From Makeshift to Mainstay

What pandemic adaptations taught libraries about community needs

March 1, 2023

An illustration depicting COVID-era service adaptations by Gaby FeBland
Illustration: Gaby FeBland

When COVID-19 shuttered businesses, schools, and public spaces in March 2020, we knew little about the virus and how long it would last. But even in the absence of answers, library workers did what they do best: shared information, pivoted programs and services, and tried to plug noticeable equity gaps.

Three years on, which early-pandemic adaptations have stuck around? Which trends went by the wayside? American Libraries asked public, academic, school, and special librarians to reflect on how COVID-19 changed their work in the short and long term, and what these innovations taught them about their workplaces and users.

Curbside service is here to stay

Perhaps no institution has been associated with curbside pickup more than Harris County (Tex.) Public Library (HCPL), the system that gave us Curbside Larry, a used car salesman–type character (played by HCPL Program Production Specialist John Schaffer) who went viral for advertising this novel innovation.

“The attention was wonderful, and we definitely appreciate that,” says Nancy Hu, design and communications manager at HCPL. She notes that with Curbside Larry going viral, the library was able to show its playfulness while shedding light on the work all libraries were doing to maintain services.

Larry’s days in the limelight may be over, but curbside pickup of books, media, crafts kits, and even mobile print jobs continues across the country. It’s still offered by request at each of HCPL’s 26 library locations; though demand has declined since 2020, Hu says there’s still an audience.

“Now it’s more about accessibility and just convenience,” Hu says. “I would say it’s not as much fear of the virus.”

Palatine (Ill.) Library District (PLD) has seen a similar trend: Curbside requests dropped from 9,600 in 2020 and 7,400 in 2021 to 623 in 2022. Even so, PLD Member Services Manager Rosalie Scarpelli says that older adults, people with disabilities or who are immunocompromised, parents who don’t want to get their children out of the car, and those trying to avoid inclement weather are among the users who continue to sign up for one of the library’s 72 pickup slots per week.

“The phone calls come in—‘I’m here’—and then we run out with their bag.” Scarpelli says. “It’s very efficient.”

Employees match the make, model, and color of the vehicle to the user and pack materials in the backseat or trunk. Though it’s rare, “some of our [patrons] still don’t want us to be touching any surfaces,” Scarpelli says.

Neither HCPL nor PLD plans to phase out curbside pickup anytime soon. “It’s not that it’s expected, but it doesn’t seem like a special accommodation—it’s just a regular service,” Hu says.

“I don’t see us taking it away,” Scarpelli says. “There are a handful who use this every week and don’t come in the building anymore.”

Parking lot Wi-Fi remains powered on

Two weeks after the world shuttered in March 2020, the American Library Association’s (ALA) Executive Board issued a recommendation that libraries keep their Wi-Fi on while their buildings were closed. So-dubbed parking lot Wi-Fi became the norm, and many libraries still see it as an essential service for those most affected by the digital divide.

Hu says increasing the range of HCPL’s Wi-Fi was the first step in making broadband more accessible in the pandemic’s early days. The system installed antennas on top of its buildings that extended the library’s network. (Not long after, HCPL received an Emergency Connectivity Fund grant to provide mobile hotspots and Chromebooks for checkout—two services it hadn’t offered before COVID-19.) To this day, Hu says people are still connecting to HCPL’s Wi-Fi from their cars.

Noting that residents needed internet to connect with work and school and apply for social services, Miami–Dade Public Library System (MDPLS) used district funds to launch its Drive-Up Wi-Fi program at 24 of its 50 locations in June 2020. It proved an effective way to offer connectivity when the library was enforcing building occupancy limits, says Rafael A. Costa, MDPLS’s assistant director of library and public technology service.

