Libraries prepare for curbside service

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Madison Public Library Central Branch. Creative Commons license.

While many folks have been finding solace in Netflix or social media during social distancing periods, book-lovers like Tracy Herold are swapping screens for spines. During her last five years as Director of the Dane County Library Service, Herold has been expanding free and equitable access to library services across the county. 

What started as a rural Bookmobile program soon grew into a slew of outreach programming, from home delivery for seniors or those serving time, to the Madison-oriented Dreambus

This approach of providing service to their constituents is being threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic, however. 

“We are a little bit different than a brick-and-mortar library because we're a library service, we're mainly mobile,” Herold said. So when the [executive] order came out, we had to pull both vehicles off the road, and our facility is not open to the public. So we really had to kind of take our public facing service away.” 

The most recent extension of Gov. Evers’ safer-at-home order permitted libraries to begin providing curbside service to fill these gaps in access to reading and learning materials. 

“We are looking at plans to have our patrons come to us, which is kind of a reverse of what we usually do,” Herold said. “So we would schedule a pickup with a patron, get their things ready, check [the books] out to them, bag them up, and have them available for pickup during a certain period of time.

“But everybody [in the library system] is taking it at their own pace, and trying to make sure that first and foremost, staff are safe and that the materials are safe for them to handle when the pickup happens.”

The E.D. Locke Public Library in McFarland piloted this curbside service on April 24, followed by more Dane County subsidiaries three days later. 

“I think we're going to see libraries gradually opening up to this,” Herold said. “So this week, next week, we're doing our trial, and I know a couple of libraries are going to provide the service the week of the 11th.” 

As local libraries begin rolling out these more intensive services on a case-by-case basis, Herold encourages eager readers to utilize resources available online. Platforms such as OverDrive — which allows library members to sign in for free with their card — gives folks access to an extensive library of e-books and audiobooks without needing to purchase a specific e-reader. 

This isn’t a foolproof solution, however. 

“I think having digital materials is helpful; however, not everybody finds them easy to use, not everybody wants to have their kid on a screen even more, so I do think there's a big impact and this isn't just a blip on the radar,” Herold said. 

This shortage of reading material for children who typically have access to books through the school system or at-risk folks who do not feel safe leaving their homes is problematic on a number of levels. 

Firstly, there is the potential for harmful gaps in a child’s education and the implications of missing certain developmental steps. But there is also an emotional toll of being isolated without compelling ways to pass the time. 

“I think not having those materials can really add to the isolation of not being not being able to get out and about on a regular basis,” Herold said. “I have Netflix and a couple of other subscriptions, and what I found scrolling through everything [is that] at first, it was kind of fun. But then I just felt kind of overwhelmed with the amount of possibilities, and I’m finding that I am turning to my reading material. This feels richer… like I’m spending my time more wisely and in a more enriching way.” 

But Herold isn’t deterred by the streaming craze. Instead, she hopes that isolation will not only prompt more individuals to stick their nose in a book, but will lead to an uptick in library use more generally as well. 

“I think that this will certainly lead to more robust use, and I think it will show us some of the gaps where library services are needed,” Herold said. “A situation like this really shakes things up in a way that reveals to us some of the patterns that we've fallen into, so it really is an opportunity to look at what we've done really well and do it even better. 

“I think libraries will certainly become like community centers. Libraries have always been very adaptable and we will rush to meet the needs of our individual communities.” 

For updates on library curbside delivery options, visit your local public library’s website or Dane County Library Service for updates. 

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