite this, she wrote in a social media message to CNS, “I have been super grateful at how many books I have been able to borrow electronically from the library.”
Not everybody knows the libraries are open.
The District library and city government have been providing updates through newsletters, government messages and notices.
Even so, Kovalsky has come across several people who did not know the library was open during her walks to or from the library.
They would see her carrying books and ask her, “You’re going to the library? Why are you going to the library? How is that even open?!,” Kovalsky said.
Miller said the pandemic-related closures may have made people realize that their libraries have much to offer.
“People were never aware as we wanted or needed them to be about just how much value and service the library brings to the community,” Miller said. “Nobody thinks about it until it’s gone. I think not having a library as they know it brought to the forefront of their mind how much they miss it.”