Because the program was so popular—“we started to get requests for the service at other branches where it was not available,” says Costa—MDPLS applied for an American Rescue Plan Act grant in 2021 to expand it. Through Florida’s Division of Library and Information Services, MDPLS was awarded $275,000, which has enabled the system to add 12 new locations and amplify the Wi-Fi signal at 13 of its original locations. In total, MDPLS has created 1,660 Wi-Fi–accessible parking spaces at 36 locations across the county.

‘Stepped-up’ sanitation stepped down

The Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) in Andover, Massachusetts, was among the first agencies to provide guidelines on disinfecting collections in spring 2020.

“There was a lot we did not know specifically about how the virus spread and what sorts of risks there were to people handling collections,” says Bexx Caswell-Olson, NEDCC’s director of book conservation. But experts seemed to agree in those early days that time was the best disinfectant—letting books sit in quarantine rooms before recirculating them—whereas using ultraviolet lights, fogging (dispersing disinfectant in a space), and strong cleaning agents came with risks.

“If you’re not using [these methods] correctly, they not only can damage collections but can be harmful to human health,” Caswell-Olson says.

The leaflet and webinars NEDCC created were not meant to be prescriptive, she says, but intended to give people information to help them make their own decisions. Still, those initial guidelines continued to evolve, and many libraries have since stopped using quarantine rooms.

“When that CDC guidance came out [in 2021] that said the risk of fomite transmission is low, I think a lot of people breathed a huge sigh of relief,” Caswell-Olson says. “Trying to clean everything, and even quarantining materials, is a lot of extra work.” Having a dedicated space and tracking system for what cycles in and out of quarantine was a burden on overextended staff, she adds.

“Once people were able to get vaccinated and had that protection, some of these stepped-up measures felt less necessary,” Caswell-Olson says.

Schools have continued their bookmobile journeys

In 2020, three school librarians from Goochland County, Virginia, bootstrapped a bookmobile for the students in their district. They secured a van and book donations and drove across their 290-square-mile rural county with the goal of preventing learning loss that first pandemic summer.

Since then, the bookmobile has completed its third year, garnered attention via social media, and has attracted new partners—such as women’s groups, churches, and National Night Out.

“We wanted to do whatever we could to keep it going,” says Zoe Parrish, library media specialist at Goochland County Public Schools. Though Parrish and cohorts Sarah Smith and Susan Vaughan have pared down the route from six to three stops, students still get to choose up to four books to take home—and an ice pop.

Nearby Chesterfield County (Va.) School District and Richmond (Va.) Public Schools also launched bookmobiles during the pandemic, marking a growing trend of school librarians trying to reach their students over the summer.

Parrish says the mission of her bookmobile has somewhat changed. In 2020, the focus was on getting books into the hands of kids. Today, internet access has greatly improved in Goochland County and the reopening of schools and libraries has better curtailed summer slide, she says. Parrish now sees the bookmobile as an advocacy tool.

“It’s a way to remind kids they have a school system that loves them, that is there for them, that wants them to have things,” Parrish says. “Especially with the way libraries seem to be portrayed in recent news and in light of everything that’s going on with book banning.”

Analog adoption depends on the community

During the pandemic, libraries turned to more analog adaptations—such as television, radio, and fliers—to disseminate information and host programs. Not all of these ideas stuck, but one is still thriving: Radio Storytime on KBBI-AM, the public station that serves Homer, Alaska.

Cinda Nofziger, youth services librarian at Homer Public Library (HPL), took over hosting duties in 2021, and the frequency changed from weekly to monthly when in-person programming resumed. “We still get good solid numbers,” Nofziger says, noting an average of 620 listeners per episode.

The program works especially well in this rural area, where radio was already part of the infrastructure.

“There are portions of our service area [of 12,000 residents] that are across the bay, people who are living out in the mountains and don’t necessarily get into town with any regularity,” Nofziger says. “Radio has a long history in this community. It’s low-tech. You don’t need Wi-Fi.”

Nofziger believes the program is reaching its intended audience—the early literacy crowd—but notes that another unexpected demographic has come to follow the show: older adults. Seniors will call to tell her how much they appreciate hearing a story or a song from their childhood.

