Community Voices / Busier-than-ever librarians connect people with books, job ads, even food during COVID shutdown

A first! Middle schoolers across the county were treated to a Zoom-based author interview and book discussion organized by the youth services team (above) as part of the Whatcom County Library System’s innovative approach to continuing services during the COVID-19 shutdown.
(Photo courtesy WCLS)

By Christine Perkins, Executive Director, Whatcom County Library System

Christine Perkins,
with the library’s
@Home schedule
(Photo courtesy WCLS)

— Whatcom County libraries have been closed to the public for over two months now. Despite the closures, staff have been busier than ever, working from home and pitching in wherever possible to provide services to the public. We’re mindful that we are living through historic times and that it will one day be valuable to remember what happened, how we responded and what we learned. 

Back in February, Whatcom County Library System (WCLS) was in full swing. Our immediate focus was on author Eowyn Ivey’s presentations for Whatcom READS. We were starting to hear about a strange virus in Wuhan, China, and some travel restrictions in the U.S. We debated whether to cancel Ivey’s visit — people, particularly those in the over-60 set, were already skittish about attending large events. After reviewing public health guidance, we forged ahead with six events on March 5 through 7, and felt grateful we were able to see Whatcom READS through before things really started to get serious.

When Gov. Inslee made the decision to close public schools statewide in mid-March, WCLS followed suit. Never before in our 75-year history had we closed our libraries for such an extended period. We notified the public that March 14 and 15 would be the last days to check out physical library materials for some time. People across Whatcom County broke records for the number of items checked out — seven times as many items as the weekend before. We closed the Lynden and Ferndale libraries that Sunday at 5 p.m., exhausted, exhilarated and unsure of what was to come.

Kicking into high gear

Our first order of business was to continue serving our patrons while the library buildings were closed. We began by looping in our five-member volunteer Board of Trustees about what was happening in our 10-branch county library system. We needed to take care of the many details involved with vacating our facilities, and we wanted to make sure that our 160-plus staff members were eligible for closure pay, if, through no fault of their own, they were unable to work from home during the pandemic.

Via laptops and VPN connections, staff met on Skype and Zoom. Our community relations team kicked into high gear with news releases, emails, website updates, ads and social media posts. We cancelled in-person events including poetry readings and the local teen poetry book launch planned for marking National Poetry Month in April, and even the Whatcom County Library Foundation’s Branch Out fundraiser. 

Staff including Melody Leung, above, provide the human face of
WCLS for people seeking assistance by phone (Photo courtesy WCLS)

We formed a team to expedite ways to deliver library programs and other services online. Staff created Staff@Home videos to show the human face of WCLS — and to promote dozens of online resources such as Ancestry.com with free home access for library card holders, Lynda.com, NewsBank, Kanopy and others. Our collections team researched and purchased new digital resources such as CreativeBug.com.

Our youth services team reached out to author Leslie Connor, author of The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle, for an interview on Zoom and an online book discussion with middle school readers from across the county. We may never have tried an event like this if it weren’t for the restrictions on public gatherings!

Once online services were fully launched, we turned our attention to serving those people who do not have internet access at home. Many parts of Whatcom County lack broadband and some lack television, radio or cellular phone service.

Using our web-based phone service, staff members answer phones from their homes, every afternoon from 1 to 5 p.m. We’ve read Craigslist help-wanted ads to patrons who have been laid off; we’ve shared health department updates; we’ve recommended eBooks; and we’ve been a kind ear for people to talk to if they just need some human contact. By and large, our patrons are happy to speak to us, grateful for any library services they can receive and understanding of the current situation. We are so fortunate to live in a place where people value public libraries.

Extending WiFi

Now that state restrictions are easing a bit, we have turned our attention to making sure people are aware that our libraries’ WiFi signals extend outside our buildings and into the parking lots. Drive-up WiFi is one way to provide internet access to those who cannot afford it or who otherwise do not have it at home.

