Regardless of what’s happening in the world, the Northern Onondaga Public Library seeks to advance one mission: to engage their community, share resources, and connect people to information, ideas, and each other.
NOPL Director Amanda (Mandy) Travis says it’s that last part, connection with each other, that COVID-19 has made the most difficult.
There are a lot of reasons why people use the library. For many of the communities that they serve, it’s a beacon of accessibility and human connection.
“Seniors especially use our library because it’s social,” Travis said, “We’re constantly trying to think of different ways to engage with our community — and especially the communities that really need us.”
The library has already done a lot to cope with challenges brought on by the pandemic. In some cases, it’s been a matter of keeping up with increased demand for existing services.
For instance, NOPL recently suspended in-library services again and returned exclusively to curbside delivery, a service they had been offering for a year before the pandemic.
Similarly, “bunny slipper patrons” have always enjoyed accessing the library’s digital resources from home. But with nearly everyone spending more time at home these days, Travis and her team have had to figure out how to deliver more of the library experience to them.
“What we’re realizing is we need to push more out into the community,” she said.
In addition to the usual movies, ebooks, and audiobooks, the library has started lending out laptops and hotspots in an attempt to combat the country’s growing digital divide.
They offer streaming services and let patrons borrow Rokus, so anyone can binge their favorite show or try out Netflix before committing to a subscription.
Through the library’s website, users can access learning centers like Lynda, download media through Hoopla, and explore their ancestry through vast databases that individual patrons typically wouldn’t be able to afford.
NOPL’s virtual programs and digital resources are expanding all the time. Not only has the library moved to digital cards and online reference, but they’re paving the way for new online spaces that bring people together.
Their latest project is titled Raging Romantics, a book-club-turned-podcast that aims to show the myriad of reasons why people read romance novels.
After gaining a bit of popularity, the show’s producers received an email from a romance author they loved. She had discovered their podcast and wanted to appear on an episode — an opportunity that may not have been possible without their push into the digital realm.
“Virtual programs are something we weren’t doing before, but we’re definitely going to keep doing it [in the future],” Travis said, “It’s convenient and people like it.”
Like many libraries, NOPL is in the process of figuring out not just how to react to changing needs, but how to move forward into a new future for the library and the public services sector more generally.
In January 2021, the library plans to conduct a community needs assessment. Travis hopes to include virtual programming that makes space for conversations about mental health, self-care, isolation, and other critical topics that many now find themselves contending with.
Along with new priorities come new metrics for success. In the past, the crucial indicators for public libraries were circulation numbers. Now, NOPL is looking at the quality and extent to which they’re connecting with the community, whether online or over the phone.
So far, it looks like they’re on the right track.
“We’ve kind of gotten to a normalcy to show that we’re making a difference,” Travis said. “We’re getting a lot of stories… People are very grateful.”
Still, Travis reminds us that it’s more important than ever to advocate for the library as a critical source of information and entertainment for the community.
While politicians have historically applauded libraries for being able to do “so much with so little,” she says that’s a harmful belief that limits the impact they can have.
“My fear is that decision-makers in government won’t see that we’re vital,” she said, “‘Library’ has to be a word that every politician and everyone who uses it is saying every day because they know how important we are… We constantly have to be talking about it.”
She hopes that when people rediscover or find the library for the first time, they’ll let her know. It’s these stories that empower her to spread positivity to her team and throughout the greater community.
For now, Travis plans to stay focused on the big picture of accomplishing the library’s mission no matter what challenges might come their way.
“It’s going to be a fun couple of years,” she said, “I believe libraries are going to come out very different but even more important.”
“We always thrive — that’s what libraries do.”