HPL doesn’t have any plans to sunset the program, Nofziger says, even though the library runs both in-person and Zoom storytimes: “It’s a little something different than what [KBBI] usually has on there, and it continues to be positive.”

Virtual and passive programming success was hard to predict

In spring 2020, media outlets were already writing about Zoom fatigue, or the burnout people were experiencing from a mostly virtual existence. While almost every library pivoted some aspect of their services online, predicting what would take off was another story.

“Virtual audiences are rather fickle, so we had to do a lot of testing,” says Hu at HCPL. Her library still hosts virtual programs, but only for categories that have performed well, such as gardening classes, book clubs, and an online high school program. She says HCPL tries to keep virtual programs evergreen, so they can be archived on the library’s YouTube channel.

Tamara Lyhne, head of children’s services at Fairfield (Conn.) Public Library, agrees that not all programs work in a virtual environment, especially in 2023. “While certain things—paint-alongs, cooking classes, parent programs, and digital escape rooms—have remained in Zoom, my patrons expect all other programming in person,” she says.

But in more remote areas, virtual programs can be a lifeline. “Sometimes it’s hard to get into town because of the snow,” says Nofziger at HPL. “Having a Zoom option is really nice for [families].”

One of HPL’s most popular programs is a Little Makers series, where patrons stop by the library to pick up a kit of materials and spend four weeks attending online sessions to learn how to use them. By contrast, take-home crafts aren’t as popular: “We end up with bags of stuff that don’t get taken,” Nofziger says.

At Brownsburg (Ind.) Public Library (BPL), take-and-make kits continue to have broad appeal. “Those passive options always fill up,” says Robbi Caldwell, information services manager.

More surprising is that BPL’s Itty Bitty virtual storytime is still a massive hit. One ocean-themed episode from 2022 has 56,000 views on YouTube.

The takeaway? Virtual and passive programming success depends on community interests and needs. “We definitely learned that, in order to really capture and retain our audience, virtual programming has to be pretty entertaining,” Hu says.

PPE production was a unique learning experience

With a massive personal protective equipment (PPE) shortage in early 2020, many libraries began producing their own gear with 3D printers and technology in their makerspaces.

Using a fleet of more than 40 3D printers, University of Utah’s Eccles Health Sciences Library (EHSL) in Salt Lake City was among the most prolific manufacturers, leveraging cross-disciplinary expertise to produce more than 1,200 face shields. Face shields were then distributed to the university’s hospitals, clinics, dentistry school, student organizations, and other system affiliates. Distribution was limited to campus-connected departments because of liability concerns, says T. J. Ferrill, head of creative spaces at University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library.

This undertaking supported frontline workers, but it was also a way the community “could better understand [how] things like 3D printers can belong in places like libraries,” says Brandon Patterson, technology engagement librarian at EHSL. “It brought some awareness.”

By summer 2020, the demand for face shields came to a halt. “[They] kind of fell out of favor as more was understood about how COVID transmits through spaces,” Ferrill says.

But EHSL’s pandemic proto­typing didn’t stop with face shields. The library was asked by other departments to produce door pulls that people can operate with their elbows; nose pieces that keep mask-wearers’ glasses from fogging; and even a device that mounts iPads to microscopes, so students don’t have to remove PPE to look down the tube.

The university’s time as a face-shield producer taught those involved a valuable lesson: “The library isn’t a manufacturer, and we’re not set up to mass-produce,” Patterson says.

But the project did inspire the university to automate its 3D-printing operation. “As we’re printing thousands and thousands of copies of things, the rapid-prototyping aspect of 3D printing felt less rapid,” Ferrill says. His team created a solution where any student or faculty member can send a 3D–print job to the next available printer in the university’s corral; the only handling required is removing the object.

Ferrill and Patterson say they hope they don’t have to make PPE again, but they don’t discount the possibility of another crisis. “Going forward we may need to do something like this again,” says Ferrill. “We wanted to be ready.”


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