We will soon receive new equipment from the Washington State Department of Commerce that will extend signals at the Deming, Everson, Ferndale and South Whatcom libraries. We will install a new WiFi access point on library property in Birch Bay. And we hope to boost the signal outside the Bookmobile for patrons in the most remote corners of Whatcom County.

Like everyone, we have been closely monitoring Washington State’s Phased Approach to Return to Service and have aligned our own plan accordingly. Originally, public libraries are mentioned in the governor’s plan in Phase 3, which may be many weeks away. We are working closely with our colleagues around the state to get direction from the Governor’s office to allow libraries to offer curbside holds pickup in Phase 2, and we’re optimistic that we’ll be able to resume offering access to physical materials soon.

Human connections — and book recommendations

Unable to deliver books to branches, WCLS staff has assisted the food bank
in delivering food supplies throughout the county instead. Above,
Bill Daugherty prepares to make a delivery. (Photo courtesy WCLS)

One major takeaway from this experience is that plans change, and what’s important is the planning. Here’s are other lessons we’ve learned from this pandemic thus far: 

  • Every staff member has untapped talents to share. Our interlibrary loan specialist taught her co-workers to add closed-captions to videos. Staff created charming, instructive videos using nothing but their phones. A collection services aide coordinated an Instagram photo contest, #WCLSabc, where the patrons posted pictures from around their homes and neighborhoods of objects shaped like the letters of the alphabet. We plan to make an ABC book with the photos one day.
  • People are hungry for connection. And for book recommendations. Our Wednesday night MatchBook feature on Facebook draws a crowd of eager readers seeking book suggestions. We’ve hosted Zoom book discussions with our book club regulars. Our Friends of the Library groups schedule regular online gatherings to touch base with one another. The Friends of the Ferndale Library, for one, seem to be thriving at home, gardening, baking, and, of course, reading. They happily swap book suggestions while trading tips on how to use Zoom.
  • We live with uncertainty. Each time we’ve geared up to re-open, the Stay Home order has been extended. Staff want hard and fast dates, and we can’t give them. We have drafted plans and revised them so many times we’ve lost track. But we’re ready when we get the go-ahead, and we keep refining as we go along.
  • Flexibility is key. When we had to cancel two packed workshops on how to serve people experiencing homelessness with compassion, we shifted to providing our 500-plus registrants with online access to speaker Ryan Dowd’s webinar series instead. When we couldn’t deliver library books to our branches, our staff stepped up to deliver food to county food banks instead. No school visits to promote summer reading? We sent flyers out with school food packages and mailed summer reading bingo cards to families.
  • Public libraries are important and will continue to be, throughout this pandemic and in our post-pandemic future. We may find that we’re living in Phase 2 for an extended period, providing library materials via curbside pickup. We may not be able to host large events or allow the public to reserve space in our meeting rooms. But we will continue to be the public’s place to connect information, ideas, and community. 

We will take special care to provide resources for job seekers, small business owners, students, and families. We will do our best to make sure that everyone has access to factual, authoritative information about their health, the economy, and the world around them. And we will always make great books available, free of charge, to everyone who wants to read them. 

Books provide information and practical “how-to” instruction, as well as inspiration, escape, and even joy. They communicate hope during troubled times and show us that even if we’re staying home, we are not alone. Public libraries unlock the power of sharing. Whatcom County Library System is here for you, today and tomorrow. Be well!

By the numbers

The Whatcom County Library System — a separate entity from the Bellingham Public Library — has 128 public internet workstations across 10 branch libraries in rural Whatcom County, serving residents outside the Bellingham city limits.

Total circulation of physical items (books, DVDs, audiobooks, magazines, etc.) plus electronic items (eBooks, eAudiobooks, online videos, etc.) in 2019 came to 2,417,49 — more than 17 items per person in the service area.

In 2019, patrons:

  • used public internet workstations 75,951 times
  • used WCLS’s WiFi 80,649 times
  • visited WCLS libraries 720,536 times
  • participated in 2,932 public programs for all ages — story times, teen clubs, book discussions, gardening workshops, educational lectures, author visits and more.