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Florida Libraries Adapt To Meet Patron Needs Through COVID-19 And Beyond

A man with a topknot sits at a table working on a laptop computer.
Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library
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The Hillsborough County Public Library system is continuing to meeting the growing demand among patrons for digital materials with expanded collections

Most libraries in our region closed for only a short period during the height of the pandemic, but they kept serving patrons even when their doors closed and continue to find ways to serve.

Libraries do so much in our communities. And like the rest of us, they’ve had to pivot to meet the changing needs of their patrons during a pandemic.

All across the west coast of Florida, librarians are working hard to make sure their patrons have access to information you might expect — literacy programs, how to prevent sex trafficking, and even how to apply for rental assistance.

Plus, things that you might never imagine would be part of the purview of a public library. But they are. Pinellas County Public Library even found that the demands of outreach when everyone was sticking close to home actually broadened the range of its program to help the deaf community.

Pinellas County Public Library Cooperative Executive Director Cheryl Morales said COVID-19 forced the activities of the Deaf Literacy Center staff online.

“And since COVID started, the expand, geographically speaking, of the audience has just quadrupled at least because moving to an online platform, and made the sign language classes available to people from Key West to Tallahassee and beyond. We have online participation from deaf people in other states now as well,” Morales said.

The program provides tutoring to deaf students in public and private schools in Pinellas, and helps the deaf come together to work on their sign language skills and communicate with each other, Morales said.

Renee di Pilato, director of libraries and historical resources with the Sarasota County Public Library said the pandemic helped their library system usher in a service called HelpNow.

“And that was something we started during the pandemic, another service we will continue. It's kindergarten into adult learners and English language learners, there was a really wonderful service," di Pilato said.

"It's available every single day of the week, I believe, until 11 p.m. at night, so it's a really great option for learners."

Here’s how it works:

“They simply go online to the library's website and look under digital resources and online tutoring for the HelpNow platform and they just log in right there,” di Pilato said.

You need only put in your age and the subject with which you need assistance.

Di Pilato said libraries really are a community hub.

“I think the library, the public library offers something for everyone for all ages. We are so much more than books," di Pilato said. "And although the people certainly use the library for books, they recognize that your library card just opens up access to so many different types of learning and enrichment. And I mean, really, the library is the best bang for your buck, in my opinion.”

Library Services Manager Elizabeth Partridge said Manatee Libraries used federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act — or CARES Act — funding to purchase laptops for employees, so they could continue to keep the libraries running during the brief pandemic closure. They also secured access to tutor.com.

“Which is a learning platform that gives you access to live tutors, K through 12 and beyond," Partridge said. "So that if you're having struggles in school, you can access help outside of your parents who might not know this subject matter, or maybe you need extra help beyond what your teacher can give you.”

Pasco County Library System Manager Robert Harrison said they’ve launched a pilot program to offer books by mail to those who aren’t able to leave their homes.

"Readers are, like you, they like the downloadable books, on hoopla and overdrive. And then there's the folks that like the physical books, they couldn't live without the physical books," Harrison said. "And a lot of a lot of those folks are older, they're homebound and just can't get to the library."

The program is called Front Door Books and is only available to homebound patrons.

Cheryl Wolfe, digital media and PR coordinator with Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library said the system is continuing to meeting the growing demand among patrons for digital materials with expanded collections.

“We recently noted that customers in the community have borrowed millions of digital items," Wolfe said. "Already this year, customers have borrowed 1 million eBooks, audio books and digital magazines through the library's overdrive service and Libby app. And the popularity of our online programs has been a surprise; we expect them to continue side-by-side with in-person programs."

An older man looking at a library website on his smartphone.
Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library
A man uses digital library resources on his phone.

She expects the popularity of the borrower-by-mail program to continue and to expand, and the parking lot Wi-Fi access will continue, she said.

CARES Act money funded the system’s purchase of 180 additional Wi-Fi hotspots, giving them nearly 300 such devices, which are available for loan with a library card, for a 14-day period.

“It's really great if you're looking to find a job or connect to the internet and then go," Wolfe said. “We're even hearing that now that it's summer and people might be camping or traveling a little bit more that they're making use of the hotspots as well.”

The county is also offering a “reader’s advisory service” based on a little quiz about your personal taste.

HernandoAMHvideo.mp4

Cynthia Loftis-Culp, library services director with Hernando County Public Library System, said the system shut its doors for about three weeks, and then reopened in limited capacity. She said the libraries in Hernando County are used for a variety of activities, including home schooling, tutoring, sewing groups and writing groups. And the system used CARES Act funding to install automated materials handlers and tag the materials with RFID or radio frequency identification tags.

“And that allows us to be less hands-on with the books, we can help the patrons more. But it helps with the process of the items going through quicker and being able to be put back on the shelves," Loftis-Culp said. "And this process keeps the materials separated, they had talked early on about materials being set aside for 24 to 72 hours, because of COVID.

"And that's where this this process came from this machine because it would let us get the books off the patrons’ car and get everything done but yet sit for a certain period of time. So every single book doesn't have to be cleaned.”

Gladys Roberts is the cooperative coordinator for the Polk County Library Cooperative, which serves nearly 500,000 patrons. CARES Act funding helped the cooperative expand its digital resources, buy more Wi-Fi Hotspots to loan out, and install lockers for one of its libraries.

“All of the libraries, even many of the libraries, even when they closed (because of COVID) still found ways to get materials to people. I mentioned that we operate the books-by-mail; we were able to keep that going the entire time. We never missed a day with that,” Roberts said.

Most all of the libraries in the greater Tampa Bay region have made it possible for patrons to get library cards by applying online or over the phone.

And the individuals who work at the libraries make it their business to meet people’s needs. As Elizabeth Partridge, with Manatee Libraries noted, sometimes they fill a need that has nothing to do with traditional library offerings.

“And so, I think that, with all of the access with all of the information with all of the resources, all of those things are extremely important, but also that human connection, so people know they're safe," Partridge said. "So people know that they're a part of something. So people that go to the library or interact with the library, they know that somebody is thinking about them, somebody is worrying about them, somebody cares about how they're doing.

"I think that's a huge, huge thing for our libraries.”

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