New Jersey libraries are forced to turn the page and redefine services in the post-COVID world

A smiling, oversized stuffed tiger surrounded by unfinished puzzles, copies of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and hand puppets betrayed the solemnity of the moment.

On March 9th, librarian Kate Nafz received urgent instructions from her boss to pack all toys in the children’s department. A warning tape was placed around the library’s playhouse, which was made up of stacked books, transforming an oasis of fantasy into a macabre type of COVID-19 crime scene.

One child, in the midst of a tantrum, started kicking the playhouse while others howled at the sight of their beloved library amid the transformation.

The next two days were pandemonium. In the sparse children’s section, guests greedily grabbed books from the shelves, and some households were using each family member’s card limit of 50 items to store books. Two of the children’s librarians were infected with the virus, likely during the spate of exposed last-minute activity in the early days of the pandemic.

“It really felt like the end of the world,” Kate Nafz, director of the children’s department at Maurice M. Pine Public Library at Fair Lawn, told NJ Advance Media.

Left: The playhouse in the children’s department of the Maurice M. Pine Public Library, which is cordoned off with tape. Middle: A note in the children’s department at the beginning of the pandemic. Right: More materials cleared away at the height of the pandemic.Courtesy Kate Nafz

Now, for the past year, library staff have worked around the clock to redesign library services so that the horror of the March shutdown is never repeated. That means a huge investment in e-materials, a rewrite of programming, and a rethinking of library access for those who are most dependent on public facilities.

“I’ve been in the Fair Lawn Library for over 25 years now … and I had to completely relearn my job and think about what it means to be a librarian and how I can best serve my public,” said Nafz.

At the same time, there is a call in the library industry to continue to attract workers to the vaccine, which is explained by the increasing need for libraries and the risk of personal service to customers all day.

Because library staff are “in close contact with the public on a daily basis,” the New Jersey Library Association applied to the Governor’s Office for inclusion in the Category 1B wave of the next vaccination.

“Library workers are frontline workers who provide essential service to our community,” said Juliet Machie, executive director of NJLA, to NJ Advance Media. “We are community anchors and our communities are desperately dependent on us for many everyday needs.”

Unlike grocery stores and other major corporations, whose staff are ahead of library staff, the libraries were initially completely closed from March 21 by an executive order.

In June the Jersey City bookmobile started rolling again and enabled mobile pick-up at the roadside. A few weeks later, Governor Phil Murphy issued an order allowing all libraries to begin picking up the roadside. On July 2, Murphy allowed the libraries to reopen to the public at 25 percent capacity.

Jersey City Library Bookmobile

Steven Fulop, Jersey City Mayor, Jeffrey Trzeciak, Director of the Jersey City Free Public Library, and Eddie Perez, Bookmobile manager stand in front of the Bookmobile on the first day of the roadside pickup June 1st.Courtesy of the Jersey City Free Public Library

Currently, New Jersey’s 298 public libraries each operate differently – some are open, like the Newark Public Library, which closes its facility several times a day to clean up and keep visitors from sitting too long, while others just do a roadside pickup to offer.

Due to the month-long book drought that completely shut down library services from March to June 2020, the demand for e-materials soared.

“In the library world, you’ve always complained about how we can get people to use our virtual resources, and now people tend to use them,” Joslyn Bowling Dixon, director of the Newark Public Library, told NJ Advance Media.

In 2019, the Bergen District Cooperative Library System (BCCLS) distributed around 680,000 e-materials. That number nearly doubled in 2020, reaching 1.2 million for the consortium’s 77 libraries.

And as the circulation increases, so do the expenses. The Montclair Public Library allocated nearly $ 64,000 to e-materials in 2020, increasing its e-catalog budget by 81% year over year.

While some find e-books cheap or easier to distribute, the opposite is true. While a physical book belongs in the library until the copy is too worn out to be distributed, e-materials cost more and are subject to all sorts of licensing restrictions. Libraries typically only purchase the material for a period of 1 to 2 years, with some publishers only allowing the book to be loaned 26 times before the license must be bought back.

Jersey City Library

Books on hold are waiting to be picked up by guests at the Jersey City Main Library.Courtesy of the Jersey City Free Public Library

At the same time, library staff have quickly become familiar with Zoom and other video conferencing tools, and offer newly expanded virtual programs for families stuck at home.

Programs range from daily stories to social gatherings such as book clubs or knitting clubs to author talks, information sessions on college readiness or filing taxes.

At Montclair, the virtual format even has some advantages. Booking authors for the library’s “Open Book / Open Mind” speaker series is easier because they don’t have to coordinate a personal visit and can accommodate a much larger number of participants.

800 people have already registered for the next episode with the “Kasten” author Isabel Wilkerson, and only 200 people in person could have found space in their auditorium.

“While it’s different from having a room full of people in love, being able to reach three times the number of people is a huge benefit,” said Peter Coyl, director of the Montclair Public Library, to NJ Advance Media.

In Fair Lawn, Nafz had little time to lose when her library closed in March and quickly switched to the Internet. Now she hops on zoom every day and often dons costumes or dolls for story time with a dedicated audience of little ones.

Fair lawn library

Kate Nafz, director of the children’s department at Maurice M. Pine Public Library at Fair Lawn, dresses up as a suffragette for a library program celebrating the 100th anniversary of a woman’s right to vote.Courtesy Kate Nafz

In addition to expanding catalogs and introducing programming into the 21st century, the pandemic has led librarians to focus even more on issues of access. This focus is particularly true of the Newark Public Library, whose patrons suffer from one of the highest poverty rates in New Jersey.

The library will soon be checking out WiFi hotspots and increasing its network bandwidth so users can access the internet from the parking lot or even from nearby neighborhoods. And even with regular cleaning, the building was open to the public five days a week (and six days in the main office).

Newark has also been at the forefront of a burgeoning movement to clean up overdue fines that has gained a foothold in recent months. Some libraries have temporarily put them on hold during the pandemic to accommodate the difficult economic circumstances of many customers or simply because of the extra time it takes to quarantine materials. Others, like Newark, had already abandoned the practice, citing the disproportionate impact on young or low-income borrowers.

“We really needed to investigate what barriers we were creating to use the library,” Coyl said after launching a new initiative to allow members to register for a Montclair library card online instead of requiring a visit to his building Enjoy resources.

Jersey City Library

Jersey City Free Public Library Page Maximillian Vega welcomes visitors to the lending department of the main library.Courtesy of the Jersey City Free Public Library

Even after months of library revitalization and remodeling, 2020 is likely just the tip of the iceberg. David Hanson, Executive Director of BCCLS, predicts a wave, or perhaps even a tsunami, in library demand in 2021.

The need for libraries is unlikely to decline as studies show a strong correlation between the economic downturn and library usage. With more free time, users turn to the public institutions in droves for access to the Internet, entertainment, employment resources, and community.

However, as library usage continues to grow and change, uncertainty lurks about what the coming months will be.

“I don’t know how the chips will fall when this is all sorted out,” said Nafz. “I don’t know what that will mean for the library. Am I going to have to take back all of this personal stuff and hold on to all of this electronic work that I do …? I dont know. I am afraid of the future. “

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Josh Axelrod can be reached at [email protected]. Tell us your coronavirus story or send a tip here.

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