The Columbia County Library is open.

In the pandemic-themed spring of 2020, disappointment set in throughout the state when local library buildings temporarily closed. Fortunately, while the pandemic closed doors statewide, the resilience of library staff all over Arkansas opened up to offer services in different ways.

Virtual programs allowed children to see and listen to story times. Libraries that could afford the software used reservations to limit visitation to recommended numbers. The desire to meet a variety of needs is just one testament to the diverse services libraries provide to people in this state. To make sure everyone knew what to expect, the librarians engaged the public by remaining active on social media.

Rhonda Rolen of the Columbia County Library said the top priority during the COVID-19 crisis was, and still is, balancing the community’s health with library services. As the library staff learned more about how COVID-19 was transmitted and the best practices for working with the public, they used that knowledge to guide them toward each next step.

She credits both the staff and the people they serve for their consideration. Patrons understood that books had to “stay in quarantine” for a period of time before being put back in circulation and that library operations might change from day to day. The staff and the library board realized that the library couldn’t operate as usual.

“It was hard, especially for us in the information industry, to know that no one had answers at first. Throughout everything, the biggest advantages we had were our staff’s creativity and our patrons who were so gracious and flexible with us as we adapted our services. They realized it took time to pull books and to disinfect this building, which has a lot of square footage.”

While it was closed, the library offered to allow patrons to pull up in their cars and pickup materials outside after texting or talking to a staff member inside. Part of the time patrons were allowed in the foyer of the library, but it was difficult to manage this away from the circulation desk. Some of the assistance that the library was able to provide in the last year and a half existed even before the pandemic reached Arkansas. Online technology and the ability to check out eBooks, eAudiobooks, and eMagazines were accommodations that the library already used. Wi-Fi was already available for patrons that extended into the parking lot.

The library director believes it was her calling to upgrade the library’s technology and feels that the pandemic has proven this true. “The improvement of the library’s equipment and infrastructure through grants and e-rate proposals that I’ve written since I’ve been here allowed the library to be in a position to still function even when closed during the pandemic.”

The director investigated several ways to evolve library services during the crisis. “I hope that we continue to develop a better understanding of the ongoing barriers our patrons face so that we can find ways to break through them. All libraries can use what they’ve learned to grow their services.”

Unfortunately, many of these solutions cost more than the library can afford. The director explored the costs for printing via patron devices and for self-checkout. The library was able to add mobile printing for the public. Even though self-checkout was cost prohibitive it will be kept in mind future purchases.

Probably no one in the library used creativity to come up with ideas more than Kecia Sandusky, the children’s librarian at Columbia County Library. She conducted the first ever virtual summer reading program at this library. Along the way she made craft kits for kids to take and complete at home and learned to use the READSquared app to conduct the first ever online summer reading program. She also had regular virtual story times on Facebook.

Even when librarians were inside they remained available to the public. They answered phones and emailed with patrons to answer questions and help them get information. One good thing that came out of the pandemic closure was that staff had time to work with the collection and do a pre-inventory by hand. In the next phase staff will use the online library system to scan items on the shelf to make sure they match the catalog.

Now as the library prepares to expand its hours to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, the staff is ready to feel a normalcy that the library hasn’t had for a long time. Even though not everything will be the same, it will be better than being closed and operating under restrictive conditions. “We won’t be opening the front door yet because we need to have an idea of the number of people that are in the library at a given time and having one entrance is the easiest way to do it.”

As much as the library has learned about COVID-19, there are still unanswered questions and things that may happen that it will have to respond to on a case-by-case basis. “We’ve learned to live with not knowing from day to day what might happen but since not everyone is vaccinated yet, we realize things could change at any moment.”

The goal of the library during the past year was to protect people in the library and not to expose them to COVID-19. The decisions made during this time were made out of an abundance of caution, and were according to federal and state guidelines. The goals today are still the same.

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