By the time spring break ended for Nykira Ross early last month, she knew she couldn’t return to campus for the remainder of her sophomore year at Albany State University.
The novel coronavirus was spreading through the southwest Georgia town at an alarming rate. Classes on campus were suspended beginning March 13, first for two weeks, then for the semester. Like most colleges and universities, Albany State turned to online learning. For Ross, that presented a problem. She didn’t have a laptop and couldn’t afford one. On campus, she went to computer labs to study and finish assignments.
Now, not only was the computer lab and university library ostensibly closed, all public libraries across the state were being shuttered. Back home in Atlanta, she wasn’t sure what to do.
“It’s me, my sister and my niece living here, and there’s no computer in the house,” Ross said. “No one in my household has access to a computer.”
Then a black women’s professional organization, The Links, of which Ross is a student mentee, contacted her to see if she needed help because so many schools were shutting down. Ross said a laptop. And that’s how Ross found out that the doors to Georgia’s public libraries may indeed be physically closed, but they are finding virtual ways to stay open. From prerecorded storytimes to boosting Wi-Fi capacity, to virtual book clubs, the state’s 408 libraries are trying to serve patrons despite social distancing and emergency stay-at-home ordinances. Libraries across metro Atlanta and the state are reporting a surge of users, as people forced to shelter in place look for free resources to help them study, do research, home school or simply be entertained.
Libraries have not only tried to accommodate the surge but have encouraged it by suspending late fees, extending library card validation, and expanding hot spots so people can use free internet in library parking lots 24 hours a day. According to Julie Walker, a top library official, there haven’t been furloughs. But the changes haven’t come without challenges. There are thousands of overdue books and materials checked out and officials still haven’t figured out how they can be safely returned once the pandemic is over. Events, months in the planning, have been canceled. And once a community gets used to expanded Wi-Fi, will it continue to expect it from a public resource? Like the duration of the crisis, the path forward is unclear.
“Right now, we’re just trying to do whatever we can,” said Walker, state librarian and associate vice chancellor for libraries for the University System of Georgia.
Through The Links network, Ross’ request found its way to the Georgia Public Library Service, which oversees the state’s libraries. Within a day, a laptop available for checkout was located in the shuttered Sandy Springs branch of the Fulton County Public Library system.
“She didn’t have transportation, so, somebody from our central office went to Sandy Springs, got the laptop and delivered it to the student’s home,” Walker said.
While Ross’ example may be uncommon, across metro Atlanta demand for libraries’ holdings have dramatically increased, based on early numbers, librarians say. For example, where online applications for library cards typically run less than 100 per week in Fulton County, they were up to between 300 and 500 at least the first week the buildings were closed on March 13, said Claudia Strange marketing manager for Fulton County libraries.
“That is unheard of,” Strange said. “The tech guy who creates temporary library card numbers has to check every day now for new applications, where before he used to do it maybe every two weeks.”
Holds on ebooks have increased 20% since the Gwinnett County Library System closed on March 16, said Charles Pace, executive director. Cobb County has seen increases of up to 25% on ebooks, streaming video, magazines and holds on things people want to check out, according to Burr Osoinach, a technology librarian for the system. And though it’s not immediately clear why, audiobook demand is only slightly up, perhaps because people aren’t commuting, Osoinach said in an email.
Some libraries, particularly in less populated areas of the state have added additional hot spots in their buildings or added Wi-Fi amplifiers so that people without internet access at home can drive to the library parking lot, sit in their cars and use the library’s connection. The Azalea Regional Library System which covers Morgan, Greene, Hancock, Jasper, Putnam, and Walton counties had its parking lot Wi-FI used 1,660 times between March 15 and the end of the month, Walker said. While there’s little to compare that number to, since libraries weren’t measuring parking lot usage before the pandemic, Walker said it was significant, and they expected the numbers to go up in April.
“Sanitize a book”
What has also proved particularly popular across library systems have been online storytimes. Typically, storytimes draw parents and their infants and young children to reading rooms almost daily. Some, like Fulton County, also had a weekly evening storytime. As it became clear buildings would have to shut down, many libraries prerecorded some of their librarians reading favorite stories and posting them on their institution’s Facebook page. Fulton expanded theirs from one day a week, which usually draws about 300 to 500 views, to Monday through Friday.
“Now we’re at 2,000 views every day,” said Strange of Fulton County Libraries.
Stacy Hill, youth services librarian at Sewell Mill Library and Cultural Center in Cobb County was one of the librarians who prerecorded her storytimes. She usually does them in person a couple of times a week when her branch is open. Another librarian also recorded some in Spanish and English.
“The response was amazing,” Hill said. “The kids can still see me, a familiar face.”
Paul Oresteen of Marietta has taken his daughter Aubry to Sewell Hill for Hill’s readings since she was an infant. Because Aubry, now 22 months old, was not in daycare, the storytimes gave her a chance to socialize with other kids, her father said. He was concerned about keeping her in a routine then found out about the pre-recorded sessions.
“She has cabin fever so the first time she watched Miss Stacy, she was grinning from ear to ear,” Oresteen said of his daughter. “She laughs, she waves at her. She knows exactly what to expect when it starts.”
But even as institutions have pivoted to deal with this new reality, they aren’t sure how they’ll deal with things once this is over. At this point, most libraries are not charging overdue book fines and are allowing expired cardholders to keep checking out materials. The fines won’t accrue over during the pandemic closure. But there is the question of what to do with the books and other 1,164,214 items currently checked out from the state’s county and regional libraries when they are returned. There’s even a question of how to get them back into the buildings safely. It’s not clear at this point how long the novel coronavirus lives on surfaces such as books.
“How do you sanitize a book?” Strange of Fulton County said. “Do you let it sit for three days? Clean all 500 pages?”
Walker said some sort of quarantine system will have to be set up, probably in each branch, but what that will look like, or how it will be done hasn’t been figured out yet.
In the meantime, the virtual library will have to keep operating. For Ross, of Albany State, it’s what will help get her through the rest of her academic year.
“When I looked at the laptop it had a sticker that said Sandy Springs, and that’s pretty far from where I live,” Ross said. “I was very thankful. None of the people who helped me, they didn’t have to do it.”
She is getting close to her May finals, but the check-out for the laptop is supposed to be only for a few weeks, she said. That would only get her through mid-April. She said she’ll ask the library for an extension.